Monday, 18 May 2020

Mightier Than The Sword?, blog by Pippa Goodhart

I’ve been treating myself with a re-read of a wonderful book, ‘Fierce Bad Rabbits’ by Clare Pollard. I see that an upcoming blog on Picture Book Den is going to tell and show you something of the joys of that book, so all I'm going to say about it here is that it set me thinking and reading, and reading about, one picture book in particular, and that's 'The Story of Ferdinand'. 

‘The Story of Ferdinand’, written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, is one of those books which gets mentioned with passionate love by adults who credit it with changing their whole outlook on life in the most empowering of ways. The story is simple and strong, and the (black and white) illustrations have wit and beauty.

Set in Spain, but written and illustrated by Americans, ‘The story of Ferdinand’ tells the story of a bullock who grows big and strong but is never interested in fighting as other bullocks do. He’d rather sit and smell the flowers, and that’s what he does day after day. But when, one day, men come to choose a bull to be fought by banderilleros and picadors and the great matador in Madrid, something makes them choose wholly unsuitable Ferdinand. That ‘something’ is a lovely bit of slapstick humour. Ferdinand inadvertently sits on a bee that stings him on the bottom, making him ‘run around, puffing and snorting, butting and pawing’ to the delight of the men. Ferdinand is taken to perform … but he doesn’t. Instead of fighting, he sits and smells the flowers in the hair of the ladies in the audience. So he gets taken home in disgrace, but doesn’t care about that. He goes back to sitting under his favourite cork tree, smelling flowers happily. 

You might think that’s a story that nobody could object to, but ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ was published in the US in 1936, and just as the Spanish Civil War was starting. The book was seen as subversive with its pacifist message, and was banned in Spain. And Hitler, presumably feeling frightened and threatened by its
message, ordered the book to be burned. Clare Pollard tells that ‘it also irritated Ernest Hemingway enough for him to write a short story called ‘The Faithful Bull’ that starts: ‘One time there was a bull whose name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers.’ Hemingway ends his tale with a hideous formulation that has the ring of propaganda: ‘the man who killed him admired him the most.’ It’s fascinating that the popularity (‘The Story of Ferdinand’ out-sold ‘Gone With The Wind’) of such a small, gentle, humorous tale could get under the skin of supposedly strong men so effectively, as well as empowering some small and young people in life-transforming ways.

Munro Leaf apparently wrote the story ‘in less than an hour’, and I think that speed must have been because he knew he had a simple story that worked to demonstrate a truth. He told that, ‘early on in my writing career I realised that if one found some truths worth telling they should be told to the young in terms that were understandable to them.’ Disney, a man with a talent for spotting a story with heart and humour and truth in it, turned ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ into one of his cartoons. 

What is the ‘truth’ demonstrated by this story? Simply that you don’t need to fight for the sake of it. You can make up your own mind on whether or not to join-in with fighting being done by others. 

The sophisticated, beautiful, funny, accessible illustrations were done by Robert Lawson, an American who had fought in Europe in the First World War. This is a book created with a light touch, but with passion. A lesson, and a joy, to us all … unless we are insecure bullies.


Adelaide Dupont said...


I remember the way I first discovered the Bull.

It was when I was reading Who's Who in Children's Fiction in August 1997 and Ferdinand was well-described.

Love the context of the whole Spanish Civil War.

And did not know the flowers were in the ladies' hats! This is a difference between reading the book and knowing the story some other way.

Pippa Goodhart said...

It's a wonderfully simple story, and it's the simplicity that makes it so strong. Flowers in the meadow or flowers in ladies' hats, that's what interests Ferdinand so that he just ignores what else is going on, whether its bullocks mocking him or picadors poking him!