Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales and Bad Child’s Book of Beasts

I remember the first time I read John Senior’s Death of Christian Culture. That it ended with a reading list was, well, something of a surprise. There was everyone you would expect—Dickens and Scott, Austen and Wister—and some I had never met. But what struck me the most were the unknown titles from authors I already enjoyed. I had been reading Belloc for years and I had never seen mention of the Bad Child’s Book of Beasts or Cautionary Tales.

It turns out that it is somewhat standard when introducing Belloc’s historical writing or cultural criticism to point out that he was famous chiefly for writing children’s books. What is more, besides a volume of mature poetry, the Bad Child’s Book was one of Belloc’s first published work, selling thousands of copies—a rather interesting start for a twenty-six year-old amateur.

Without going into too much biography, let me simply say that Belloc is incredibly funny. He has, of course, the reputation of being pugnacious, a bit irascible, and argumentative—and he is all those things and more.  The reputation is rooted in reality; anyone who was read The Path to Rome knows of what I speak.

This is really a review of two separate books, but Dover has done us the service of reprinting both of them in one edition. Not only that, but they have preserved the illustrations of Basil T. Blackwood, a college friend of Belloc’s. These illustrations are essential to the joy of the works as Belloc intended. If you are printing off individual poems from the Internet with only text, you can be sure you are stoking his ire from the other side of the veil.

Why should I attempt to introduce the Bad Child’s Book when Belloc has done so himself?

I call you bad, my little child,
Upon the title page.
Because a manner rude and wild
Is common at your age.

The Moral of this priceless work
(If rightly understood)
Will make you—from a little Turk—
Unnaturally good.

Senior locates this book in the “Nursery,” which is for children generally two to seven years of age. This seems about right; the poems are often short—sometimes only two lines—and you can get through a reading of the whole thing in a quarter of an hour, replete with obligatory requests to read certain passages again.

Every “beast” or animal has his own poem, and the lines are simple, wonderful, and perhaps most important, they lend themselves to memorization well. Consider the example of the Marmozet (sic):

The species Man and Marmozet
Are intimately linked;
The Marmozet survives as yet,
But Men are all extinct.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are some peculiar modern writers who use poems like this as evidence that Belloc was really writing for adults, not children. Pay them no heed. If you would take their word over John Senior’s, you should probably find a different site to read.

Belloc would follow this work with several other books for children, such as More Beasts for Worse Children in 1897 and A Moral Alphabet in 1899. These are delightful as well, but harder to find. There was a gap of eleven years between The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and Cautionary Tales, during which Belloc was occupied penning several dozen books in other genres.

Cautionary Tales is based on a literary model common in the nineteenth century. Like many of the old fairy tales, the plot is straightforward: a forbidden act or place is introduced, a character who disregards this warning comes along, and then the consequences are apparent to all. Belloc does not hide much in the titles of the poems: “Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion”; “Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death”; and my personal favorite: “Lord Lundy, Who was too Freely Moved to Tears, and thereby ruined his Political Career.”

I should point out that Senior recommends this work for children of a slightly older age—seven to twelve years old—though I suspect this is only because the poems are a bit longer. The illustrations remain.  If your five-year-old finds them boring, you could always try singing them. (Lest you think I am jesting, apparently some British contralto did quite well touring England and singing these.)

In the end, it seems the world knows a different Belloc than Catholics do. But there is no reason this should be so. If it is easier than ever to destroy a child’s sense of wonder, we can be glad these classics are part of our tradition. And, more importantly, we can say to our children, with Belloc the poet:

And when your prayers complete the day,
Darling, your little tiny hands
Were also made, I think, to pray
For men that lose their fairylands.

By

James Vogel has an MA in Philosophy from Holy Apostles Seminary and College and is Editor of Angelus Press. He lives in St. Mary's, KS, with his wife and children.

  • Pat Kendziorski

    In my misguided teens, I discovered the above treasures. Being of the same mental age today, I still recite several “Cautionary Tales” from memory with my phony British accent. My grandchildren are polite.

  • Bob Drury

    About  half century ago I  read the introductory verse of one of these books, but have never come across it again.  The poems were about evildoers, who are punished in  this life.  It went something like this: But is it true?  It is not true. And if it were, it wouldn’t do for such a one as me or you, who very nearly all day long is doing something rather wrong.

  • sam graff

    I’m buying this book for a three-year-old friend who, when told to say “Thank you, God” in his evening prayers, says, “No thank you, God.”

  • Christopher Check

    Thank you Brother James for doing the good work of spreading the word concerning this brilliant volume, a standard in the nursery at New Top Meadow.  Our third boy immediately took to and memorized this gem:

    Talking (and Singing) of the Nordic Man

    I
    Behold, my child, the Nordic man,
    And be as like him, as you can;
    His legs are long, his mind is slow,
    His hair is lank and made of tow.

    II
    And here we have the Alpine Race:
    Oh! What a broad and foolish face!
    His skin is of a dirty yellow.
    He is a most unpleasant fellow.

    III
    The most degraded of them all
    Mediterranean we call.
    His hair is crisp, and even curls,
    And he is saucy with the girls. Peace and Good.Christopher Check

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