Babar: a retelling

Babar et les ballons

I’m reading The Novel Habits of Happiness, the latest of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. In an early chapter, Isabel reads Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar to her infant son Charlie, and contemplates leaving out the bit about Babar’s mother being shot by a hunter. She then (typically) gets distracted and starts thinking about Hitler while Charlie waits for the story to continue.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Babar. Perhaps before the books I knew Poulenc’s musical adaptation, in the tremendous orchestral version by Jean Françaix. We had the LP narrated by Peter Ustinov. This version is narrated by Jacques Brel.

When in my childhood a French-Canadian cartoon version reached British TV, I (who used to watch any old rubbish without discrimination) gave it a miss. It felt like a watered-down misrepresentation of the Babar I knew.

While I appreciate Dalhousie’s trepidation about exposing Charlie to the violent death of Babar’s mother, and while it was something that upset me as a boy, I came to appreciate the potential of violence. I would have been aged about six or seven (the same time I wrote the story about Mrs Thatcher here) when I rewrote the story with a more grisly ending. (Actually I think I just copied the first few pages of the book, got bored, and tacked a bit on to tie up the loose ends.)


In the great forest a little elephant was born. His name was Babar. His mother loved him dearly, and used to rock him to sleep with her trunk, singing to him softly the while.

Babar grew fast. Soon he was playing with the other baby elephants. He was one of the nicest of them. Look at him digging in the sand with a shell.

One day Babar was having a lovely ride on his mother’s back, when a cruel hunter hiding behind a bush shot at them. He killed Babar’s mother. The monkey hid himself, the birds flew away and Babar burst into tears. The hunter ran up to catch poor Babar. Babar was very frightened and ran away from the hunter.

After some days, tired and footsore, he came to a town. He was amazed, for it was the first time he had seen so many houses. What strange things he saw. Beautiful avenues! Motorcars and motorbuses! But what interested Babar most of all was two gentlemen he met in the street. He thought “What lovely clothes they have got! I wish I could have some too! But how can I get them?”

Suddenly he saw an extremely rich old lady and he remembered the face of the hunter. The hunter was one of his best friends! He ran and found the hunter. The hunter came and shot the old lady! Babar stole her money, bought the suit and lived happily ever after.

The Story of Babar, c. 1990


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