Penguin, 9780141036137, £7.99
A fairy story. Which I haven’t read for over 35 years. Partly because when I was a child it seemed such a bleak and hopeless book. I read 1984 at the same time and together they influenced my worldview – authority is the enemy and the masses are blindly walking into the atrocity exhibition. The unthinking masses, that is. The message of both books seemed to be ‘keep thinking, don’t trust anyone, don’t trust any politics or philosophy that gives power to any elite, don’t expect to win your freedom but don’t ever take it as a right’.
Now I’ve re-read it, and all sorts of other thoughts have arisen. I haven’t researched any of this, so all the connections I’m about to fashion have probably fuelled many an academic monograph and I’m not making any claims to original thought here, but maybe the knowledge borne from years of reading has some value after all.
So, we have this tale of tails a-spinning, of a revolution – a full cycle – that turns from the workers being oppressed by a traditional elite to their being equally subjugated by the leaders chosen to orchestrate their liberation. Perhaps I have been listening to too much Billy Bragg, but the phrase ‘the world turned upside-down’ jumped out at me in the final pages of the book. It comes at the moment that pig Napoleon is seen by the animal workers standing on two feet, dressed and with a whip in his trotter. My first thought was that, following Bragg and Leon Rosselon, this was Orwell making a point about the crushing of the agrarian revolution of the Diggers. That seemed to fit well with the animals’ purpose for the original revolution – to work the land for themselves and to hold all things in common. However, it soon became clearer that Rosselon was writing post Christopher Hill’s influential book The World Turned Upside Down and that if Orwell was using this phrase as a deliberate reference then he was relating it to either the 1647 pamphlet and/or the 1650 ballad of the same title. The pamphlet is the more obvious choice, written to highlight the continued oppression of the common people by the very Parliament they had fought for to liberate them from the tyranny of an absolutist monarch, it describes a world where everything is topsy-turvy: rats chase cats, rabbits chase dogs, fish fly, the wheelbarrow pushes the man and the horse whips the cart. Natural law has been inverted but the law of competition stays the same. The emphasis on animal behaviour and fable in the pamphlet tie in perfectly with the fairy story revolution in Animal Farm. The ballad isn’t about animals but a lament at the abolition by the Puritans of Christmas festivities (oh, yes, as you may well know, I’m no fan of the Reformation, but this is one decree I could live with). At one point the ballad queries why it is acceptable to ban praising the birth of the Prince of Peace but fine to celebrate the destruction of another town and the death of a thousand men. This seems to fit with Orwell’s satire of skewed responsibilities and totalitarian philosophies, as does the ballad’s sadness over the loss of the Christmas feast – one of the few times when the plenty of the land was shared in abundance among all.
Reading Animal Farm in the light of such an English context, and not concentrating on Orwell’s Spanish civil war experience or the much documented parallels with Stalin and the Russian revolution, got me looking back at other influences – for example I was struck by how the descriptions of the drudgery of the animals chimed with the precarious lives of the workers at the mercy of the whims of greedy overlords in Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Tressell’s classic is as sprawling as Orwell’s is concise, but they share a cutting representation of the impoverished and politically powerless underclass being ground down by the institutionalisation of corruption in the very authorities which are meant to serve them.
This led me into some very English musing. The character of the donkey Benjamin in Animal Farm is so similar to Milne’s Eeyore: stoical to the point of cynicsim, centred on his own survival, never looking beyond the next impending disaster, grumpy and isolated, that I began to wonder if Orwell having a pop at the complacency of the Pooh stories middle-class whimsy. Perhaps I’m stretching this way too far, but the plodding, dim farm horse Boxer shares similar shambling heroic qualities with the honey-munching, day-dreaming bear Pooh. The tame raven Elijah embodies a certain inscrutable wisdom (twaddle) and a go-between connection between the animals and humanity that puts me in mind of the pompous Owl. Farmer Jones is a cruel corruption of Christopher Robin’s benign dictator while the pigs, en masse, are a screaming, life-sucking antithesis of the small, single innocent that is Piglet. Squealer twists Piglet’s high pitched wheedling into the very essence of demonic sloganeering, Snowball mirrors his capacity for worrying about the future and Napoleon is the figure of the insecure weakling turned ferocious bully. If there is a relationship between the Pooh stories and Animal Farm then perhaps Orwell is firstly trying to counter the ‘rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and low and ordered their estate’ attitude that seems to underpin the world of the Hundred Acre Wood and secondly he is attacking Milne’s glorification of childish innocence to airbrush out the utter horror of the Great War. For Orwell the violence of war and revolution is a necessary aspect of the struggle for equality, but it must be violence directed by the people for the benefit of the people.
Of course, I may well be reading in all sorts of interpretations that the author never intended – but the simple fact that such a brief novella has set so many resonant trails vibrating is testimony to the lasting power and the fearsome energy of Orwell’s writing.