“Once upon a time, there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter…” so begins a series of delightful tales of the lives and adventures of woodland creatures and farm animals. Penned by Beatrix Potter at the turn of the 20th century, these examples of good imaginative literature have retained their charm and attractiveness to children and adults a century after their publication. The first title in the series, and the only one with which many deprived readers are familiar, is The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
The story relates the misadventures of Peter Rabbit, who lives with his mother and sisters in a sand-bank near the edge of a wood. Peter, quite the naughty little rabbit, disregards his mother’s injunctions and ventures into the nearby gardens belonging to Mr. McGregor. In the course of the tale, Peter is discovered by the farmer, who pursues the young intruder throughout the extensive gardens. In his frantic attempts to save himself, Peter must navigate the walled garden with its various dead-ends and pitfalls and discern which of the other animals can be safely relied upon for help.
Avoiding the strident tones of a moral fable, the authoress successfully renders the moral order within the action of the plot. After feasting upon Mr. McGregor’s peas and carrots, Peter happens upon the farmer himself and is pursued with cries of “Stop, thief!” Peter, though narrowly escaping a sad end at the hands of the farmer, suffers as a result of ignoring his mother’s admonishment; whereas his obedient sisters are rewarded with “bread and milk and blackberries for supper.”
Morality is not the end of the tale – delight is – but because this is good fiction it faithfully imitates life, and imaginative stories about rabbit families who wear clothes and brew tea still do not lose touch with reality. Mr. McGregor’s garden truly is a dangerous place for rabbits to forage: we discover that Peter’s own father was “put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor” (complete with illustration). In the story of Peter Rabbit and its sequels, rabbits are garden pests, piglets jittery, foxes sly, and chickens dumb.
Stories intended for children of such young age rarely contain language as beautiful and varied as in Peter Rabbit. Variety in sentence construction and length abounds. The authoress shuns baby language and over simplification; rather she employs a simple but elegant style which instructs as it delights. Thus, the friendly birds who come to Peter’s rescue “implore him to exert himself” before Mr. McGregor should overtake him. A sure sign of a well-written children’s book is that adults can enjoy its prosody.
The size of the Peter Rabbit books is a feature upon which Potter insisted during their original publication, so that a child could easily manipulate the book himself. The small volumes published by Frederick Warne are therefore considered the definitive text for any of the Peter Rabbit stories; eschew the giant treasuries. Many of the latter tomes lack clarity and definition in the illustrations, some of which are omitted altogether.
The crowning glory of Peter Rabbit is the delightful artwork generously accompanying the text. Neither cartoonish nor minimalist, the beauty of these illustrations lies in their deft combination of lifelike accuracy and imaginative whimsy. In Peter Rabbit, familiar domestic scenes and realistic depictions of the natural world converge: one page depicts Peter’s mother putting him to bed for his convalescence, another portrays the white cat staring at some goldfish, while only “the tip of her tail twitched as if it were alive.” Seeing the mundane world transformed into the realm of scolding rabbit mothers, alluring forbidden gardens, disobedient rabbit boys, and cozy rabbit holes charms the reader into fascination with the familiar things. Through the wondering eyes of the explorer, the young reader begins to discover the world around him with fresh imaginative delight: he smiles when he spots a rabbit “scuttering underneath the bushes,” or stops to listen as a sparrow blurts out some nervous twitter.