#1936Club – The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson

Which book was more popular than Gone With the Wind, annoyed Hitler but was tolerated by Stalin, was filmed by Disney twice and spawned songs and dances since 1936? Why, The Story of Ferdinand, of course!

This is a children’s book with a story about a little Spanish bull who preferred to sit under a tree and smell flowers rather than fight. It sounded very familiar: was it made into one of those short Disney cartoons? Indeed it was; made in 1938, it won an Oscar and was still being shown on television into the 1970s. In fact, in some countries it is shown every year on Christmas Eve. When they tried to replace it with something else in the 1980s in Sweden, it came back the following year after a public outcry. What a delightful and illogical tradition!

An image from the book, by Robert Lawson

What’s even more surprising than the fact I remember it is that Walt Disney himself voiced Ferdinand’s mother. According to one of the reviews on IMDB, the animated bandilleros and picadors were based on the cartoon’s animators and the matador on Walt Disney himself; he was reportedly Not Amused by that, though surely he must have vetted it, especially if he voiced part of it; that story sounds apocryphal to me.

A surprisingly political book

As it was published at the time of the Spanish civil war, General Franco – the man who led the violent uprising – was definitely not amused at the pacifist bull and banned the book. The ban was not lifted until his death in 1975. Hitler had all copies burned (“degenerate democratic propaganda”, he said, only he said it in German). After the war, 30,000 copies were printed and distributed free to German children to promote peace (source: Illustration Chronicles).  It was the only non-communist book allowed in Poland by Stalin. Even Ernest Hemingway, who fought in Spain, had something to write about it. Perhaps even more surprisingly, in the first year after publication, it sold more copies than Gone With the Wind, also a 1936 book, in America (source: Sothebys). 

It was fascinating reading about all the criticism, serious and tongue in cheek that has surrounded the book over the time since its publication. It’s been criticised and hailed (depending on your viewpoint) as pacifist, fascist, socialist, showing your feminine side, and championing individualism, being true to yourself and encouraging children to be lazy or refuse to stand up to their responsibilities (source: The New Yorker).

The Song of Ferdinand the Bull

Disney also promoted the cartoon well before it appeared by releasing The Song of Ferdinand the Bull that was later covered by various artists. This is discussed in this wonderful blogpost. Do take the time to listen to the embedded videos. The Slim Gaillard jazz version reminds me of the jazz in the backing of Tom and Jerry cartoons and has a wonderful section where the double bass imitates a cow. On the downside, it also has homophobic connotations, with Ferdinand with his hands (hooves?) on his hips and the singer commenting at the end (in a very camp voice, no less) that “Ferdinand’s a sissie!” I’m assuming this wasn’t part of the original. I recommend the Dixieland Swingsters version, which shows various versions of the book’s cover and the ‘bonus video’ showing the pantomime cow version of Ferdinand.

Back to the book

 The best way to read this book if you don’t have a copy is to have it read aloud to you with all the illustrations clearly visible. Try this video. It’s interesting to see that the Disney animators hardly changed a thing except the style. Even the men’s funny hats are virtually the same and you can see that the joke of the wine corks hanging off the cork tree comes from Robert Lawson’s illustrations. Not until the scene in the bull ring is the story changed. In the book, Ferdinand enjoys the flowers in the ladies’ hair. In the cartoon, the matador has been thrown a bunch of flowers and tears his hair out when Ferdinand won’t fight. Thank goodness all those bandilleros and picadors and the matador were so afraid of Ferdinand’s reputation, or the pain would have driven him to his death, given his exaggerated reaction to the bee sting. As it is, its a delightful pacifist tale that infuriated two dictators and that’s a win in my book. Perhaps a more realistic version of events is given in the 2017 full length computer animation film Ferdinand which was nominated for all sorts of Academy Awards, but had the misfortune to come out in the same year as Disney Pixar’s Coco, with Coco having a full month longer at the box office to create a buzz. I haven’t seen either of them.

It’s quite amazing that a little picture book can have such a legacy. After all, Munro Leaf claimed that he only wrote it so his friend Robert Lawson had something to draw.

#1936Club – The Shadow Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft in The Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales

The Shadow Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft is creepy tale about a man who believes his mind has been borrowed to enable another race to research human knowledge. But is he right or delusional?

“After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17-18, 1935.”

This is a story/novella about a library, but not like any library I have ever visited. The story was originally published in the comic Astounding Stories in June 1936. In the Lovecraft collection I read it in, however, The Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales, there were no pictures, so I was able to work out the appearance of the creatures myself; the author describes them well and it’s good to see an artist taking the time to follow that description.

