It was a relief to discover that, as Great Uncle Bulgaria had predicted, the Human Beings all about him took no notice of the fact that he was a Womble. They were all far too busy about their own affairs, and Bungo, who had never before been so close to so many people, decided that beside being dreadfully wasteful they were also remarkably unobservant.
‘Funny creatures,’ he muttered to himself.
— The Wombles
Elizabeth Beresford reportedly got the idea for the Wombles, bear-like (later raccoon-like) creatures who live beneath Wimbledon Common and scurry around picking up human trash, during a Christmas walk in Wimbledon—a place one of her children called “Wombledon.” Intended as merely a humorous children’s story about the delightful Wombles, the book instead became more of a commentary on human society as well as a passionate cry for saving the planet. It also eventually sparked a children’s television show, an almost compulsively singable Wombling Song (that is, if you are six) which if you were very lucky, you could sometimes hear on the BBC World Service, some stuffed Wombles currently for sale over at Amazon’s United Kingdom division, and even some McDonald’s Happy Meal toys which I very much fear some small children may have tossed into the trash, largely missing the point.
Despite all this, the Wombles remain almost completely unknown in the United States. (I blame the inept scheduling of the BBC World Service for this, but that may just be residual bitterness talking.) So unknown that after my return to the States, I was almost convinced that the books and the song were nothing more than figments of my imagination. Almost. Which is a shame, since the Womble books certainly deserve a more worldwide audience, and are now easily available in the U.S. in both print and ebook editions.
So, for British readers and viewers who might have forgotten, and others who never knew, what are the Wombles?
Well, as their song says,Wombles are creatures who Womble, Underground, Overground, Wombles are organized, work as a team, Wombles are tidy—I have to stop singing. Basically, they are creatures who live underground, creeping up in the night, the twilight, and the fog to collect human trash, which they recycle into useful things. Collect, not steal. When, for instance, the Wombles realize that they are going to need wet concrete, not something generally tossed aside by humans, they pay for it out of their tiny collection of lost coins and small bills, justifying this unusual entrance into the human economy by stating, correctly, that this is an emergency (their underground home is flooding.) They are also careful tippers on the rare occasions that they use taxis. They are, for the most part, unselfish, generous, and hard workers (I said for the most part), fascinated by Human Beings (always capitalized in the books), but careful to hide from them.
(Sidenote: now that I’m more or less an Official Grown Up, I do find myself wondering just where Wombles come from. The book leaves Things Unclear; by the time we meet young Wombles, they are safely in the Womblegarten, and although the Wombles refer to one another as a a large family, they refer to specific other Wombles as friends, never brothers and sisters. Romance, let alone pregnancy, is completely lacking. When I was a kid: it was simple. New Wombles came from the Womblegarten. Now, it’s a mystery. Maybe they grow from the ground. But moving on.)
And they—and Elizabeth Beresford—are very very worried about the environment, and specifically, human consumption. The Wombles in general find the human ability to toss perfectly usuable things out mind boggling. They also worry about what all of that trash is doing to the environment: they pick things up not just to use it, but to keep Wimbledon and its water areas safe for wildlife and humans. In short, these are the first diehard enviromentalists of fantastic children’s literature—which may help explain why, for all of their humor and wit, they didn’t quite catch on in the U.S.
Alas, the intended Do Not Litter or Waste message reportedly somewhat backfired, since small children enthralled by the Wombles ended up dropping bits of trash around in the hopes of seeing a Womble—or, in winter, in the hopes of keeping the Wombles from starving. Oh well.
But this story—perhaps an urban myth—does illustrate the peculiar placement of the Wombles, somewhere between humans and animals. With their paws, their fur, their strong sense of smell, and their tidy underground residences, they are not quite Humans, and they are careful to make this distinction. But they are not quite animals, either, or even talking animals of the Narnia/Freddy the Pig sort. They speak human languages, read newspapers, wear discarded human clothing, and can, at a pinch, even pass for humans, as long as they wearing sunglasses, large hats and coats, and scarves. In later books, we find that they typically mimic the human societies they live in; in the 1970s, for instance, the Russian Wombles are devoted, loyal if very environmentalist members of the Communist Party. Eventually, the Wombles even manage to get a car, blurring the human/animal line even more.
Beresford handwaves any issues of human Womble interactions here by noting that humans are just not that observant. It’s probably also important to note that in the original book and illustrations, the Wombles did not have the long, more obvious noses they gained in the later television show. (And don’t think I didn’t notice the difference, oh editors. Particularly since in my very first reading I jumped from the first book—teddy bears—to the last book—raccoons—which was a bit disorienting.)
Anyway. Their first book, The Wombles, covers a year or so in the life of the Womble community beneath Wimbledon. (Beresford mentions other Womble enclaves, but we don’t meet any in this book, and these Wombles seem pretty content to remain a self-sustained community, at least for now.) It begins with a delightful fall of exploration and some adventures with an umbrella, before continuing on to Christmas and a shockingly harsh winter where the Wombles nearly starve to death. Parents reading this aloud to small children should be prepared to read extra chapters during this part since it’s not at all clear that the Wombles are going to make it, and parents not reading this aloud to slightly older children should be prepared to find household flashlights disappearing beneath the covers as the children desperately read ahead to see if the Wombles make it. Gulp. GIANT SPOILER: they DO, and even get candy and buns. And then it’s time for spring, and a well deserved Midsummer outing, complete with a giant slide. We also finally find out what the Yetis are: Wombles.
