Friday, May 18, 2012

Intertextuality and Pigs

"I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals." - Winston Churchill

     Freddy the Pig is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant and enjoyable characters in children's literature. The brainchild of writer Walter R. Brooks in 1927, the curly-tailed, talking barnyard porker became the lead character in 26 novels from 1927 to 1958. Get your hands on a few of them if you've not read them before. They've got all of the freshness of modern children's books without all of the cringe factor. The depth of character and story development alone is fantastic, and they're nuanced with subtle morals you'll never find in today's books. 
    The stories follow a group of colorful barnyard animals on a New York farm famous because its animals openly speak English. The owners of this farm, a Mr. and Mrs. Bean, are quiet, respectable folk who admire their animals, but give them generous autonomy and tend to stay out of the way. The books follow Freddy, the pig detective, poet, banker, news writer, and dandy; as he turns cowboy, pilot, magician, and others on his various adventures. Brooks is a relatively obscure author, but his work can be found in most libraries.
    It was with no thoughts of Freddy the Pig--the stories of which I had not returned to in over a year--that I picked up George Orwell's famous satire, Animal Farm. Finishing the chilling tale in two days, I was beginning to hold suspicions. Could Freddy the Pig, one of my old favorite series, be a shameless caricature of Orwell's masterpiece?
    Animal Farm is an allegorical piece that, through the story of an animal uprising, the overthrow of human control, and the slow slide back to a condition worse than human treatment, mirrors the natural human progression from monarchy, through revolution, to democracy, to social democracy, to communism, to totalitarian fascist despotism. And who's to blame? Why the pigs of course. Talking, costume-wearing, poetry-loving pigs. Sound familiar? Just read Orwell's Animal Farm next to Brook's 1939 Freddy the Politician, and a profound sense of parody is immediately apparent. From mere phrases like "chalk gripped between the knuckles of his trotter" to broad concepts like the "First Animal Republic" in Freddy and the "Republic of the Animals" In Animal Farm. Not to mention the woodpeckers' plot to create a dictatorship in Brook's work that very nearly follows Napoleon the pig's plot in Animal Farm; and the common theme of pigs walking on two legs.
    If you're still reading, I'm impressed. I'm sure not very many people would get quite this excited over two seemingly unrelated books. But for a fan of Freddy the Pig like myself, the possibility that it was inspired by Orwell was intriguing.
    I did a date check, and I was surprised to find that Animal Farm was written a full six years after Freddy the Politician. Perhaps, I conjectured, it was the other way around. Perhaps Orwell had been inspired to write his famous, stinging political satire by an obscure children's book written by an even more obscure American author.
     Some quick internet research proved that I'm certainly not the only one to have observed the similarities. Several less-than-credible sources hold that Orwell's piece is nothing less than a "humorless parody" of Freddy the Politician. It seems I wasn't the first to draw the connection, but I am the first, I hope, to admire Orwell for his blatant thievery. T.S. Eliot once said that, "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Stealing is the drive behind the expansion of a textual network. Brooks himself is seen to retaliate with his own 1956 intertextual installment of the Freddy series, Freddy and Simon the Dictator, in which even the all-knowing Wikipedia agrees has plot elements "similar" to Orwell's 1945 Animal Farm. It follows in the vein of revolution as a band of rats stirs up rebellion among farm animals who, in a sweeping uprising, overthrow human control in farms across New York.
     Of course, using the word "steal" like Eliot did, is too strong and tainted a word for such a commendable practice; and literary "transformation" is what most prefer to call it. It's what Tom Stoppard does when he rewrites Shakespeare, and it's what VeggieTales does to Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings. But these are extreme cases. Most experts will say that all literary work is transformation of earlier texts. At once, this begs the question of originality. If all work is inspired by a competence built by other work, can a writer really pull something completely "new" out of his brains? These same experts will say that there is no such thing as pure originality; that every piece of literature is, at some fundamental level, a transformation of countless other pieces of art. But what about at the beginning of time? There must have been some spark of originality to set the intertextual ball rolling. Of course, I got smacked down for irrelevance by a professor after bringing this up. It's a touchy subject without appealing to the notion of God. With God in the picture, it's easy to see that first divine spark of creativity placed in man--that breath of life that turned dust into humanity and separates men from pigs--is where the first originality came from. Humankind has the ability, not to create new things, but to continually transform what God has given us.
     God is like the Mr. Bean in the Freddy tales. He's invested in the lives of his animals, yet he provides them with free will and the independence to have their own adventures. It's only when the animals grow discontent that things start to go downhill. Orwell illustrates this fact wonderfully. 


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