The Magic Pudding written and illustrated by Norman Lindsay, With an Introduction by Philip Pullman
A lot has been written about The Magic Pudding (Being the Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle & Sam Sawnoff), a classic children’s book in Australia. I even found a post relating the book to legalese and law treatises entitled aspects of symposiastic law in magic pudding – that I actually dread writing my thoughts about the book – seeing how much it has been turned into an icon in Down Under. Regardless, when I picked the book from our community library here in Singapore, I had no clue just how huge this book was received since it was published in the year 1918. Yes, nearly a hundred years old, and it still makes children and adults alike break out into hip-roaring
laughter, simply because It. Is. That. Good. That’s longevity. Hence, I feel that this would be a fitting end to our NYRB Special for this week, since we started with Frank Tashlin’s classic The Bear that Wasn’t – might as well read another children’s classic, fully celebrated in Australia.
NYRB reprinted this classic book in 2004 with an Introduction by the all-time favorite of GatheringBooks, Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials. The first paragraph in his introduction was enough to convince me that this was a worthwhile read:
“This is the funniest children’s book ever written. I’ve been laughing at it for fifty years, and when I read it again this morning, I laughed just as much as I ever did. There’s no point in trying to explain why it’s funny. If there’s anyone so bereft of humor that they can read these words and look at these pictures without laughing, then heaven help them, because they’re beyond the reach of advice, instruction, or despair.” (p. vii)
I have to agree unreservedly. This book has been a source of embarrassment for me each time I read it in a public place, I just can not help but chortle and cackle at the absurdity of what I am reading in the pages, I can’t believe it’s been written almost a hundred years ago.
Society of Pudding Owners and the Nefarious Puddin’ Thieves. I remember as a kid I had this Ladybird picture book of the Magic
Porridge Pot which is actually based on a folkloric German fairy story as retold by the Brothers Grimm. I am not sure which came first, but the Magic Pudding has essentially the same kind of premise except that the Pudding in Lindsay’s book is a crabby, ill-tempered, and disagreeable delicacy that takes pleasure in being rude to the people it meets. Thus, no matter how many slices you eat from this steak and kidney pie, there would always be something left for you to eat the next time around, hence it is called the “cut-an’-come-again Puddin.’” Amazingly, you won’t get tired of this little pudding (notwithstanding [or maybe even because of] its appalling manners) – because all you need to do is whistle twice, turn the basin round, and you’d have a change of food – from boiled jam roll to apple dumpling at that!
The book is divided into four slices, not chapters, because this book is meant to be eaten, delectable dish that it is. It all started when Bunyip Bluegum (who happens to have excellent oratorical-poetic skills, inspiring energies, and the diplomatic skills of a born mediator) decided to leave his Uncle Wattleberry to go see the world. Aside from wanderlust, this young traveler, being a neat, prim, well-mannered little fellow can not abide his Uncle’s whiskers which often got in the soup – he hates the fact that the whiskers were red, blew about in the wind, and turn their food to whisker soup – this troubled him so much, he had to leave their home. He was neither a Traveller nor a Swagman (both of which he couldn’t be because (1) he has no bags and (2) he doesn’t have a swag) – thus, a Wag is what he is called with his walking stick, strolling about the streets and the cities like a Gentleman of Leisure, ‘assuming an air of pleasure’ – as was advised to him by the Poet Rumpus Bumpus.
In the course of his travels, he realized he has nothing to eat, was hungry, and
about to head back home, when he met with his would-be-fellow-travelers, Bill Barnacle (a crusty old sailor) and Sam Sawnoff (the penguin whose “feet were so short and his body so long that he had to do both together”) dining on their pudding. And the rest as they say is history. Upon recognizing how upstanding, virtuous, and well-mannered Bunyip is, he was invited by Bill and Sam to be a member of the Noble Society of Puddin’ Owners. According to Bill, the duties and responsibilities of a member are quite light:
“The members are required to wander along the roads, indulgin’ in conversation, song and story, eatin’ at regular intervals at the Puddin’.”
Thus, the entire story is littered with never-ending songs about the sea, their adventures, or impromptu poems enunciated at the heat (or joy) of the moment – even something as mundane as having breakfast. Bunyip even remarked at one point that “singing at breakfast should certainly be more commonly indulged in, as it greatly tends to enliven what is on most occasions a somewhat dull proceeding.” Truly, I must agree. I should break out into a song tomorrow as my husband prepares French toast and cheese omelette for breakfast.
