‘Oh no!’ wailed the Trunk. ‘Oh no!’ It was full of Elephant thoughts, Elephant hopes, Elephant dreams, Elephant plans. Every moment, with every breath it took, it felt more and more Elephant. And the idea of creeping about without an Elephant head or body or legs was horrible.
“The Trunk”, from “The Dreamfighter and other creation tales”, Ted Hughes
The Dreamfighter and other creation tales is a collection of short stories by Ted Hughes, describing how various animals came to be the way they are and God’s attempts to understand his peculiar creations. It’s split into three sections, each with a different recommended reading age, although I don’t think there’s a significant difference in style, content or accessibility between the stories recommended for age four and up and the stories suggested for ten-year-olds. Maybe someone with a better grasp on child development can explain to me why the stories have been split up the way they are.
One of the things I enjoy so much about The Dreamfighter is how surprisingly bleak some of the stories are. The very first story in the collection, “Why the Owl Behaves as it Does”, involves Owl tricking the birds into only going about at night, to make it easy for him to pick them off and eat them. This continues until they all grow so unhappy that they agree they would rather all die than continue to exist in this miserable state. This story at least has a happy ending, as the birds’ suicide pact involves all staying up to witness what Owl has convinced them is a night so impossibly dark it will kill them all at once. Of course, it turns out Owl was lying, and instead of a terrible darkness they get to witness the sun rising for the first time in over a year. Happy days! For everyone except Owl, who’s now doomed to pick out a meagre living on mice and beetles and only ever come out at night.
Most of the stories have a bittersweet element to them, and some are downright tragic. I have a lot of affection for children’s stories that don’t shy away from disappointment and failure, and you find a lot of both of these within The Dreamfighter and other creation tales. To be clear, you also find a lot of victories, and stories of animals coming to terms with who they are or finding opportunities to be appreciated for their unique gifts.
There are aspects of it that I don’t love, namely in the portrayal of Woman (sometimes referred to as Mrs Man) who is often erratic, unreasonable and demanding in a way that reflects some unpleasant stereotypes. The stories were written variously between the early 1960s through to 1995, and I try to be conscious of that while reading, but this is intended to be a collection of stories for children aged four to fourteen, and I think I’d be wary of encouraging some of those less progressive ideas about women (sometimes extended to the female animals, who are once again most frequently introduced as wives to the male ones).
God is in most of the stories, as the creator of all creatures. Or most creatures anyway, there are a few that are either made by another entity or show up without any input from God whatsoever, and his bewilderment at some of the animals that appear apparently out of nowhere never stops being entertaining. He’s a great character throughout the stories; industrious and thoughtful, occasionally short-tempered or unreasonable, but consistently delighted by his weird and wonderful creatures.
The stories are delightful, frequently laugh-out-loud funny as well as being genuinely affecting at times, and despite the issues I have with some of the, shall we say, more old-fashioned ideas at play, I come back to this collection of short stories time and time again. Despite its flaws, I don’t think anything contained within the stories is meant to be mean-spirited, and it’s a book with a lot of heart. I would recommend these stories to anyone who enjoys Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”, and anybody with young children who like to read or be read to—although you might want to pre-screen some of the stories if you’re concerned about the underlying sexism.
This is my Review of the Month for the review collection on LovelyAudiobooks.info
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