Incomparable parable

Bluebell Wood, Coed Cefn, Crickhowell

Dr Seuss: The Lorax
Random House 1971

Among the handful of books one of our granddaughters habitually chooses for me to read to her is this, reportedly the author’s favourite. Whether it’s the pictures, the words, the message or a mixture of some or all of these I haven’t asked, but it obviously appeals strongly to her. For the moment I’m happy that it clearly holds some magic for her, even at the age of six, and that now may not be the time to analyse how or why, only to recognise that it does.

The Lorax is an uncomfortable parable about the despoilation of our planet. It’s depressing that, half a century on, the moral of the tale has no more been learnt than it was by the Once-lers of our world back when it was first published:

UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

As with the tale of Pandora’s box, there is a soupçon of hope at the end, an indication that youngsters, if they’ve learnt from the mistakes made by their pig-headed elders, may be able to begin repairing at least some of the damage done.

The tale is told with Dr Seuss’ customary verve, wit and insight. A young lad is walking “at the far end of town | where the Grickle-grass grows” along to the Street of the Lifted Lorax. Who or what is the Lorax and how and why was he lifted? Only the Once-ler knows, and he lives closeted in his multi-storeyed Lerkim. For a measly payment he will tell you his multi-layered story.

The land was once pristine with colourful Truffula Trees, in among which flew Swomee-Swans, where Brown Bar-ba-loots frisked and Humming-Fish splashed. But the Once-ler began a production line knitting thneeds made from the soft tufts of the Truffula Trees.

What is a Thneed? It’s

a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!
It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove. It’s a hat…

(I’m not entirely sure it could function as a snood though who knows…)

But, like so much that’s manufactured in bulk, it’s not something that’s really needed—it’s frivolous, a fashion item, a passing fad. And, while the forest is rapidly being chopped down, the Lorax, guardian of the trees, warns of the imminent departure of the creatures. But does the Once-ler care?

I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out.

And of course the inevitable happens: all resources are finite; a polluted grey landscape is the result, denuded of trees and devoid of animal life.

The author sugars this otherwise bitter pill in his own inimitable style. The Once-ler is never fully revealed—he could be anybody, he could even be me or you. The Lorax is of a type with the figures of Yoda, Mr Miyagi or E Nesbit’s grumpy It. The buildings and machines have a Heath-Robinson look about them, the technicolor landscapes a more natural version of a Big Rock Candy Mountain. Simultaneously, the delight with words and rhymes is everywhere, not just the Lerkim and Thneed but also phrases like “smoke-smuggled stars” and “cruffulous croak”.

The Lorax’s repeated cry of I speak for the trees! has been very appropriately borrowed by environmentalists. Judging from the ill-advised trailer I suggest you skip the atrocious animated feature and read the original to yourself, to your offspring and to anyone who has ears but who so far seems to lack both common sense and a moral compass.


19 thoughts on “Incomparable parable

  1. This one certainly sounds like one that will have meaning for all ages, children’s book though it may be. There are plenty who need to be reminded that trees/nature is not something that’s merely a resource, or something one needs to ‘master’ or be away from as we tend to do in our concrete jungles. I’ve never read any Dr Seuss (I have seen bits from a few films, Horton, the Grinch) but this sounds like it might be a good place to start. Enjoyed this review 🙂

    1. I’d always go straight to the books, Mallika, and bypass the feature films—which all seem to me to be misguidedly padded out, the essential message buried in CGI pyrotechnics and pointless subplots.

      Why the industry feels the need to do this I have no idea, it’s as if they need to wipe away the charm of reading and the truth of the text with a saccharine substitute—when they have their own storyline, as in the Toy Story movies or in Up, they can be so much more emotionally effective.

      Do sample Dr Seuss—the world would be a better place if political parties adopted his texts as their manifestos!

      1. Sort of like a Disneyfied versions of fairy tales (any story really). I will pick up the books sometime. I’m sure the library had them when I was a child but I still don’t know why I never picked one up.

  2. piotrek

    Dr. Seuss was never very popular in Poland, but now it’s available and maybe I should introduce my nieces to his books… sound like a smart book with the correct message 🙂

    1. You would please your nieces to pieces if you read them Dr Seuss! Try them with Green Eggs and Ham and the incomparable The Cat in the Hat in addition to this work.

      That the author still has an essentially political resonance is evidenced by this tweet, for example:

      1. piotrek

        What a smart, brave girl! My nieces also participated in a few demonstrations, and the oldest learned some slogans she was happy to shout during our walks for months after… it was great!

        I’ll add Dr Seuss to my list of books, I have to get them 🙂

        1. Mystifying (though it shouldn’t have been) why so many comments complained about the perceived ‘child abuse’ — of ‘forcing’ the girl to wave a political placard — rather than the immoral and scandalous actions of a country’s leader.

          My advice is not obtuse,
          You should sample Dr Seuss!
          Do not ask or wonder why:
          He will make you laugh and cry
          At our success and epic fails —
          And he tells the bestest tales!

  3. Lovely review, Chris. Unfortunately what has been narrated in the story did really happen in the past on Easter Islands. The inhabitants of those islands used all the trees and resourses to make the Mohais, destroying the entire ecosystem and eventually their civilization.

    1. Yes, I agree, there is that as an example. However, I know the author drew the ire of logging firms in the States when this was first published because they saw it as an unveiled attack on them, so I think Dr Seuss had example closer to hand to draw on.

      Of course, it’s even worse now, as we know from the continued depredations in the Amazonian, Indonesian and other rain forests for palm oil plantations (and similar). The sight and plight of distressed orang-utans clinging to the last trees is hard to view.

  4. People don’t really think of Dr Seuss stories as carrying a message, but so often they do.

    A feature more faithful to the original story is here:

    I found it delightful.

    1. Thanks for this, Leslie. It certainly is closer and more faithful to the original, but the jolly music of the soundtrack rather contradicts the darkness of the book, don’t you think? But I agree about the implicit message in many of his stories, rarely spelt out but told amusingly enough for young readers (of whatever age) not to feel they’re being beaten around the head with the moral.

  5. “For the moment I’m happy that it clearly holds some magic for her, even at the age of six, and that now may not be the time to analyse how or why, only to recognise that it does.”

    This caught me. I don’t have kids, but your take here sounds wise. The magic is challenged too soon….

    1. Thanks, Laurie, I really appreciate what you say. The key to so many fine stories is the evocation of empathy, and that emotion is rarely stirred by by guilt-tripping, but most often comes about by allowing a child’s imagination do the work and make the magic happen.

  6. I only saw the animated movie, but I did get acquainted with The Cat in the Hat, albeit at a mature age 😉 Dr Seuss’ stories roll nicely off the tongue, it seems like a great book to read aloud 🙂

    1. It really is a great book to read aloud to a spellbound young audience, Ola. That twofold sensual appeal — the words spoken and the idiosyncratic but expressive illustrations — is I believe what makes the Seuss books so effective.

    1. I was only aware of this since having grandkids, but as this was written at the height of the Vietnam war no doubt the author was well aware of the use of herbicides and defoliants as well as carpet bombing with which the US devastated vast swathes of that country’s rain forest.

      1. Ah, yes, that makes sense. I’m going to have to track this one down, though my nieces and nephews have outgrown him now, so I’ll just be brazen, and admit I enjoy his style.

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