It must be confessed that the first chapters are a little rough. They do serve to introduce us to a few of the main Wombles: wise Great Uncle Bulgaria, the leader; little Bungo, new to the World Above; tinkerer Tobermory; kindly Madame Cholet, the cook; headstrong Alderney; and lazy Orinoco. (Fan favorite Wellington does not appear in this book.) The names, incidentally, all come from Great Uncle Bulgaria’s Atlas. When ready to go out into the Great World, little Wombles get to pick their own names from the Atlas, which is not only one of the neatest writer’s tricks I can think of for avoiding the difficulty of making up imaginary names for fantastical creatures, but also something that at nine, I found awesomely cool, a nice rite of passage that also gives young Wombles a sense of immediate control over their destiny. But the first chapters also meander here and there, and take a bit of time to get going, as do the wordplay and jokes.
As does the occasional interaction with Human Beings, generally among the highlights of the book. They do interact with Human Beings on more than one occasion – inviting an elderly gentleman with no other family for a Christmas party; taking cabs; visiting candy stores, and playing golf with famous tennis players (who presumably should have noticed the, er, furriness of their golf buddies, but, as Beresford frequently notes, Humans are not always observant, Tennis Players, doubly so.), Not that all of the Wombles are particularly into Human sports:
To his way of thinking he had far more important matters on hand than going to see a lot of silly Human Beings running around a small piece of grass in pursuit of a ball.
And not that the Wombles always quite understand Humans, or the English language: told that you start a game of golf by “addressing the ball,” an enthralled young Womble asks, “What do you address it as?” An older Womble says, ”Ball, I suppose." (This conversation later had deep consequences to my own understanding of golf and games with balls in general, which for the purposes of protecting the guilty (me) we are not going to get into.)
This attitude probably helps explain why,although they live beneath Wimbledon, before this book the Wombles have never seen a tennis match, and just adds to the fun when the two Wombles who do have a slight interest in tennis end up watching Wimbledon from—gulp—the Royal Box and the opportunity to meet Queen Elizabeth II, spoken of with great respect as Her. (Even more impressively from the Womble point of view, these seats include Free Tea. Royalty does indeed have its purpose!)
As you can probably tell, deep character development is not a focus of the book, although Orinico, initially characterized as merely fat and lazy, does get a bit of character growth, when, during the harsh winter and near starvation, he fortunately enough stumbles upon a large cache of delicious food, including chocolate cake and sticky buns. The combination of near starvation and chocolate cake is too much for him, forcing him into a—gulp—selfish act: he eats the cake instead of bringing it back to the other Wombles to share. (In his defense, he’s very very hungry, and, well, it’s chocolate cake. I’m highly sympathetic.) Only the unexpected and unpleasant taste of sausage in the next bun (as befits zealous environmentalists, the Wombles are all vegetarians) brings him to his senses. He has just enough food left to share and save the rest of the Wombles from starvation. Nonetheless, his personal guilt and a rather dreadful conversation with Great Uncle Bulgaria leaves him feeling like this:
He was, without doubt, the most miserable Womble in the whole world. He felt lower than the lowest worm and as he was normally rather fond of himself this was a terrible sensation.
‘I’m a wicked, wicked Womble,’ he whispered, rocking backwards and forwards.
This may seem a bit harsh or overly moralistic. After all, Orinico had also been close to starving, and, well, it’s chocolate cake. But the entire incident follows a general theme of British children’s literature at the time, namely that thoughtless indulgence in sugary foods can lead to Bad Things. Compare, for instance, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), or, for that matter, American children’s literature, which often takes the exact opposite approach (food=good.) It also fits the general theme of the book, i.e., don’t waste things.
Which is perhaps why although the response may seem harsh, the story, overall, doesn’t seem that preachy. It perhaps helps that the issue here is not so much eating too much chocolate cake, but not sharing the chocolate cake with your starving friends (no one thinks badly of Orinico for eating a lot when its not winter). It certainly helps that Orinico realizes how wrong he was without needing to be told, and that Great Uncle Bulgaria blames himself for failing as a teacher and as a Womble protector. And that when the guilt-ridden Orinico runs away (leaving a rather badly spelled letter, suggesting that yes, indeed, teaching might be the problem here), the Wombles immediately head out after him, on a rather terrifying trip (from the Womble point of view) on the London Underground. If you’ve never seen an escalator before AND you are a Womble you will know instantly what Bungo and I mean by that.
I noticed other small things while reading this book: the way Beresford maintains her theme of recycling by reusing objects picked up or used by the Wombles in earlier chapters in later chapters. The way that most of the chapters form an individual short story, making the book ideal for bedtime reading (except for the almost starving chapters, as mentioned.) The way that the Wombles are, above all, problem solvers, and the way that most of these problems can be solved by reusing items tossed out by humans. (Sometimes, however, even Wombles have to break down and pay for concrete. Or a taxi.) The way even the Very Good Wombles are, well, not always Good.
And, alas, if not surprising in a book published in 1968, the way that the male Wombles are typically the ones who head out to Wimbledon to gather trash and later make things, while the women stay beneath the earth and focus on cooking and serving food. I almost lost track of the number of times Alderney finds herself serving tea. But, and this is probably important, Alderney enjoys pushing her little cart around, and when she does emerge to the surface, she tends to be more daring and adventurous than the boys. And Madame Cholet, the cook, following the great literary tradition of cooks in great households, wields tremendous influence, while being the most kindhearted and generous of the Wombles. Think Mrs. Patmore, only working with considerably less fresh materials most of the time.
If you’re looking for a cozy, comforting read, this is not a bad book to try. Just trust me when I say it improves after the first few chapters.
Mari Ness once had the entire Wombling Song memorized. She’s only slightly sorry now.