Babar : A Legendary Elephant King of the Forest Has Taken Up U.S. Residency With His Growing Family and His Illustrator
This small college town is home to a clock tower, an old-fashioned diner, a main street called Main Street and one of history’s legendary elephants.
Most people probably believe that this benevolent beast, known round the world by the nonsense name of Babar, lives in a forest whose capital is Celesteville. Followers of Babar’s nearly 60 years of adventures would place that expanse of greenery somewhere near Paris. They remember that the frightened young Babar ran all the way to the French capital after a wicked hunter shot his mother. When he returned to the forest as king, Babar made the journey by car.
So it may seem improbable, but as author-illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff said, standing in the second-floor studio of his Victorian house next to Wesleyan University: “This is it. This is the forest of Babar.”
There are no trees, just a wonderful antique quilt draped over a window seat and a suitably worn Oriental rug on the floor. The walls are plastered with renderings of Babar, some in de Brunhoff’s preferred medium of watercolor and others framed as posters. One of the latter depicts a stern-faced Babar and wife, Celeste, in a playful spoof of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” A watercolor for a forthcoming calendar shows Celeste as a suffragette. Yet another in the same series, celebrating important moments in U.S. history, portrays Babar crossing the Delaware. In an earlier series of illustrations, Babar and Celeste are pictured as Hollywood stars.
“Look,” de Brunhoff said, “here they are as Fred and Ginger.” According to de Brunhoff’s brand of phylogeny, it seems perfectly plausible that a pair of pachyderms weighing in at three or four tons apiece should appear as lithe and nimble as Astaire and Rogers.
De Brunhoff exudes an infectious enthusiasm as he leads the tour through Babar’s imaginary forest. He is a slender man, neither tall nor short, with cheerful blue eyes and an easy smile. Bald at the crown, his ring of remaining hair stands out in recalcitrant tufts. This man who spends his life drawing elephants was trained as an abstract painter and once had a studio in Montparnasse section of Paris. That he is 64, just five years older than Babar, and still immersed in a make-believe world, gives de Brunhoff not one moment’s pause.
“I don’t think this is extraordinary,” de Brunhoff said. “Some creators live very much in their dream and their imagination.”
A clear-eyed innocence and a firm moral code mark the more than three dozen Babar books. They possess this tone, childlike but not at all childish, because “probably I have a mind like that,” de Brunhoff said. Then he smiled. “I trust my feelings.”
Babar, a kind and courtly creature, was born in Chessy, east of Paris, in 1930, when a pianist named Cecile de Brunhoff needed a story to coax her
two young sons to sleep. This was odd,de Brunhoff remembered, because “she was not particularly a storyteller. Actually, she was for 40 years a professor at the Ecole Normale in Paris.”
De Brunhoff and his younger brother, Mathieu, so loved their mother’s tale of the little elephant that they passed it on to their father. Jean de Brunhoff was a painter and the scion of an artistic family. His father published the lavishly illustrated programs of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and his brothers published magazines such as Vogue, Vu and Le Jardin des Modes.
So captivated was Jean de Brunhoff by the story his sons related to him that he immediately began to sketch the animal that the family at first called simply bebe elephant . The name Babar came out of nowhere, de Brunhoff said, but soon his father was filling a big spiral notebook with whimsical stories and pictures. In 1931, “The Story of Babar,” an oversized book with the text written in the looping script of a French schoolchild, was published in Paris.
Jean de Brunhoff had written and illustrated seven Babar books when he died at age 37 in 1937. Since two of the books were not completed, Laurent de Brunhoff was asked to “color a few of those pages” to finish them off. Although he was just 12 at the time, the younger de Brunhoff knew even then that he wanted to be a painter.
“I drew elephants everywhere, of course,” he said.
For nearly 10 years, however, de Brunhoff abandoned his watercolors and elephants, painting instead in oils and the abstract style then popular in Paris. His works were shown at the Galerie Maeght. But at 21, de Brunhoff went back to elephants, deciding to “carry on the adventures of Babar.” His first book, “Babar and That Rascal Arthur,” was published in 1946.
Those who are analytically inclined might suggest that de Brunhoff was trying to resurrect his relationship with his father. Maybe so, he said, although mostly it was Babar whom he wanted to bring back to life.
“I wanted this character who was my friend to live again after the death of my father,” de Brunhoff said, adding that he wanted to remain in Babar’s world, “both a utopia and a gentle satire on the society of men.”
For a time, none of Babar’s many admirers knew that de Brunhoff had taken over for his father. They assumed that the hiatus between books had been caused by World War II. Often, de Brunhoff recalled, “I met people who were very surprised to see that the author of the Babar books was such a young man, since Babar dated from the 1930s. They expected me to have a long white beard.”
