Saturday, 11 July 2015

“T” is for Tiger?

There was controversy a couple of weeks ago, when Judith Kerr appeared to dismiss the idea, floated by Michael Rosen, that the tiger in her classic 1968 picturebook, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, might have been partly inspired by her own early experiences. 
Said Rosen: Judith knows about dangerous people who come to your house and take people away. She was told as a young child that her father could be grabbed at any moment by either the Gestapo or the SS - he was in great danger. [...] So I dont know whether Judith did it consciously or not - I wouldn't want to go there - but the point is hes a jokey tiger, but he is a tiger.
 On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Kerr demurred:

It’s just a tiger. We’d been to the zoo and we’d seen one and we thought it was absolutely beautiful. It’s not the Gestapo – it doesn’t stand for anything.

This of course is a perennial problem for those of us who like to talk about literature. On the one hand, we have a sense that there is more behind images (pictorial or otherwise) than the paper they’re printed on; on the other, we don’t want to fall into a reductionist trap of saying that the secondary meanings and echoes that cluster round images are entirely interchangeable with them – that the image has no concrete character of its own. Literature isn’t a puzzle to solved or a code to be cracked.

An ABBA post isnt the place to resolve this longstanding question (I leave that as an exercise to the reader), but to say that the visitor in Kerrs book is “just a tiger” is at any rate not the whole story. If it had been a tiger like the one she’d seen at the zoo, after all, it would probably have killed or maimed young Sophie and her mother, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea would now have an altogether more notorious place on the childrens list. On the other hand, its not an entirely tame tiger either. Much of the books appeal derives from the slightly uneasy, slightly comic tension between the power and potential ferocity of the tiger and the civilized – and quintessentially English – act of taking tea. (That it is tea rather than another meal is important, and not only for alliterative purposes. Think how less well it would have worked had the tiger come for brunch.)

The tiger in Kerr’s book is, in short, a story-book tiger, and that immediately plugs it in to all the ways in which stories have used tigers in the past. William Blake was perhaps the first to identify the ambiguity of the tigerish nature  (“Did He who made the lamb make thee?”), but tigers have made significant appearances in children’s literature, too. One thinks of Shere Khan from Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), or of Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1899), in which a number of vain tigers are outwitted by the hero and eventually melt into ghee (glossed by Bannerman as that essential teatime accompaniment, butter) with which Sambo’s mother proceeds to make pancakes. Those tigers come to tea in a very literal sense – as chimney sweepers come to dust. Then there’s Tigger in The House at Pooh Corner (1928), who barges in on Kanga and Roo looking for food much as Kerr’s tiger does on Sophie and her mother, and thereafter has “Extract of Malt for breakfast, dinner, and tea”. 

We might also notice the cousinhood of Kerr’s tiger with the various hungry lions who have found themselves in close proximity to small urban children in the past. Like The Tiger Who Came to Tea, both Hillaire Bellocs cautionary poem Jim” (which famously ends with the admonition to “always keep ahold of nurse/ For fear of finding something worse) and the Stanley Holloway monologue Albert and the Lion” exploit a technique of comic understatement, in their case in the face of their heroes deaths at the paws of big cats:

Then Pa, who had seen the occurence,
And didn’t know what to do next,
Said “Mother! Yon Lion’s 
et Albert”,
And Mother said, Well I am vexed!”

But between Albert’s lion and Sophie’s tiger squats the shaggy figure of the lion in Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, which formed part of his 1962 Nutshell Library. In this self-confessed cautionary tale Pierre – whose besetting sin is that he doesn’t care – receives an unexpected visitor:

Now, as the night began to fall
A hungry lion paid a call.
He looked Pierre right in the eye,
And asked him if he’d like to die.

In the face of Pierre’s obstinate indifference the lion eats him, and Pierre is only regurgitated (unharmed and cured of his ennui) after his parents rush him to the hospital. Significantly, the ambiguous lion is rehabilitated:

The lion took them home to rest
And stayed on as a weekend guest.

Anyone who has seen the picture of Sendak’s Pierre and the lion on the front cover of the Nutshell Library, sitting companionably at a table, might well be reminded of Sophie and her tiger. And vice versa, of course.

Does this mean that the tiger in The Tiger Who Came to Tea is “really” Blake’s tiger, or Kipling’s, or Bannerman’s, or Milnes? Is the tiger really a lion? Not at all: but literature is a web in which, when you tweak one thread, all the others respond too.

And of course one’s experience of life is just such another web. Which is, I think, pretty much what Michael Rosen was saying.


Clémentine Beauvais said...

That's really interesting! Such a great post. I hadn't seen the 'debate'. Maybe it's just me, but I find it weirdly distasteful to have someone talking about someone else's work 'representing' early childhood experiences (especially traumatic ones) when that other person *is still alive*. Creepy, no? It's fair game on dead writers, but quite rude on live ones...

Sue Purkiss said...

