Everything Is an Argument

Even Babar and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

by Merrill

The day I’m writing this post—April 7, 2014, to be exact—is the eleventh anniversary of the death of Cecile de Brunhoff, a French storyteller generally considered to be the creator of the Babar stories, first published in 1931. I say “generally considered to be the creator” because she asked that her name not appear on the book covers, which list her husband and Babar illustrator, Jean de Brunhoff as the author. A rudimentary amount of research, however, suggests that it was Cecile who imagined these stories about an elephant fleeing the jungle and subsequently becoming the king of the elephant kingdom. Her original intention for the stories was only to entertain her two young boys, Mathieu and Laurent. (The Hobbit, by Tolkien, if you recall, also began as a story Tolkien told to his children.)

Once the first book, Histoire de Babar, was published, however, Cecile’s story took on another role entirely. No longer was it to entertain only her two children, but a multitude of other children around the world—and adults. Obviously, these new readers couldn’t possibly have the same reaction to the story as Mathieu and Laurent had. And, as always, the story was opened to criticism.

In his book Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories (2007), Herbert Kohl argues that “although superficially delightful, the stories are politically and morally offensive and can be seen as a justification for colonialism.”[1] In another critical review, Ariel Dorfman, author of The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do To Our Minds (1996), writes: ‘In imagining the independence of the land of the elephants, Jean de Brunhoff anticipates, more than a decade before history forced Europe to put it into practice, the theory of neocolonialism‘”[2].

Such criticism has even led to parodies of Babar, including one in National Lampoon Magazine in which Babar and Celeste (Babar’s wife and second-cousin) are “strung up on meathooks”[3]. There is, also, a sketch in Robot Chicken—an animated TV series—that ends with Babar’s execution by guillotine.

So was Cecile’s intention for creating Babar—and thus reading his elephant adventures to her children—to argue for colonialism? A blue-suited elephant pushing for westernization? I don’t think so. I’m inclined to think that her boys’ favorite color was blue, and her depiction of Babar was modeled after kings she herself had read about. My humble opinion, however, doesn’t protect Babar from scrutiny. I’m sorry to say that whatever her intentions were initially no longer mattered once the words were put on paper. At that point, everything she wrote became an argument.

I challenge you, now, to think of the most non-argumentative story you can. A bedtime story perhaps. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”?

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

How I wonder what you are.

Up above the world so high,

Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,

When he nothing shines upon,

Then you show your little light,

Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveller in the dark,

Thanks you for your tiny spark,

He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,

And often through my curtains peep,

For you never shut your eye,

‘Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark,

Lights the traveller in the dark.

Though I know not what you are,

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

How I wonder what you are.

Up above the world so high,

Like a diamond in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

How I wonder what you are.

How I wonder what you are.

To demonstrate the idea that everything—no matter how seemingly un-argumentative—is an argument, I must slap on my critical lens. In doing so, I read the last line of the first stanza—“Like a diamond in the sky”—differently than I normally would, anticipating the reaction of other readers. The last line is disconcerting to me, now? Is this poem advocating consumer culture, material wealth, dependence upon diamonds? Is it suggesting that diamonds are impossible to reach for so many of us—being that they are so high “in the sky”? Now, I’m thinking class divisions; I’m thinking “TTLS” argues for the separation of the wealthy and poor; I’m thinking “TTLS” argues for the power of money.

Of course, that’s all ridiculous; it’s just a bedtime story! My point, though, is that nothing is safe. Everything, from a bedtime story to the slogan on your t-shirt, presents a potential argument.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babar_the_Elephant#cite_note-11

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babar_the_Elephant#cite_note-12

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babar_the_Elephant#cite_note-12