The cover of Astounding Stories, June 1936.
Cover art by Howard V. Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A brief synopsis (no spoilers)

After suddenly lapsing into a five-year coma, in the middle of giving a lecture, our narrator, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, regains consciousness with a changed personality. He seems to have to relearn how to speak fluently and to use his arms and legs properly. He becomes a cause célèbre for the psychologists who come to the conclusion that he has a second personality, but that personality is very strange.

He starts to go on long visits to remote and desolate places, but does not recall what he did there. He seems to know more than he should about historical periods in the distant past and future and tries to influence the thoughts of others.

“My sojourns at universities were marked by abnormally rapid assimilation, as if the secondary personality has an intelligence enormously superior to my own. I have found, also, that my rate of reading and solitary study was phenomenal. I could master every detail of a book merely by glancing over it as fast as I could turn the leaves; while my skill at interpreting complex figures in an instant was veritably awesome.” (p.559)

This sounds like a wonderful anomaly to me! He also reads occult books, including “the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”. This amused me as the story is included in a huge collection of Lovecraft’s stories called, you’ve guessed it, The Necronomicon. Undoubtedly there is a reason for this, but I haven’t investigated beyond the Wikipedia entry. Apparently this ‘Book of the Dead’ is referred to occasionally throughout Lovecraft’s work as if it were a real occult book.

After he has returned to ‘normal’, Peaslee is haunted by unusually clear dreams of moving around in a stone building, built in curves and arches on an inhuman scale, as if for giants, sometimes feeling that he is floating or suspended. Often he sees an unknown curvilinear script; he uses the word curvilinear regularly. In the building, he sees enormous books on the shelves and giant stone pillar-like desks with jars of rods that appear to be used as writing implements.
As time goes on, he sees more detail, going outside, where he sees colossal buildings surrounded by lush wild gardens. The buildings have rooftop gardens with topiary, fernlike plants and giant varied fungi. There are also tall dark square-built basalt towers with a door but no windows and domed roofs, as well as other smaller squarish houses that have fallen into ruin. These black buildings somehow fill him with fear, as do sealed trapdoors in the basement of the original.

When he wakes from these dreams, he has a strange feeling of dread and disgust at his own body which he can’t place. Trying to make sense of all this, he researches other cases of people who seem to have had similar experiences. He comes up with a theory about a Great Race that learned to control time and were able to swap individual minds with peoples from other races and other times. In turn, they are scared of the malignant force hidden beneath the trapdoors. Yet he also theorises that all these dreams could come from his subconscious memories of myths he absorbed whilst studying under the influence of one of this Great Race. He is desperate to prove that he has really experienced what he dreams about, yet he is afraid to find out it is true. At least, I think that’s what happened. I became really confused about the timeframe and what he believed when.

Mixed feelings

This story is a strange mix of both extended vague psychologising/ theorising about what might have been going on on the one hand and oddly specific detailed listing on the other. Supposedly he gains more insight over time, but it could of course just be our protagonist Nathanial building up his psychotic dream into a more solid theory. This means that after pages of hallucinogenic theories about the Great Race exchanging minds in order to learn more about the universe, Lovecraft then launched into lists of races they have found out about:

“There was a mind from the planet we know as Venus, which would live incalculable epochs to come, and one from an outer moon of Jupiter six million years in the past. Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half-vegetable race of paleogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry prehuman Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the Arachnid denizens of Earth’s last age… […] I talked with…”

No! It can type this no longer! A picture is worth a thousand words.

This story is supposedly Nathaniel Peaslee’s full account to his son as he flees Australia by ship, fearing for his sanity. This after exploring a buried city covered by sand in the Australian desert that bears a remarkable resemblance to the city of his nightmares. As he visits alone, at night, with an inadequate torch, instead of waiting for morning and taking his team with him, his state of mind is hardly surprising. Of course, that makes it all the more creepy and racks up the tension.

Lovecraft’s writing style

This is the first Lovecraft I have read but I do know him by reputation. One of the issues mentioned by critics is his racism, but his attitudes were normal in his time, sadly. In Australia, he refers to blackfellows and natives and one of the characters who invites Nathanial to Australa dismisses their stories as nonsense. That is as far as it goes in this story. The other thing I had expected was purple prose. His style reminds me of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, from the excerpts I have read, but there are certain phrases that I feel are particularly Lovecraftian: leprous moonlight; the bloated, fungoid moon; malignant myth; eldritch; cyclopean. This story seems less leaden than the first one of his stories published in 1936 in this volume, The Mountains of Madness, which also mentions Abdul Alhazred. In fact, the writing style was so archaic that I had to keep reminding myself that it was written in 1936 and not by someone in the 19th century or earlier. That, I must say, is quite a feat, though it doesn’t make for easy reading.

