With his iconic emerald suit, yellow crown, and spats, Babar is one of the most recognisable picture book characters in the world. At 90, he is two years younger than Mickey Mouse, and a decade older than Dumbo, but the French elephant cuts a notably different figure in the canon of children’s literature.
While the mouse is a forever child, Babar has accepted the trappings of adulthood. Dumbo is an outcast; Babar, a valued member of his community, and rather busy (he is, after all, King of Celesteville). The embodiment of bourgeois values, Babar travels the world on diplomatic missions, often by balloon and sometimes by boat, and unwinds with a spot of yoga. He is a thoroughly modern pachyderm, but in recent years the early instalments in the 57- book series –loved in America as in his native France – have come under scrutiny for their antiquated themes and ideas, some even toeing the lines of cancelation. Which begs the question: is Babar endangered?
Created by French artist Jean de Brunhoff in 1931, The Story of Babar begins with the killing of his mother by a hunter. Narrowly avoiding the same fate, little Babar flees the Great Forest, arriving “after some days, tired and footsore” in a town that bears a resemblance to Paris. He is awestruck by the elegant boulevards and the abundance of life and culture, depicted by Brunhoff in a series of blocky and bright watercolour drawings, the text skipping along in distinctive French cursive. It is here, “en ville”, that the frightened Babar meets a “very rich old lady” who becomes a kind of benefactor to the elephant, housing him and gifting her purse. The money is a gateway to human customs: he visits the tailor, where he acquires “a suit of delightful green colour”, he has his picture taken professionally, and he receives a private tutor.
Following the familiar tropes of fairy tales, of pauper to prince, orphaned to familied, Babar grows to enjoy his new life, riding department store elevators up and down, admiring the town’s “beautiful avenues! Motorcars and motorbuses!” and enthralling his human audience with anecdotes from the animal kingdom. But he misses home. On his return to the Great Forest two years later – arriving in style in a gleaming red automobile – Babar is crowned King by dint of the advantages granted by this human education (the throne’s previous incumbent died eating a poisonous mushroom, and the elder elephants agree that since “he has come back from the town, where he has lived among men and learnt much”, Babar is the right candidate for the job). Assuming the crown, Babar proceeds to teach the elephants the human way of life – and here starts the problem.
Critics have suggested the re-education of the elephants, and in particular King Babar’s insistence on wearing clothes and standing on two legs instead of four, is an allegory of European colonialism; the subsequent creation of Celesteville, impinging on an imagined African nation. Others have gone one further, such as critic Ariel Dorfman, claiming the books to be little more than child-centric colonialist propaganda – an ode to the old structures of elitism. Through reading Babar “the child,” Dorfman writes, “has come into contact with an implicit history that justifies and rationalises the motives behind an international situation in which some countries have everything and other countries almost nothing.” He argues that “Babar’s history” is therefore “none other than the fulfilment of the dominant countries’ colonial dream”.