20 August 2007
The Story of Ferdinand
Author: Munro Leaf
Illustrator: Robert Lawson
The Story of Ferdinand is the much beloved story (one of my childhood and current day favorites) about a peaceful bull. While his peers indulge in the machismo-soaked culture of bull fighting, Ferdinand just wants to "sit just quietly and smell the flowers". His pacifist approach to life eventually leads the bullfighters to leave him be.
While the story itself is very uplifting, the illustrations throughout the story are surprisingly sprinkled with melancholy images of death. Take this image for example:
"As the years went by Ferdinand grew and grew until he was very big and strong."
Notice the vulture (nature's harbinger of death) perched atop the hollowed tree stump. Ferdinand may be growing big and strong, but in the end, the unforgiving embrace of death awaits him... as it awaits us all. Each successive day is another tick of the clock measuring our steady march towards the grave.
Look closer and you will see vultures appearing throughout Lawson's illustrations; mounted on a sign to Madrid, quietly observing the bull fights... death is waiting around every corner.
One's natural reaction is to question Lawson's sanity... why put in these disturbing images in a book for kids?! What is your deal, you sick, sick, man?! But if you take a moment to pause and consider it... death is not inherently disturbing, it's just a fact. It is only inappropriate if you are afraid to face the inescapable reality of death, which is in fact deluding yourself. Perhaps it is best to be honest with children and subtly introduce them to the unavoidable nature of their eventual demise.
As a wise man once said, "The day you first realize that your life has an end, is the day your life truly begins."
(Note: The man who said this is now dead. I guess he proved his point.)
Ferdinand's hidden message is also a valuable lesson in the limitations of pacifist ideology. While his pacifist stance may save him from violent death in the bullfighting ring, it will not save Ferdinand from death itself. Which is a valuable lesson to learn for anyone considering a lucrative career in pacifism. It's not all flowers and rolling meadows, kids. I mean, look at some of history's most famous pacifists:
Martin Luther King Jr: Shot
John Lennon: Shot
Mother Theresa: Posthumously Skewered by Christopher Hitchens
Jesus Christ: Crucified
Siddartha Gautama: Poisoned by Bad Meat
My Word... who would knew pacifism could be so dangerous? For those of you who say pacifism is for sissies, think again!
...but at least Ferdinand ends on a positive note: with the image of a beautiful flower; the very thing that brought so much joy to Ferdinand's life; a symbol of peace... DYING. Seriously, on the book's final page (see below) sits a lone flower withering away, its dried petals falling from the stem of its long forgotten glory.
Even the most beautiful things eventually die.
Sweet Dreams, Kiddo!