Creepy not gory

As for the subject matter, horror is not a genre I usually read, but I would say this is more suspense than horror. I’m sure it could be extremely creepy if you read it on your own in a tent at night, by candlelight. There is nothing gory or gruesome about the story. The horror effect comes more from the way that he builds up the tension with his word choice, the repetition of detail and the fear of the unknown in the storyline, gradually unfolding.

Lovecraft’s legacy

I’m not sure why Lovecraft has such a following, given that the style is so Victorian. I suspect it’s partly that some people are attracted to his mythos-making powers; the sort of people who are attracted to the occult. But he also has a legacy in the authors who cite him as an influence (including Stephen King) and books and bands who use his characters as inspiration. My son was recently listening to a band called Leprous, for instance, one of his favourite words judging by this story. I have a sneaking suspicion the name may have been inspired by Lovecraft, back when the musicians were teenagers aspiring to be a ‘black metal’ band, whatever that means. They have evolved into more melodious prog rock, if you’re interested.

If I’m in the right mood for something weird, I might return to this Lovecraft collection in the future, but only because my son owns it. I was going to say that I only read it because I stubbornly finish what I’ve started reading, but that isn’t entirely true. I read it because I wanted to know what happened, so I was pulled in to the story. And although this is a standalone story, it was open-ended enough for me to suspect he continued to build on it in later stories, but I shan’t necessarily be following up that hunch.

Further reading

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. In fact, I’m more inclined to follow this by reading something more derivative. While I was writing this review, I checked Goodreads and up popped the suggestion of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, that I had already added to my wishlist after a friend’s enthusiastic review. Ruff’s book has also been made into a television series. Rather than simply rehashing Lovecraftian characters or themes, it combines them in the story of a Black family travelling in the USA during the Jim Crow era. It sounds fascinating.  As I haven’t read it, I’ll link to a community review by Bill Kerwin. Incidentally, I’ve now realised this is where I had heard about the Safe Negro Travel Guide I wrote about in my 1936 Club overview post. That’s one more thing my brain doesn’t have to puzzle over!

Kraken by China Mieville and The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. Another book that references Lovecraft’s Cthulhu is China Mieville’s Kraken, described by reviewer Lyn as a tribute to Lovecraft  in the style of Monty Python. I already have it on my shelf after trawling the fantasy shelves of Waterstones looking for a Christmas present for my son in less Covid-ridden times. When I get round to reading it, I will definitely be pairing it with John Wyndham’s classic, The Kraken Wakes. And that may be just the moment to read Lovecraft’s 1936 short novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, also included in the Necronomicon.

#1936Club – Blundering around the bookcase: finding books published in 1936

1936 was an eventful year and I found some interesting books published in 1936 for the #1936Club book challenge. Here’s what I found on my own shelves.

After taking part in the 1956 Club challenge, I was looking forward to hunting down some books on my TBR shelves for the next year chosen, which turned out to be 1936: the 1936 Club is born! Thank you to Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book for picking such an interesting year: unrest on the horizon, but pre-WWII. It was also a very eventful year, with the infamous Berlin Olympics, the Depression in full swing in the USA, the abdication of King Edward VIII, Beryl Markham was the first woman to fly the Atlantic, the Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder Dam) was completed and Crystal Palace burnt down. But what to read? I had plenty of time. I could read the books beforehand and line up some blogposts ready to go, surely… Full of enthusiasm, I did some research, made a 1936-club tab for my Goodreads page, started reading early and still didn’t manage to read them all. Here are my initial thoughts. I’ll be adding my reviews and updating the links here in the coming week, work and gardening commitments willing.

Books on my TBR shelves

I already had a few lined up on my shelves, but I discovered an unexpected one while perusing the shelves:

The Insect Man: Jean Henri Fabre by Eleanor Doorly, with an introduction by Walter de la Mare and the most wonderful woodcut illustrations by Robert Gibbings. This is a biography aimed at children and bought from my school library when it was selling off old stock. I seem to have been in a biography reading stage at the time because I believe I also bought a biography of Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine. This was also when I bought the book about the Pestalozzi Children’s Village that I read and reviewed for the 1956 Club.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby, published posthumously after she died tragically young. This is a semi-autobiographical novel set in rural Yorkshire, centring on the county council where all walks of life come together. This was given to me by a fellow BookCrosser together with Testament of a Generation, a collection of journalism by Holtby and her lifelong friend Vera Brittain, whose book A Testament of Youth made me a lifelong pacifist. I may very well have bought that at the same library sale; dangerous things, library sales. Sadly, Vera Brittain’s daughter, the indomitable politician and academic Shirley Williams, died on 11 April 2021 at the grand old age of 90. She was a worthy testament to her mother’s beliefs, so reading South Riding now seems perfect timing.

