"I wouldn't be a puddin'
If I could be a bird,
If I could be a wooden
Doll, I wouldn't say a word.
Yes, I have often heard
It's grand to be a bird.
"But as I am a puddin',
A puddin' in a pot,
I hope you get a stomachache
For eatin' me a lot.
I hope you get it hot,
You puddin'-eatin' lot!"
"Very well sung, Albert," said Bill encouragingly, "though you're a trifle husky in your undertones, which is no doubt due to the gravy in your innards. However, as reward for bein' a bright little feller we shall have a slice of you all round before turnin' in for the night." (42)
That was just a quick taste of The Magic Pudding, a text-heavy picture book (along the lines of "Alice in Wonderland," to which it is frequently compared) by Norman Lindsay that was recommended to me for my "Down Under" challenge by the blessed Lizzier on LibraryThing, and has proved to be one of the most delightful books I have read in some time. The sprightly, distinctly Australian world of The Magic Pudding has proved to be most similar to a Don Quixote or Faerie Queene in which the characters are a husky koala of distinctly Edwardian demeanor and diction (Bunyip Bluegum), a belligerent yet sprightly penguin named Sam Sawnoff, a former pseudo-pirate named Bill Barnacle, and their magic steak and kidney pudding that never diminishes (who prefers to be called Albert - "It soothes him" ). In other words, it is a rollicking, rambling adventure in which the characters alternate between battling those who covet their precious (if cantankerous and explosively insulting) pudding and breaking into jolly bouts of versifying.
They had a delightful meal, eating as much as possible, for whenever they stopped eating the Puddin' sang out -Thinking of other errant adventurers like the heroes (apologies for the gendered language, Britomart) of The Faerie Queene or The Wizard of Oz, for that matter, I inevitably began to wonder whether this was all some grand allegory for the state of the Australian nation. Is the battle for Albert (whose magic is the ability to regenerate himself continually, regardless of how much of him is eaten) in fact an examination over the drive to possess a monopoly on renewable resources? Surely the climactic scene, which takes place in a corrupt courthouse, where the judge cannot try their case because he is too busy eating Albert, examines the rapacious sluggishness of the legal system! Is the frequent use of the national anthem and declarations of loyalty to the monarch a portrait of the fraught imperialist relationship between "puddin' thieves" and "puddin' owners" (who themselves stole Albert from his creator before pushing him off an iceberg)? Is property, inevitably, theft?
"Eat away, chew away, munch and blot and guzzle,
Never leave the table till you're full up to the muzzle."
But at length they had to stop, in spite of these encouraging remarks, and, as they refused to eat any more, the Puddin' got out of his basin, remarking - "If you won't eat any more here's giving you a run for the sake of exercise," and he set off so swiftly on a pair of extremely thing legs that Bill had to run like an antelope to catch him up.
"My word," said Bill, when the Puddin' was brought back. "You have to be as smart as paint to keep this Puddin' in order. He's that artful, lawyers couldn't manage him. Put your hat on, Albert, like a little gentleman," he added, placing the basin on his head. He took the Puddin's hand, Sam took the other, and they all set off along the road. (22-23)
If it is a grand allegory, as so much children's fiction ultimately is, it is among the best in that its meaning is quite difficult to pin down. So we are left in a charmingly labyrinthine game of meaning making, marveling in the recalcitrance of the characters (who never fall into sentimentality or cuteness) and the charming oddity of the illustrations, which do as much work towards characterization as the text. A bandicoot carries a melon so large that it obscures every part of him but his legs, leaving the distinct impression that the melon is running away from our heroes on its own two feet. Sam Sawnoff displays his irrepressible zest for life (and "supreme contempt" for other creatures) by flipping over a walrus's head and balancing on his nose using a single wing (in a move that would easily qualify him for the Winter X-Games - he's got serious amplitude and really stomps the ending*). Or, in perhaps the best fusion of verse and illustration, Binyip Bluegum's koala Uncle Wattleberry (known for the egregiously Victorian "importance" of his whiskers) seeks to relieve his indignation at being interrogated as a potential puddin' thief by reciting a verse while "bounding and plunging," arms aloft in uncontained rage, much to the amusement of the wallabies and kangaroos who come out to watch this sport:
"You need not think I bound and plungeWholeheartedly recommended to parents, children, and whimsical childfree adults alike.
Like this in festive mood.
I bound that bounding may expunge
The thought of insult rude." (96)
The Magic Pudding: Being the Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff (Australia, 1918)
A Year of Down Under candidate!
Further bounding and plunging:
- An Etext exists at Project Gutenberg, if you would like to sample the joys of The Magic Pudding further, but it lacks the eccentric and in fact essential drawings. There is a New York Review edition with the illustrations in print, and you can buy it or take a look at it here: The Magic Pudding (New York Review Children's Collection).
- Lizzier tells me (in the LibraryThing link above) that The Magic Pudding is appropriate for ages 9 and older. I would say children who are tackling Alice in Wonderland without problems (or with parental assistance) should have no problems with this.
- The Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum features the work of this author. You can get an idea of the delights to be gleaned from Lindsay's illustrations of The Magic Pudding from this part of the site, which features a very cranky portrait of Albert the Pudding.
- Apparently Sam Neill played Lindsay in the 1994 film Sirens, of which I have only the vaguest of recollections.
- Wikipedia has entries for The Magic Pudding and Robert Lindsay. The latter entry alludes to the one serious blemish on The Magic Pudding's greatness, an anti-Semitic slur uttered late in the book by an admittedly none too attractive character. According to the article, this couplet is often excised from modern editions, although it was present in my 1968 "Jubilee" edition (the book was originally published in 1918).
- Very shortly after I posted this entry, I discovered larrikin's post on the Magic Pudding as national metaphor of Australia via MetaxuCafe. Metaphor it is, then.
*Did I mention that I love the Winter X-Games?