A series that has been running even longer than Asterix is that of Babar the Elephant. Begun in 1931 by Jean de Brunhoff with Histoire de Babar, it has been continued since 1946 by his son Laurent, the most recent book being Babar’s Celesteville Games. The first book was translated in 1933 as The Story of Babar and is now published in the UK by Egmont. While the American edition was translated by Merle S. Haas, the translator of the British edition is uncredited. (Translation theorists may also be interested in ‘Time, Narrative, Intimacy and the Child‘ by Gillian Lathey: Meta: Translators’ Journal, Volume 48, Number 1-2, May 2003, p. 233-240, which discusses various aspects of the translation itself.)
The Story of Babar tells of a young elephant who runs away to the city (a thinly disguised Paris) after his mother is shot by a hunter. He is adopted by an Old Lady, takes to dressing in a green suit and spats, learns to drive a car and so on. Once fully civilised, he returns to the jungle marries Celeste, becomes King of the Elephants and has three children.
The book I remember best from my own childhood is Babar’s Birthday Surprise by Laurent de Brunhoff (1970). In it, Celeste has arranged for a giant sculpture of Babar to be carved into the side of a mountain. I’d actually forgotten the title and most of the plot is pretty hazy, but I vividly remember the illustrations and the lengths they have to go to to keep the present a secret.
A host of controversies rage around Babar – is it appropriate to read the death of the mother to young children? is the book colonialist propaganda or an ironic satire on the benefits of civilisation? – and so on. (For a detailed take on some of these, see this article from the New Yorker: ‘Freeing the Elephants; What Babar Brought’ by Adam Gopnik, 22 September 2008.) Yet despite all this, these charming stories with their beautiful illustrations continue to be a global phenomenon, helped on by the TV cartoon series and no shortage of merchandising.
We have the first story in a compendium of classic children’s stories and, for what it’s worth, read the death of the mother part. It seems quite popular with the boys but is rather long for a bedtime story at the moment. Here’s hoping they’ll discover it properly eventually, and maybe even branch out into the rest of the series!