How is it possible that I have never heard of The Magic Pudding before? It was published in 1918 so it has been around, and in print, for a jolly long time, there is nothing dated about, it is funny – laugh out loud funny – and it has illustrations by the author (Norman Lindsay) that are the equal of Shepard or Tenniel. And let’s not forget the fact of it being an Australian book – coming from just over the Tasman you would expect it to have a little fame here.
Dealing with each of my points above:
1. It has been around for a long time. Well, in 2018 it will one hundred years old. In Australia there is a Norman Lindsay museum, and the latest edition of the book is published by the New York Review’s Children’s Collection with an introduction by Philip Pullman. Most pleasingly I have discovered that Lindsay wrote the book on a dare. A friend told him that children only liked to read about faeries, and he thought children liked to read about food and fighting. Perhaps all children’s books that are from, or look towards the Victorian and Edwardian era are somewhat about faeries, food and/or fighting… Peter Pan, Narnia, Alice, Harry Potter.
2. There is nothing dated about it. I mean, look at the first page:
We then get the sideways view, and the rear view of our hero (and his Uncle), which is all terribly postmodern.
To use that ridiculous term.
I think it was Umberto Eco who pointed out the fallacy of post-modernism. That it was not in fact some cutting edge trend, but a style of writing that has been around for an awfully long time, and that underwent a great upswing in popularity in the 1990s. The surge in popularity caused academics to think they were in the midst of something new, but books that are self-conscious have been around for a while. Tristram Shandy is a famous early example in English, but there are plenty more – especially among children’s books which have always been a little freer to play games with conventions.
3. It is very funny.
“One of the great advantages of being a professional puddin’-owner,” said Sam Sawnoff, “is that songs at breakfast are always encouraged. None of the ordinary breakfast rules, such as scowling while eating, and saying the porridge is as stiff as glue and the eggs as tough as leather, are observed. Instead, songs, roars of laughter, and boisterous jests are the order of the day. For example, this sort of thing,” added Sam, doing a rapid back-flap and landing with a thump on Bill’s head. As Bill was unprepared for this act of boisterous humour, his face was pushed into the Puddin’ with great violence, and gravy was splashed in his eye.
“What d’yer mean, playin’ such bungfoodlin’ tricks on a man at breakfast?” roared Bill.
“What d’yer mean,” shouted the Puddin’, “playing such bungfoodling tricks on a Puddin’ being breakfasted at?”
“Breakfast humour, Bill, merely breakfast humour,” said Sam, hastily.
“Humour’s humour,” shouted Bill, “but puddin’ in the whiskers is no joke.”
4. It is wonderfully illustrated.
Norman Lindsay was an artist, and from a family of artists. Apparently he is the loose basis of the artist character in the movie Sirens, otherwise (in)famous as the screen debut of Elle Macpherson. Aside from war propaganda posters and saucy pictures of ladies in the buff, he produced reams of art in most genres it would appear. What I love about the illustrations in The Magic Pudding is that they are not just detailed, accurate drawings of animals and people, but that they are so full of life.
Look how composed this little scene is, how all the focus is on one spot, but also look at Barnacle Bill and his wonderful hands.
This is a fantastic book. Fantastic.