Thursday, March 29, 2012

Belloc's "cautionary tales"

Illustrator Quentin Blake once described Hilaire Belloc as both an overbearing adult and mischievous child. Not surprisingly,  Roald Dahl was a fan as well. Belloc was born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud to a French father and an English mother. After his father died, his mother (who was also a writer) moved back to England, and her son became a British subject in 1902.
In his collection of Cautionary Tales, a series of children suffer outlandish consequences for recurring misdemeanors. The book's lineup of miscreants includes Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors for Fun; Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death; Godolphin Horne, Who Was Cursed with the Sin of Pride, and Became a Boot-black; and Jim, Who Ran Away From His Nurse and Was Eaten By a Lion (above & below left, art  by Basil Temple Blackwood from the original edition; right, by Edward Gorey ).
We have a marvelous new version of Jim's story, complete with cunning pop-ups and other elaborate add-ons. The Guardian calls it "deliciously terrifying ... Grey's dramatic paper-folding illustrations add an extra dimension to Belloc's original. Her fold-out plan of the zoo, complete with warnings and comments, is witty and charming." Animals also feature prominently in Belloc's Moral Alphabet. Here's a particularly risible sequence:
Hail! salubrious seat
Of learning! Academical Retreat!
Home of my Middle Age! Malarial Spot
Which People call Medeeval (though it's not).
The marshes in the neighbourhood can vie
With Cambridge, but the town itself is dry,
And serves to make a kind of Fold or Pen
Wherein to herd a lot of Learned Men.

Were I to write but half of what they know,
It would exhaust the space reserved for "O";
And, as my book must not be over big,
I turn at once to "P," which stands for Pig.
Be taught by this to speak with moderation
Of places where, with decent application,
One gets a good, sound, middle-class education.
as I remarked before,
A second cousin to the Huge Wild Boar.
But Pigs are civilized, while Huge Wild Boars
Live savagely, at random, out of doors,
And, in their coarse contempt for dainty foods,
Subsist on Truffles, which they find in woods.
Not so the cultivated Pig, who feels
The need of several courses at his meals,
But wrongly thinks it does not matter whether
He takes them one by one or all together.
Hence, Pigs devour, from lack of self-respect,
What Epicures would certainly reject.
Learn from the Pig to take whatever Fate
Or Elder Persons heap upon your plate.

These recordings of Belloc singing four of his songs/poems were made in 1932.


  1. If I ever come out with an album Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death will definitely be the title!!!!

  2. Jim, Who Ran Away From His Nurse and Was Eaten By a Lion

    Maurice Sendak’s Pierre had similar problems with a lion, as I recall. (But he didn’t care.)

  3. I was such a lucky child! My father had a paperback Penguin (i think) of the Cautionary Tales -- we both thought they were hilarious. Great to hear of this new edition.