We have read this wonderful pair of books by Julia Donaldson countless times. What’s not to love about a tiny mouse who preys upon the fears of his predators with a bit of imagination and consistently catchy couplets? When it turns out that there is such a thing as a Gruffalo, the mouse has to think fast! In the sequel, the “Big Bad Mouse” is the bogeyman conjured up to keep the Gruffalo’s daughter away from the “deep dark Wood.” When the Gruffalo’s Child sneaks out to see for herself, the mouse has to think fast … again! Axel Scheffler’s illustrations offer additional details that my young readers love (cavewall drawings of Snake, Owl, Fox, and Mouse, for example). For the adult reader, the exquisite politeness of Mouse, Fox, Owl, Snake, and Gruffalo point to familiar social menaces and solutions more than to “nature red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson 57.15). What grown-up hasn’t wanted to conjure up a gruffalo of an excuse to escape an unwanted lunch invitation at least once in her or his life?
But I keep coming back to Donaldson for her note-perfect poetic meter, which is an integral part of the storytelling. Good poetry lays down a beat and then varies it in meaningful ways. The Gruffalo is mainly iambic and dactylic, invoking patterns children know well. (An iamb is one unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat: da DA. A dactyl is a stressed beat followed by two unstressed beats: DA da da.) Say these two dialogic couplets out loud to hear the dactyls tripping along decorously:
[Fox] Where are you going to, little brown mouse?
Come and have lunch in my underground house.
[Mouse] It’s terribly kind of you Fox, but no —
I’m going to have lunch with a gruffalo.
All very polite and light, until the mouse brings up his imaginary pre-arranged lunch date. The mouse forces Fox off the social script.
[Fox] A gruf–fa–lo? What’s a gruf-fa-lo?
With the two interrogatives (the first one a non-sequitur or non-sentence), the meter abruptly shifts to spondees (two stressed syllables), which I’ve marked in bold. There are many ways to read this line (and I’ve tried them all over the course of reading this book aloud several hundred times), but the words seem to come out best as querulous spondees. To me, the change of meter signals an irruption into the normal flow of social dialogue. The mouse inserts a surprising piece of information. The Fox can’t help but ask — just as Owl and Snake will do in the subsequent pages.
The mouse is in control of the social dialogue from this point on. First, he gets to complete Fox’s incomplete half-line:
A gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know?
In studies of Shakespeare’s verse by theatre practitioners, there’s general consensus that shared half-lines indicate haste, with the second speaker jumping in to finish the line (Rokison). In this case, the mouse feigns exclamatory surprise (“A gruffalo!”) and shames his interlocutor with the implication that Fox is outside a knowledge community (“Why, didn’t you know?”). Without much time to think, the mouse resorts to a repeated adjective rather than specifics of the gruffalo’s appearance:
He has terrible tusks, and terrible claws,
And terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.
The mouse will elaborate these details in his next encounters (with Owl and Snake), when he’s had more time to conjure up the vision of the Gruffalo. But this moment, when the mouse is only beginning to imagine his Gruffalo, always makes me laugh. “Terrible” is the best he can do — four times! Technically, the repetition of “terrible” is an instance of “diacope.” Silva Rhetoricae defines diacope as “Repetition of a word with one or more between, usually to express deep feeling.” The mouse is certainly feeling something deep: fear of being eaten by Fox! And so he is both in control of the exchange and not entirely in control of the image … yet. When he does fully master the idea of a gruffalo, the Gruffalo (now with an uppercase G) materializes in front of him, a new terror to be managed.
The mouse’s bravado and quick thinking are deeply pleasurable precisely because they come from a place of vulnerability. He is vulnerable to things bigger than he is, to veiled threats that seem like kindness (“tea,” “lunch,” “a feast”), and, finally, to his own imagination. To a child trying to parse a world full of bigger people, mysterious requests, and nameless fears, the mouse is an achievable heroic model.
This exchange in The Gruffalo should remind you of another question-and-answer nursery rhyme, also in alternating dactylic lines:
Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.
I like to think of The Gruffalo as the mouse’s revenge. Ultimately, The Gruffalo is an instance of the “world turned upside down” motif, where normal hierarchies are inverted.
In the lower left-hand corner, you can see a crudely drawn mouse or rat chasing a cat — part of a series of inversions (fish swimming in the air, a man’s hands where his feet should be, a horse pushing a cart). Such images, popular in Renaissance Europe long before their appearance on this 1646 title page, often include children instructing their teachers or blessing their parents. The mouse’s triumph over Fox, Owl, Snake, and, ultimately, the most terrible thing he can imagine, is the triumph of the child. And it all plays out in mutually supporting ways at the level of narrative, image, and verse.
Burton, Gideon. Silva Rhetoricae. http://rhetoric.byu.edu/.
Donaldson, Julia. The Gruffalo. Ill. Axel Scheffler. London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0333710937.
Donaldson, Julia. The Gruffalo’s Child. Ill. Axel Scheffler. London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2005. ISBN 978-1405020466.
J., T. The World Turn’d upside down: or, A briefe description of the ridiculous Fashions of these distracted Times. London, 1646.
Rokison, Abigail. “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse Line.” The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry. Ed. Jonathan Post. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 285-305. DOI 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199607747.013.0024. See section 16.2, “Shared Lines.”
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. In Memoriam A. H. H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII. 1850. Text from Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poems, ed. Hallam Lord Tennyson and annotated by Alfred Lord Tennyson. London: Macmillan, 1908. Available in digital diplomatic transcription at Representative Poetry Online. Ed. Ian Lancashire. Toronto: University of Toronto Libraries, 1998.