A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge. This is the first book in a trilogy set in a small rural country town where everybody knows everybody else’s business. Since the town has a cathedral, it is officially a city. In the books it’s called Torminster, but the author grew up in the similarly tiny rural city of Wells so it echoes the real place. This was a book that used to belong to my mother, who was the one to tell me about Elizabeth Goudge as The Little White Horse was her favourite book and was mine too, for a while. As one of the main protagonists is a young girl, it sometimes seems like a children’s book, but as one of the themes is mental health, desperation and suicide, though not too prominently, it is definitely aimed at adults. I did say I was going to read Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree for the 1956 Club, but that still hasn’t happened yet; it’s planned for June and my gardens theme.

Also on my shelves but unlikely to be read within the time frame (if at all) are Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece and The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, books 8 and 9 in the series. I discovered to my surprise in the 1956 Club that the books are more entertaining than I expected, but I have so many books I really do want to read and these aren’t going anywhere as they’re part of my husband’s permanent collection. Having looked at the back covers, The Sleepwalker’s Niece sounds like it all comes down to the “brilliant cross examination” in the court case, my least favourite part of this sort of book. The Stuttering Bishop, on the other hand, sounds like it’s going to be far more about detective work and interviewing suspects, which I usually enjoy far more. And who could resist the front cover tagline:

Bogus bishops. Gold-digging granddaughters. No one in this case is for real – except the corpse.

1936 books I’ve already read 

One book published in 1936 that I read years ago and has stuck in my mind is Peter Fleming’s News From Tartary, about a journey on the lesser-travelled southern silk route. I will try to add my review near the 1936 Club week.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. As one of my imaginary career options at the age of ten was to become a ballerina, I obviously read Ballet Shoes and several others by Noel Streatfeild. I still have it and am rather surprised it was written so long ago. Not to mention feeling perplexed to realise that I spent my entire life not noticing the odd spelling of the author’s name!

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I read this and loved it years ago, but was extremely disappointed by the film. After hearing about it my entire life, I found the first fifteen minutes so slow I turned off the television. I suspect I would feel the same way about the novel now, but it’s on my shelf, just in case I feel an uncontrollable urge to read it again. In actual fact, there is another reason to reread it with fresh eyes: when I first read it years ago, I was caught up in the romance. With a heightened awareness of race issues, it would be interesting to reread it from that point of view.

The Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. My son listened to some of these creepy stories online somewhere and treated himself to an 878-page doorstopper commemorative edition. Fortunately for me, only three of the stories were originally published in 1936:

  • At the Mountains of Madness – an Antarctic expedition, extremely verbose
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth – A Cthulhu tale; something fishy this way comes
  • The Shadow Out of Time – “After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17-18, 1935.” That’s the one for me!

Other books published in 1936

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek ticks all my boxes: it is on the 1001 list, it was written by an author from an interesting country (he was Czech), satirises many nationalities but especially the Czechs and Dutch (my adopted country) and it was already on my wishlist. However, it’s not on my shelf, so it will have to wait.

Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley. On the 1001 list and on my wishlist. I devoured A Brave New World as a teenager, but unfortunately I haven’t come across a copy of this, especially as the title is so intriguing.

The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green. First published in 1936, this was an annual guide book along the lines of a Michelin Guide, but instead of listing the best viewpoints or historical sites along the way, it listed places that it was safe for a person of colour to stay or stop to buy supplies en route. This was the era of the Jim Crow laws in the USA, so it also gave tips about places to avoid such as the so-called sundowner towns that were for whites only. I know I had read about this before and now I’ve found out where: it has turned up in a recent book review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. This sounds like a book I want to read.

One Thousand Ways to Make $1,000 by Frances C. Minaker. This was the book that inspired Warren Buffet, who must have been an overachiever because he claims to have read it when he was about seven and went on to become a multimillionaire.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munroe Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. This was a children’s picture book with a story about a little Spanish bull who preferred to sit under a tree and smell the flowers rather than fight. I will add a review to this soon.

So, there we have it! Unfortunately I haven’t found anything in Dutch or translated from any other language published in 1936. I’ll be looking forward to finding out what other people found.