This week we’re celebrating William Steig, New Yorker cartoonist and children’s-book creator extraordinaire. One of his most famous characters has taken on such a life of his own that most people are completely unaware that he originally hatched from a book. Shrek, that putrid-green orge who pretends to be scary but really is a big old softie at heart, is about to star in his fourth movie and is making it big on Broadway as well. But Steig’s Shrek is neither cartoony nor cuddly: he’s one nasty mofo, and he’s proud of it.
Shrek is truly repulsive—and what’s surprisingly charming is that he’s so incredibly pleased with himself, full of “rabid self-esteem” as Steig puts it. Here are just a few of the things that make him so awesome:
Any snake dumb enough to bite him instantly gets convulsions and dies.
When he walks through the forest, he gives off such awful fumes that the trees bend away from him.
Lightening and Thunder think Shrek is the most disgusting thing they’ve ever seen, and when Lightening fires a bolt right at Shrek’s head, he just turns his mouth to the sky so that it goes straight down his throat, and then he belches up some smoke.
So Shrek’s parents have kicked him out of the hole in which he was hatched (hatched!) and he runs across a witch, and offers her a few of his rare lice in exchange for telling his fortune. She foresees that he will marry a princess who is even uglier than him! Shrek is intrigued.
According to the witch, a donkey will play a key role in Shrek’s journey to his horrible bride. The donkey turns out to be pretty moronic—no clever Eddie Murphy quips here—which gives Steig the opportunity to use the word “jackass” in a picture book.
Finally Shrek meets the princess. She’s nothing like that lovely red-haired Fiona from the movie—she’s truly “the most stunningly ugly princess on the surface of the planet.”
It’s love at first bite.
“Shrek snapped at her nose. She nipped at his ear. They clawed their way into each other’s arms. Like fire and smoke, these two belonged together.”
The book ends with a wedding. The officiant is this crazy pink crocodile. And check out the princess’ prickly-pear bouquet and the insect-print on her veil—or are those real bugs?!?
“And they lived horribly ever after, scaring the socks off all who fell afoul of them.”
Beth Potter is an associate editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers. While working on the twentieth anniversary edition of Shrek! last summer, just before her own wedding, she teared up every single time she read the surprisingly romantic scene in which Shrek meets the princess.