Since it’s a quiet week around here at Tor.com, I’m going to avoid my usual method of following along in publication order, saving Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for next week and focusing on two shorter tales, The Magic Finger and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Both books focus on struggles between talking animals and the humans that hunt them; both books also focus on parents struggling to save their children from severe danger. And both are relatively short.
Although published as a separate book, The Magic Finger is more of an illustrated short story, longer and more involved than most picture books, but not quite a full children’s novel, either. It tells the story of an eight year old girl with a, well, “magic finger.” If she points her finger at people when she is angry enough, Magic Things—not always good—happen. She turns her teacher into a half cat after a spelling lesson gone very wrong (the girl believes “cat” is spelled “kat,” and the teacher calls her stupid). Her next door neighbors, the Gleggs, like to shoot things—including ducks and deer. Infuriated, she casts her finger on them, turning them into smaller versions of themselves—with wings. Caught between exhilaration and terror, they fly off—allowing a family of four ducks to enter and take over their house. The ducks, as it turns out, are even less enthusiastic about hunting than the girl is.
This is a rather terrifying but satisfying story for any child, with a decidedly strong anti-gun and anti-hunting message. (Dahl himself tended to like animals better than humans.) But even the scariest moments don’t last too long (well, the story doesn’t last too long), and for all of their love of hunting, the Gleggs are devoted and reassuring parents, keeping much of the fear at a distance.
Fantastic Mr. Fox also focuses on devoted and reassuring parents—several sets of them: the Foxes, the Badgers, the Moles, the Rabbits, and the Weasels. (The Rat in the story does not seem to be a family friendly sort of Rat, and is decidedly single.) Most of these, however, are just side characters: the main character is Mr. Fox, who has run into some trouble with three local farmers.
Perhaps because the story is told from the viewpoint of the fox, or perhaps because of Dahl’s aforementioned preference for animals, the three human farmers are all depicted as distinctly unpleasant, even monstrous. The worst is Farmer Bean, so particularly unpleasant that he never ever takes a bath. As a result his ears are filled with all kinds of things, the full list of which will delight children who like to be completely grossed out, and he is partly deaf. Also, although he raises turkeys and apples, he does not eat any food, surviving only on apple cider.
I’m not exactly sure how that works, much though I love apple cider especially when it’s all warmed up and has caramel and whipped cream on top—where was I? Oh, right. Much though I love apple cider, I don’t exactly think it contains a full day’s supply of vitamins and minerals, even leaving aside the question of protein. Plus, as we later find out, this is apple cider of the very decidedly alcoholic sort (the animals happily describe the “fiery liquor” that “burns in your stomach,”) making me really wonder how Farmer Bean manages at all, although at least this explains his anger management issues. Dahl cheerfully avoids the nutrition issue, telling us only that Farmer Bean is very thin. I’d think the lack of protein—But anyway.
Enraged by Mr. Fox’s ongoing deprivations, the three farmers unite to trap the fox. When that fails, they decide to go after the fox den—complete with bulldozers. It does not take them long to raze the hill where the foxes live and even remove it entirely, to the terror and distress of the foxes—who are busily digging furiously to get away from the bulldozers. A lack of water and food only worsens matters, and Mrs. Fox is close to death before the Fantastic Mr. Fox suddenly thinks of a clever solution, one that will even manage to save all of the other little animals of the hill—the Badgers, the Moles, the Rabbits and the Weasels.
For a book told in simple, direct language about a battle between foxes and farmers that seems to have started as another mere anti-hunting book, Fantastic Mr. Fox has some fascinating moral ambiguity. As Mr. Weasel point out, Mr. Fox is stealing from the farmers, and theft is wrong. Mr. Fox points out that the farmers are trying to kill him (true) and that he needs to feed his family (shades of Les Miserables). He is justified, he concludes, in stealing from those who are trying to kill him, all the more so because he, unlike the farmers, will not be stooping to murder, which puts him on a higher moral plane. But as Mr. Weasel has earlier noted, the farmers are trying to kill Mr. Fox because the fox has been stealing from the farmers. Left out of this is that the farmers (and most definitely the bulldozers) are eliminating the animal’s natural habitat; Dahl doesn’t say anything about this, but it’s entirely possible that the foxes can’t find any other food other than what the farmers are growing.
Unless they start eating their friends—I don’t think that foxes eat badgers, but at least in the United States they will eat moles and baby rabbits. Let’s not dwell on this too long—although now that I think about it, that does rather suggest more than one problem with the ambiguously happy ending Dahl describes.
Yes, ambiguously happy. The animals are, at least for now, safe from bulldozers, with access to plentiful food supplies (and plenty of alcohol). But apart from my concern for their livers, I couldn’t help thinking that without the farmers actually, you know, farming, the animal’s food supplies would soon be drying up—and this is all apart from the issue of stealing, although I can’t exactly get upset about stealing from such evidently awful people.
And that’s part of the problem: for all the ambiguousness of the ending, and the conversation about theft, which at least convinces me that the animals have thought about it (and are as good as humans at coming up with self-justification) the farmers are such outright villains that it’s difficult to find any sympathy for them. Which was doubtless the point, and I suspect that most child readers will be happily cheering on the foxes, just as Dahl intended.
Very oddly, and somewhat annoyingly, the revised 2002 edition of this book from Random House contains an interview with Roald Dahl—annoyingly because the interview is clearly and evidently meant for an adult audience, and feel very out of place in this kid’s book. Parents reading this book to their kids should feel free to skip this section.
Mari Ness may just possibly have picked up one or two bottles of the alcoholic kind of apple cider for the holiday season. She lives in central Florida.