But now de Brunhoff is nearly twice his father’s age. “Sometimes that is an eerie feeling,” he said. “I’ve done so many books that I no longer have to think of being faithful to the tradition. Babar appears at the tip of my pencil as if I had invented him myself.”
He concedes that he brought “a new dimension to Babar, since the world I live in is no longer the world of my father.” But the calm rules of order that govern Babar’s kingdom, which de Brunhoff calls “a liberal society of elephants,” have remained constant. Babar has a definite philosophy, and that, too, has not changed over the years, he said.
“I think he is--how can I say that?--I think he is a very wise king of elephants,” de Brunhoff said. “He knows what is good and what is bad. He is very respectful. He respects everybody.
“There is really a special warmth in Babar’s world,” he continued. “There is the family love--everybody loves everybody else. Little kids love to find in books this kind of warm atmosphere that they need so badly.”
Children gravitate to Babar and his family because they seem solid and dependable, de Brunhoff believes. “Maybe they prefer the teddy bear or the rabbit to pet, but they like the elephants because they are funny,” he said. “At the same time, there is something about the weight and massiveness of their body which is very reassuring.”
Praised as a calm, clear-headed ruler, Babar has nonetheless not been without his critics. Novelist-sociologist Ariel Dorfman once attacked the elephant king as “an imperialist expression of the Western world.” Feminists have charged that Celeste presents an overly passive role model of women. One book, “Babar’s Picnic,” was faulted for alleged racism in the way it depicted African natives. And fellow writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak took aim at Babar for failing to deal adequately with his grief upon his mother’s death.
In response to the first criticism, de Brunhoff mixes French and English as he allows that “ Mais , there is some truth.” The first Babar book was “typically colonialist,” he said, but that is because “it was written in the ‘30s, when French colonialism was at its peak. That was normal thinking then.”
Although de Brunhoff believes that “all the animals are equal,” he said, someone “like Mr. Dorfman” might say that “there are still animals, like the camels, who are a different class. But this is nonsense. These are stories, not social theory. You need some animals on four legs.”
As for the notion of racism, de Brunhoff admitted that he had “pictured some African blacks as very stereotyped figures.” But again, he explained, “that was the stereotype of the ‘30s. I did not question it.” On reflection, he bowed to the objections. “Finally, we dropped the book.”
Celeste does play a somewhat submissive role, de Brunhoff said; she is something of a queenly elephant housewife. But he has great hopes for the newest member of the Babar family, Isabelle, a spunky, curious kid who tools about on roller skates and wears a Walkman.
Of the complaints from his old friend Sendak, de Brunhoff said he was able to quiet them. “I calmed him down,” he said. “I said bluntly that the mother died to leave the little hero to struggle with life on his own.”
De Brunhoff takes psychoanalytical rebukes with a grain of salt, he said. He could psychoanalyze Babar, but why? “I don’t look for some special subconscious symbolism,” he said. “It isn’t there.”
Interest in Babar has surged recently, de Brunhoff said, because the elephant has become the star of a cable TV series on HBO. And though a feature film about Babar released in July was not especially successful, the development of Babar “merchandising"--products such as T-shirts and stuffed toys--has helped boost the beast’s recognition factor.
Still, de Brunhoff said, perfectly serious, “Babar would never get a big head.”
Nor, it seems, would Babar be upset by much of anything. Four years ago, de Brunhoff uprooted the forest of Babar and moved it from France to the United States. The reason was eminently French, which is to say that de Brunhoff had met and fallen in love with Phyllis Rose, a writer and historian who is a professor of English at Wesleyan.
The move to this rock-solid New England village had little effect on de Brunhoff. “As I work with my imagination, I could work anywhere,” he said.
But for la famille Babar , “there was an upheaval because this family which had been the same for decades got a new baby.”
Mostly, de Brunhoff said, life goes on in Babar’s peaceful kingdom. “Sometimes people ask me if I am going to introduce into Babar’s stories more dramatic situations in the world today.” De Brunhoff thinks not.
“Even though there is more threat and more anxiety in life now than in the ‘30s, I don’t think children want to find that in books,” he said. Books, like those featuring Babar, “are here to help their imagination.”
Elephants live to be very, very old, so the good news is that Babar will continue delight young readers. His reliable reappearance should be of comfort not only to his fans but also to his creator, who draws and writes Babar in large part because it’s fun.
“I imagine this world of Babar, and I play with my visions. That is the answer to the question of how could I do this for 40 years. I do it because I enjoy myself.”
He smiled again, a man as contented as his elephant king, and said: “No matter how upsetting and difficult it may be, it is a really lucky life.”