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Modernity: Reversal of Archetypes

In modern Children’s Literature, there is a tendency to reverse archetypes.  In Kenneth Grahame‘s, Wind in the Willows (1908), Mr Toad is the anthropomorphic and gentrified hero of the novel.  He is the future Toad of Toad Hall, who appears in A. A. Milne‘s 1929 dramatisation of Kenneth Grahame‘s Wind in the Willows (1908).  In fairy tales princes and princesses are turned into “ugly” toads, but Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad is not ugly.  He is a gentleman and lives in Toad Hall.  However, he gets into trouble when he falls in love with cars to the point of stealing one and finding himself imprisoned.  He escapes prison with the assistance of the jailer’s daughter, also a motif, and he is rehabilitated by Badger, Mole, and Rat, who would not be beautiful and “good” in a Charles Perrault fairy tale. Kenneth Grahame is also the author of The Reluctant Dragon (1898).


Motifs: Bruin loses the Skin off his nose, not Pooh

Moreover, although archetypes tend to be reversed, children’s literature, a relatively recent literary genre, has preserved ancient motifs.  As we have seen, Pooh bear gets stuck in the burrow he uses when he goes visiting the rabbit and overindulges, but although he has to lose weight, he is not otherwise punished.  He simply faces the consequences of eating too much honey and drinking too much condensed milk.  But the Roman de Renart‘s Brun (Bruin) loses the skin “off his nose” when his nose gets stuck in a hole in a log where he is told, by Renart, that there is excellent honey.  The hole is kept open by wedges that are suddenly removed.  Bruin’s nose is therefore “coincé” (wedged in) and the skin comes “off his nose” when he frees himself.  He is wounded.

A. A. Milne‘s Winnie-the-Pooh also contains a variation on the Tail-Fisher Motif.  In fact, we have already seen this variation which we could call the Missing-Tail or Severed-Tail Motif.  In Jean de La Fontaine‘s Le Renard ayant la queue coupée (The Fox whose tail has been cut off), a fable based on Æsop’s The Fox Who Had Lost His Tail (Perry Index 17), a fox whose tail has been cut off would like other foxes to have theirs removed.  However, when they ask to see the mutilated fox’s rear end, the other foxes reject the fox’s suggestion.  It seems that deprived of his bushy tail the fox’s rear end is not an attractive sight.




In which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh (as of 1924)

However, when Pooh notices Eeyore has lost his tail, Pooh does not express revulsion.  On the contrary, Pooh feels sorry for Eeyore and sets about finding the missing tail.  He visits with Owl who has found the tail in the forest and is using it to hold his door bell.  The tail is therefore returned to Eeyore and nailed back painlessly.

Not that Eeyore does not feel sorry when he is told his tail is missing.  He feels very sorry, but no one has cut it off and Pooh goes looking for it.  In fact the tail seems removable and ornamental.  So the motif, classified by Antti Aarne (1875-1925) and Stith Thompson (1885–1976) as AT 2, has remained but Eeyore’s back side is not an ugly sight, which it is in La Fontaine and Æsop.  So, Eeyore fate could be deemed a modern twist on the Tail-Fisher motif.  The motif has been edited.

Editing is precisely what French fairy tale writer Charles Perrault does when he retells Giovanni Francesco Straparola‘s (c. 1480 – c. 1557) The Facetious Nights (75 stories) and Giambattista Basile ‘s (c. 1575 – 23 February 1632) Il Pentamerone, Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille, or The Tale of Tales.  As a regular of seventeenth-century French salons, Perrault retold borrowed tales so they would meet the requirements of the elegant salonsSeventeenth-century authors had to respect bienséances, a certain étiquette, and eloquence.  As a result, Perrault’s Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé) or Tales of Mother Goose (Les Contes de ma mère l’Oye), published in 1997 are considered the birthplace of fairy tales as we know them.  Perrault, a bourgeois, was the quintessential honnête homme, a gentleman’s gentleman

Similarly, Eeyore may lose his tail, but it cannot be painfully and, contrary to the fox in La Fontaine and Æsop, when Eeyore turns around, he cannot be ugly.  In other words, although motifs remain, in texts written for children, a degree of discretion and bienséances is expected of the writer.  Therefore, as we enter modernity, not only are archetypes often reversed, but motifs are adapted to a broader audience, including children.  Not to mention that although they may suffer from what we consider personality disorders, the characters created by A. A. Milne are perfectly lovely.  Psychologists and psychiatrists may benefit from diagnosing yet another mental illness, but they do so at an enormous cost.  Humanity is about to run out of normal individuals.  We cannot allow the mutilated victims of the Boston bombings to be considered as unacceptable and should be kind to Eeyore who seems depressed.


Yes, Eeyore does seem forever depressed, but does it matter?  Must he also be deprived of friends? It may be useful to present the world of Reynard the Fox as possessing the flimsy reality of cartoons where cats get flattened by a steamroller yet soon return to the former fluffy selves.  As we have seen in an earlier post, according to translator Jill Mann,[i] in Ysengrimus, the 6,574-line Beast Epic in Latin elegiac couplets, the poem should be looked upon as possessing the unreal reality of cartoons.

The same should true of the various Reynard stories in which it originates.  The confrontation between Ysengrin and Renart must and does continue which precludes his losing his tail permanently.  In fact, there are versions of the Roman de Renart where the flayed wolf survives.  The various versions of Reynard the Fox are a comic text and comic texts have their own protocol.  For my part, I think we should be merciful and broaden acceptance to include the now one-legged Boston dancer and the burned veteran.  They are simply special and so is our depressed Eeyore.

As a modern author and illustrator, in Les Malheurs d’YsengrinSamivel (1907-1992) writes compassionately about Ysengrin’s misfortunes. Samivel also wrote a Goupil (old French for Renard, or Fox) translated into English as Rufus, the Fox, by Margery Williams, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, 1922.  See How Rufus Lost His Tail, by Mahtrow (http://mahtrow.com/).

There was a time when few children were expected to survive childhood.  It was difficult for some parents to love them and difficult for authors to write books dedicated to them.  But times have changed and although motifs, such as the severed tail (The Tail-Fisher AT 2) remain, they have been adapted.

I hope all of you are well.


[i] Jill Mann, “The Satiric Fiction of the Ysengrimus,” in Kenneth Varty, ed. Reynard the Fox: Social Engagement and Cultural Metamorphoses in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present (New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000), p. 1.



© Micheline Walker
May 4, 2013