Tigers hold a special place in the heart of Princeton.
A pair of tigers stands guard on both sides of the entrance to Nassau Hall, the historical and logistical center of Princeton. A more recent pair of statuary tigers prowls outside the main gate of Princeton Stadium — home of the Princeton Tigers — perhaps a warning to visiting lions, bears, and bruins to “abandon hope all ye [opponents] who enter here.” Princeton’s thirty-seven varsity teams — and others — are nicknamed (surprise!) “the Tigers” and they generally sport tiger colors of orange and black Tiger colors, tiger images, and tiger-related names abound all over campus, and indeed throughout the town of Princeton too.
The Cotsen Library’s personal tiger, Sir Fortissimus T. Tigris, sits atop a section of Cotsen’s Wall of Books, welcoming visitors and standing silent guard over the collection and its visitors of all ages. Not far from him in Firestone Library is the Tiger Tea Room, a small den for tigers, and others, taking a break from hitting the books. Tigers and tea? Hmm… Where might I have heard that echo before?
The Tiger Who Came to Tea is, of course, the title of the classic children’s picture book by Judith Kerr, who created both the artwork and text in the tradition of great children’s book author-illustrators, such as Kate Greenaway, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Ezra Jack Keats, whose The Snowy Day was recently named by the New York Public Library as its “most checked-out book” of all time (narrowly nosing out The Cat in the Hat with a total of some 485,583 check-outs compared to 469,650).
Originally published in 1968, The Tiger Who Came to Tea is one of the best-selling children’s books of all time, having been translated into 11 languages and having sold over five million copies by the time of its 40th anniversary in 2008. While Tiger is Kerr’s most well-known book, it was by no means her only one; she authored at least thirty-six books, and her series of books about Mog the cat — beginning with Mog the Forgetful Cat in 1970 and ending with Goodbye Mog in 2002 — were also best-sellers, much beloved by both children and cat aficionados, and a testament to Kerr’s interest in exploring the secret lives of cats of all sizes in her children’s books. The Mog series was based on the family cat, but Tiger, Kerr’s first published book, began as a bedtime story told to her daughter — and like many bedtime stories, it was apparently repeated over and over again, as any reading or story-improvising parent can attest. (But would that we all had Judith Kerr’s genius!)
A little girl named Sophie and her “mummy” are having tea — a commonplace British activity in the 60s — when “suddenly there was a ring at the door” …. and things begin to get surreal. For the doorbell ringer is not the milkman, nor the grocer, nor a key-forgetting daddy, but rather “a big furry, stripy tiger,” who says that he’s “very hungry” and asks if he can have tea with Sophie and her mother. We’re not in Kansas anymore…
Think about it for a moment. A stranger unexpectedly rings the doorbell, a little girl opens the front door, and finds not only a stranger, but a full-grown tiger there! In another era or a fairy tale, this might have been the beginning of a cautionary tale, or at least a trip into the bizarre. (And why does a “hungry” tiger ask for some tea, anyway?) But this is where the genius of Kerr’s art comes into play, I think. Take a look at her portrayal of the scene: while the gigantic tiger already has a huge fore-paw inside the door, there’s no sense of menace in the scene. It might be a Halloween prank (if in the USA, of course) or a lark. The tiger has a big smile, which he somehow maintains throughout the story, even when he’s gobbling down everything in the kitchen, helping himself to everything on the stove and inside the refrigerator or the cupboard, and “drinking all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy’s beer.”
Most important of all, the little girl shows no sign whatsoever of being afraid in Kerr’s depictions of the scenes. Quite the contrary, she hugs him and pets his tail all the while. She somehow knows that there’s nothing to be afraid of. And so does a reader; it’s like a comedy where somehow we trust that all’s well and that all will end well too, no matter how topsy-turvy things may get for a while. And that comforting assurance really resides in the visuals here.
I can’t help thinking of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, where little Lucy the youngest of the children — and perhaps the most innocently virtuous — has no fear of Aslan the lion, who in turn treats her with particular kindness. (The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe and the other Narnia tales had been published in the 1950s, and would presumably have been familiar to a mother and a child by the 60s.)
Having eaten and drunk everything in the house and wrecked the kitchen in the process, the tiger suddenly decides, “I think I’d better go now.” “And he went.” Just like that! Who needs continuity or writerly preparation? It just happens that way, just as things happen go in a child’s imagination. Part of Kerr’s genius, I think, is not saying too much or writing too much description or dialog; her story just ebbs, flows, and jumps with a childlike sense of spontaneity. When all experience is new, who has expectation, much less anxiety?
The tiger leaves the kitchen in a complete mess; unlike the Cat in the Hat (another havok-weaking feline), the tiger doesn’t bother to clean up after his mayhem. And Sophie’s mummy wonders what to do; there’s nothing left for “daddy’s supper” either. The thirsty tiger has also “drunk all the water in the tap,” so Sophie can’t have a bath – thus, a doubly-happy kid is she! (But what happened to the water “in the tap”? Did the tiger somehow drink up all the water in London? Another piece of childlike — and child-delighting — magical realism! Only adults think of such logical complications in a children’s story — and maybe only critical bloggers as well!
Sophie’s daddy comes home “just then.” Either a long time has passed while the tiger has been feasting and drinking, or a magically foreshortened day. But no worries… The family just goes out to a cafe for dinner and has a very English dinner of “sausage and chips,” followed by a child-delighting dessert of ice cream On their way to the cafe, they pass a tiger-colored cat on the street, as Kerr depicts the scene. Is this some visual allusion to the tiger? Or perhaps a suggestion that he has magically changed size? After all, the street cat has the same smile as the tiger! Who knows? But maybe that’s something for a child to notice on a fiftieth rereading? And perhaps ask about as well?
The next day, Sophie and her mother go shopping and “buy lots more things to eat,” including a “very big tin of tiger food in case the tiger should come to tea again.” (Doesn’t every neighborhood store stock tiger food by the can? It must be something like the “fish food” that used to be readily available at grocery stores and Woolworth’s?) They’d both be happy to have the tiger come back, mess and all, it seems. And just look how delighted Sophie is in Kerr’s visual presentation, as she hugs the “smiling tiger” tin! What parent wouldn’t want their child to be so happy? Only a Grinch.
Their shopping plans are for nought however. The tiger doesn’t return. “But he never did” — those are the last words in the story — suddenly and perhaps with a surprising sort of disappointment. Think of how many children’s stories end with the fun disrupter-of-everyday-banality promising, “I’ll be back,” so that children can await his/her return in eager anticipation? Not the tiger though.
That’s one of the appealing things about Kerr’s story-telling, to me, anyway. There’s no forced sentimentality or easy prospect of another magic rainbow event. Sophie is left with a happy, one-of-a-kind joyous memory — as are the Tiger‘s child-readers. The midsummer day’s dream is over; now it’s time to return to everyday life, albeit one brightened by a very magical day.
Somehow it seems fitting that Kerr ends her story, not with Sophie and her mother, but with the tiger, which she chooses to depict as he seems to be heading away from us, while tooting on a magic, translating horn: “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” You can almost hear the bedtime-story-telling Judith Kerr uttering that repeated word more and more softly, while wishing her daughter goodnight and gently shutting off the light, can’t you?