You're not always fully aware of the resonances behind the words and images you choose, are you? (To put it mildly!) I once talked to Serena de la Hey, who created the iconic Willow Man which stands beside the M5 near Somerset (I was writing a book of the same name), and I asked her if she minded about the different associations people made with the figure (the Whicker Man, a symbol of fertility/rebirth, a logo for Somerset County Council) - and she said no: as far as she was concerned, she'd made it, and then it was out in the world to make its own way - she fully accepted that others would ascribe meanings to it which hadn't occurred to her.

Emma Barnes said...

I can see why Kerr might be irritated - she's written about her own childhood directly in her autobiographical novels (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and sequels) but that doesn't mean those events have to be at the root of everything she's written, and The Tiger Who Came To Tea sounds as if it were very much a story about, and for, her own daughter. The slight scariness (as well as humour) of having a tiger in the house is surely because the threat of being eaten when any ferocious animal appears is always on the child reader's mind due to familiarity with fairy tales and the other children's books you've mentioned. A tiger does not need to represent the gestapo to be frightening!

Michael Rosen said...

2 short blogs on this in June on my blog.

Catherine Butler said...

Thanks for those links, Michael. I see you had already made the point about its being a storybook tiger, which perhaps makes this post otiose, though I was glad of the opportunity to think about this tiger's literary genealogy.

As for to the extent to which authors can or should control interpretations of their work, that's a question I doubt we'll solve definitely today - but I'm interested to hear what the writers and readers here have to say on the matter!

misswonderly said...

I've always thought of the 'tiger who came to tea' as a way to acknowledge the unpredictability of our animal appetites at a safe remove à la Bettelheim whether it's our own appetites or those of strangers which can seem both beguiling and terrifying at the same time. This would seem also to be the case in the other stories you cite about big cats and indeed wolves like Little Red Riding Hood. As with all the enduring picture books it taps into this visceral puzzle we all face. 'Where the wild things are' is another perfect example of the incomprehensible attraction for chaos and unbridled desire we all have within us while acknowledging the need to keep this at bay.

Catherine Butler said...

Like most good stories this one admits of many interpretations. I was musing the other day (in another place) on The Tiger Who Came to Tea's susceptibility to being read as a fable of contemporary anxieties about immigration: it was, after all, published in the same year Enoch Powell delivered his "rivers of blood" speech. A subcontinental visitor knocks on the door of a hospitable British family asking for food and drink, but shows no restraint and continues eating and drinking until they have run out of food entirely, and are forced to flee their own house in order to eat. The fact that they later buy a tin of Tiger Food (in case the tiger should ever reappear), despite the tiger's being perfectly happy with buns, hints at a wish to re-establish the divide between Us (who eat good human fare) and Them (with their strange foreign food). Happily, for this family money seems to be no object and they are able to eat at cafes and restock with food without a care, but an adult reader might well wonder what would happen if the tiger turned out to be the first of many.

How far would I wish to push such a reading? Not very. Does it mean I think Judith Kerr was consciously or unconsciously rehearsing patterns of thought about immigration that were very much "in the air" at the time she wrote the book? I've no idea. Quite possibly not: but I don't find the idea ludicrous.

SarahL said...

There could be many life events which prompted Judith Kerr to write the book almost certainly unconsciously. We can all give our own reading of how it might tie in with or derive from specific situations in what we know of her life or our own. I think what is far more interesting are the ways it taps into our more fundamental, universal emotions which it undoubtedly does.

Nick Green said...

I often think TTWCTT contains a WW2 subtext, but not the Gestapo. For me it seems to be about wartime austerity and rationing. The Tiger eats all the food and - significantly - also drinks all the water in the tap (absurd) which to me suggests a way of explaining to a small child, amusingly, why the water is off.
Even more notable is the final scene, where they go out to a cafe and 'all the street lamps were lit and all the cars had their lights on.' Why draw attention to this? Is this the end of the blackout? The restoration of normality?

Nick Green said...
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Nick Green said...
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Catherine Butler said...

Oh, that's interesting! I'd read that detail (about the lights) as something a young child unused to being out after dark would notice and find exciting. But your reading works too.

I suppose I'd have been about the right age for this book when it was published, though I don't think I read it then. At that time the tigers who loomed largest in my consciousness were probably Tony of Kellog's fame and the Esso tiger ("Put a tiger in your tank!"). I think I believed they were one and the same, in fact.

Nick Green said...

I for one will not be putting Frosties in my petrol tank again.

Enid Richemont said...

This is a story about a totally unflappable mum who can make good, calm stuff out of difficult and extraordinary situations. The language, the illustrations, are unforgettable. We all need mums like that one (bet she lived in North London, though - we're like that).

JO said...

However Judith Kerr - or anyone else - understands her tiger, it becomes a unique tiger in the mind of any child who is read the story. And that's why I think they love it - for one child it is a story of taming of unnamed fears, for another it's the unflappable mother, for another it's risking the unbelievable.

Which makes it a slightly different story for every child - that, surely, is a huge part of its magic.

Monalisa Dario said...

Very Interesting .. had to share it with my colleagues at work

The Drama Method lady