Released over ten years ago, the Gruffalo has become a “modern classic” childrens book. It has sold over ten million copies, won numerous awards, created much merchandise, and has been turned into audio books, stage plays and an animated film. My wife even has a Gruffalo pencil case.
But is it really a good book to read at bedtime? Let us analyse the story in detail, and perhaps highlight the message it is actually teaching our children.
“A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood …”
The protagonist of the story – the mouse – has no aim or goal. He’s taking a stroll. He’s a waster. He has no real plans, and seems blissfully unaware of the dangerous environment in which he walks. He contributes nothing, but expects much in return.
He meets a fox, and suddenly his life is in immediate danger. He doesn’t consider for a moment that the dark wood is actually the natural home to a lot of predators, and the fox is perfectly entitled to be there.
At this point, the mouse should apologise for wasting everyone’s time. He should accept that the danger he’s in is entirely his fault, and take responsibility for his actions. After all: isn’t that what we teach our children?
But no: the mouse chooses to lie. And not just a small lie. Oh no, he tells a whopper. The kind that is so blatantly untrue it would get your five-year-old relegated to the Naughty Step. But for the mouse, it rolls naturally off the tongue.
The lie appears to buy him a reprieve: the fox leaves, and the mouse continues on his way. But does the mouse use this second chance at life to re-evauate his goals? His very existence? No it does not. He keeps walking. He exhibits no remorse.
And because he hasn’t learnt, he soon finds himself back into the same situation. And because he’s stupid, he uses the same lie (furnished with some extra detail) again and again.
So what has the story taught the reader thus far?
- It is perfectly acceptable to wander thoughtlessly into a dangerous situation.
- Telling implausable lies is acceptable: it is the easiest way to get yourself out of trouble.
- Be manipulative. The best defensive lie is a threatening defensive lie.
- There is no need to learn from your mistakes. If the last lie worked, keep using it.
And now we come to the middle of the story: the mouse meets the scary monster that he thought he’d invented, and as it turns out – he eats mice too.
Now, if this story was intended to teach our children any real morals, the mouse would realise the folly of his ways shortly before the Gruffalo swallows him whole. But not this story. This story takes a more devious turn.
Our children are taught another lesson:
- When your subterfuge is about to be uncovered and reveal you to be the pathetic, amoral, backboneless individual you clearly are: just make the lie bigger.
Though the mouse clearly has no strength, no authority, and nothing to contribute to woodland society … he embarks upon the biggest lie thus far, and threatens the Gruffalo. Being manipulative again, but on a grander scale.
He persuades the Gruffalo to walk back through the woods with him. And as he meets each animal (who presumably were beginning to wonder whether the mouse was being entirely truthful earlier) they are scared away by the Gruffalo. This reinforces another questionable teaching:
- Use your implied relationship with big, scary bullies in order to assert your authority.
If this story was set in the school playground, the Gruffalo would be the big, overweight, stupid bully; demanding sweets from the other kids. The mouse would be the weedy kid stood behind him, waving his tiny fist and saying “yeah, right!”.
The mouse uses his inferred friendship with the Gruffalo (who is higher up the food chain) to further bully and control the other woodland creatures.
The meaning is clear: the Gruffalo is not a children’s book – it is a training manual for bullies who want to become managers!
By the end of the story, everyone is afraid of the mouse. Not because of anything he has done – they are scared of him simply because everyone else is! They run away to their respective hides (or, if this was set in an office: their cubicles) and the mouse is left alone.
And we are taught the last lesson of all:
- It is the bully who gets the reward.
Coming soon: I discuss whether a frail and mentally fragile pensioner with an eating disorder is really a suitable subject for a children’s book. No, I do not know why she swallowed a fly …