“Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself. Mr. McGregor came up with a sieve, which he intended to pop upon the top of Peter; but Peter wriggled out just in time, leaving his jacket behind him.” (The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Frederik Warne & Co, 1902)
At Bewitched Reads we discuss children’s books that have an element of ‘magic’ to their plot, locations in the story, and/or characters. The tales of Peter Rabbit do not sit neatly in this category – although we could argue that Peter’s multiple transitions between wild rabbit and human-like rabbit, requires some kind of magical thinking – but we are including it here because Beatrix Potter has certainly cast a spell over her readers to keep them coming back to the stories of Peter and friends for more than a century.
So what is this magic? Is it that Peter has the ability to sip camomile tea, like any human can, in the safety of his home, but run wild, just as wild rabbits do, outside the home, causing chaos wherever he goes? Or is it that this world of talking animals, that wear human clothes, is authenticated by the presence of Potter’s narrative voice – we know there are ‘good little bunnies’ and ‘naughty little bunnies’ because she makes that judgment for us, appearing (although limited) with the narrative ‘I’ through the stories.
It could be argued that the ‘magic’, particularly for Potter writing within the restricting times of the Victorian period, is that young rabbits (children) have choices – to wear human clothes and obey the rules of the adult world, or lose the disguise and take some risks, just for the fun of it. In the early 1900s, it certainly would have taken some sort of ‘magic’ to allow Peter to ‘get away’ with disobeying his mother, putting his life at risk, for no other reason than knowing that he can.
Much has been said of the theme of disobedience in Potters stories, but perhaps the reason readers keep coming back to the tales is not because it is fun to see Peter break the rules, but more the exhilaration of a young rabbit – a child – being able to decide for himself whether to do as his mum says or test the boundaries and do the opposite. And what is even more exhilarating is that there is very little judgement that follows his decision or indeed punishment.
The lack of punishment for Peter chasing down vegetables in Mr McGregor’s garden (not for hunger, but just to see if he could) is also a hotly contested subject; is he punished with camomile tea for supper or soothed with tea, tucked up in bed with a cold after hiding in a watering can? Potter doesn’t tell us, but she clearly points out that outside of the home there are consequences; Peter could have been killed, put in a pie, just like his father.
The rather abrupt way in which Potter outlines the threats to Peter’s life, and indeed the fate of his father (very matter-of-fact!), is not something we would normally associate with writing for children. There is no sugar-coating or ‘suggesting’ what might happen, rather it is what it is, and if he dies doing a naughty thing, he dies, and that is life. This, of course, was part of Potter’s insistence that children should not be talked down to, because children, just like rabbits, can be wild and disobedient, and they will be at odds with a rule-governed adult world, and some, for the rest of their lives.
As a naturalist, however, Potter shows us that this is just part of being a normal child, not an abnormal one (as Victorian society would have us believe). Peter loses his clothes in the garden and appears as any wild rabbit does, running away from a human, so in this way, Peter’s actions are perfectly natural to his biology. But even then, there are risks, and any child needs to understand how far they can push their natural instinct for exploring the world before it gets dangerous.
The role of Mrs. Rabbit, as parent, is to point out the dangers in an honest way, and if the risk is taken, hope that they have learnt their lesson, rather than restricting their freedom further. But the ‘naughty’ bunny is still our hero, not the ‘good’ bunnies with their milk and berries for supper, so Potter understands that her readers are always going to opt for adventure over taking safety instructions for an adult.
Of course, this is only the first adventure of Peter Rabbit; in the Complete Adventures, we see him grow into an adult and face similar threats, but this time in the role of guardian to younger rabbits, in trouble not through naughtiness, but by simply being exposed to the outside world. Here, and particularly in The Tale of Mr. Todd, Potter revisits the idea that the home is safe and the outside world is dangerous. The role of parent is not to change the outside world to make it safer, but accept the dangers so that their young will also know of the risks.
Again this means that Peter and friends are not your typical heroes, in fact many of their victories are by happy accident or just good luck, but perhaps Potter is emphasising here that the outcome isn’t what she wants readers to focus on, but the journey – the adventure – and part of that is taking the good and bad, the luck and the accidents, and hoping that by at least being part of it, rather than watching from the sidelines, you come out of it having learnt something valuable.
And there lies the magic – in the unexpected adventure. Naughty or not, we are going to want to explore that garden and see Mr. McGregor frustrated in his attempts to catch us. We want to be scared, knowing that there is safety on the other side of the gate; we want to lose the uniform, knowing that we can put it back on when we need to ‘fit-in’ again. We want to be dutiful at home, but care-free when out from under watchful eyes. Peter and friends give their readers the feeling of freedom, limitation, danger, and safety, conflicting states of being that children need to learn and adults need to balance responsibly throughout life.
It is interesting coming back to the stories as an adult, as in amongst the TV series, films, soft toys, home decorations and much more, you often forget the very grown-up themes of the original stories. A bunny that can talk and wear human clothes, whilst daring to break the rules, is probably what children will most come away with, but to revisit the stories means to understand Potter’s powers as a writer for all ages, weaving her magic through generation after generation.
Recommended for a reading age of nine onwards.
The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter, F.Warne & Co, 2013