It wasn’t until I read The Story of Babar as an adult, to a young child who loves elephants, that I realized how jarring Jean de Brunhoff’s charming childhood story is. The Babar stories lay in my mind as a vague genial tale of a mellow, rather formal, pachyderm civilization. I had forgotten that the young Babar’s childhood idyll, as soon as described, ends with the peremptory shooting of his mother by a big-game hunter (the so-called page 2 dilemma for bedtime-reading parents). And I had forgotten that the distraught Babar’s discovery of #menswear (early 1900s edition) takes his mind off of her murder.
Babar flees for several days and nights until he comes to a town, where what interests him the most, more than the architecture, the wide avenues, the cars and buses, are the suits two gentlemen are wearing. He immediately wants one for himself. Providentially, an old lady who loves elephants crosses his path, gives him money to go shopping, buys him a car. For two years he lives with her in the city, depicted behind the wheel of some 1920s open-top bolide, or amiably recounting anecdotes about life in the jungle to human dinner guests while wearing what look like tails and spongebag trousers (the humans are downright underdressed in dark suit and tan tweeds). The chance visit of his cousins causes Babar to return to the jungle, just at the moment the old king of the elephants dies. Babar’s life among the humans leads the elephant elders to crown him king; his coronation ceremony is also his wedding, for which he sends back to the city for wedding clothes. His story ends after the celebration, gazing out into a desert night with his new queen, both crowned and dressed to the nines.
Surprisingly, it’s only a coincidence that the brother of Babar’s creator was the editor of French Vogue; de Brunhoff himself was a classically trained artist. The Babar stories originated as bedtime stories his wife had told their sick children, but I do wonder if she, or de Brunhoff himself, was the one who first described in loving detail the litany of Babar’s clothing purchases when he rushes to spend his first francs at the department store: “a shirt with collar and tie” (a pink popover with detachable wing collar and carefully drawn folding buttonhole to attach to the inside waistband of trousers to stay tucked); “a suit in a nice shade of green, then a bowler hat, and finally dress shoes (the old-fashioned, highly formal term souliers rather than chaussures) with gaiters” (I had a hard time explaining to my son what gaiters are, but there they are, perfectly depicted as light-colored accessories sitting atop Babar’s shoes to give the impression that he was wearing boots, or whatever gaiters were supposed to do).
Reading the Babar stories as an adult, It is very, very difficult to avoid seeing the Babar stories as an easy colonialist parable, despite all of the charm of Babar’s unexpected sartorial fussiness. Researching this piece, I found I was far from the first to notice this. The New Yorker’s resident Francophile, Adam Gopnik, wrote a wonderful recent essay reevaluating the criticisms of colonialism and neoimperialism levelled at Babar, suggesting instead they were gentle caricatures of France’s attitudes towards its roles as colonial power and as civilization itself. Gopnik proposes that the Babar stories are instead “a fable of the difficulties of a bourgeois life.” Understandable, given their genesis as bedtime stories in a bourgeois household, a parent striving to create relatable adventures starring charismatic megafauna. Nonetheless, the colonial optic is hard to close our eyes to. The charismatic young elephant, noblest of savage beasts, strays into the city and is immediately arrested by the sight of fine suits. Generously adopted, dressed and educated by a wealthy, worldly benefactor, he returns to his birthplace with the gifts of knowledge and culture, clothed among the naked, to rule and spread the lessons he learned.
Perhaps what we can take from the Babar stories is that the refined delights of the metropole are just a few days’ walk (as the elephant flees) from nature at its most wild. Yet both had a kind of order; the jungle’s order disrupted by the so-called civilized, in the form of the big-game hunter and in the form of the tutelary patron. Along with the question what do we long to be, we must ask ourselves why do we long to be it? Let us adopt Gopnik’s gentle view of the Babar stories, and adopt the things we love – nice or natty clothes, if we must – for themselves, and not for the darker political overtones that may shade them. Let clothes only make the elephant, not the man.