I searched youtube and voila, I found this Pudding Owner’s song that you can watch to have a feel of the book:
The plot of the story thickens as puddin’ thieves, Wombat and Possum come up with despicable schemes to steal the crass, uncouth, discourteous Pudding. And so the story jumps from regaining the pudding only to be stolen again and yet again by the villains in disguise – in tophats, fire helmets, and disguised as themselves, go figure! I believe once again that this is a read-aloud book to be read by a parent or a teacher, since some of the terms may be a tad difficult for young ‘uns to understand. A case in point would be the sophistic and gloriously grand way that Bunyip speaks, especially whenever their pudding gets stolen:
“ ‘Come, come, this is no time for giving way to despair. Let us, rather, by the fortitude of our bearing prove ourselves superior to this misfortune, and with the energy of justly enraged men, pursue these malefactors, who have so richly deserved our vengeance. Arise!”
This one here is also one of my favorites as they speak about the rhymes in their songs: “ ‘The exigencies of rhyme,’ said Bunyip Bluegum ‘may stand excused from a too strict insistence on verisimilitude, so that the general gaiety is thereby promoted.’”
As you can see, while grown-ups would have tears pouring out their eyes with laughter as they read how unbelievably absurd the scenarios are, kids would need to look up certain words in the big-bad-dictionary – unless they have a keen eye of comprehending meaning through context. I think that transition to classic reading such as these would need to be done strategically, especially if you’re not a native English speaker – at the risk of turning off kids entirely, because of the difficulty of the language. However, if read with panache, with so much theater, laughter – and love for the way the words roll out one’s tongue, chances are they’d love it as much as the reader does.
It would help if you’re quite familiar with the Aussie twang or manner of speaking, since it helps understand Bill Barnacle’s ‘mates’ and references much better. An example would be how Bill responded to the impudent Parrot when they asked him whether he has seen any puddin’ thieves lollygagging about and all the Parrot did was to squeeze out tobacco, tea, and sugar from the honorable society of pudding owners:
“ ‘Of all the swivel-eyed, up-jumped, cross-grained, sons of a cock-eyed tinker,’ exclaimed Bill, boiling with rage. ‘If punching parrots on the beak wasn’t too painful for pleasure, I’d land you a sockdolager on the muzzle that ud lay you out till Christmas. Come on, mates,’ he added, ‘it’s no use wastin’ time over this low-down, hook-nosed, tobacco-grabber.’”
As I was reading the near-tragic-comic dealings and misdealings as the pudding gets passed around from Bill to the Wombat to the anxious Mayor, the witless Constable, to the card-playing Usher, and tonic-drinking High Prosecutor – I was reminded of classic cartoons such as the Road Runner and Coyote and Tom and Jerry shows that I watch on Saturday mornings as a child. It has that childlike feel to it that never loses its humor regardless of the telling and retelling – as Pullman himself noted in his Introduction: “There’s an exuberance, a gusto all through the book that’s irresistible. You can feel Lindsay carried away on the wings of his own energy.”
Impact in Australian Society. Needless to say, this book has an enormous impact in Down Under, being considered a classic in children’s lit, and rightly so. There is even a useful module that can be used by teachers as they discuss this in their classrooms as could be seen here. More importantly, there is a Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum where you can see images,
sculptures, a veritable visual feast of the Pudding and all the characters found in the book. That is how HUGE it is. In fact, in one of the websites I have visited after I have read the book, it says that the first edition of the book was considered a limited edition art book costing the unlawful amount of £110, which Lindsay himself opposed: “I wouldn’t have minded if it had come out as a kids’ book, to be sold at a price that would allow the kid to tear it up with a clear conscience.’”
Norman Lindsay himself is quite a character as Pullman characterized in his introduction of the NYRB edition. He is known as a political cartoonist and was born in 1879 in Victoria, Australia. He has made it his life’s mission to constantly shock and antagonize what he calls the “wowsers” – said to be the Australian word for those uptight, narrow-minded, Puritanical, solidly-square, officious, pretentious (I can go on and on, you know – goes to show my free spirit can not be contained by this as well) individuals. He is considered a national institution and as Pullman beautifully stated ‘fathered a dynasty of Australian artists and writers.’
I was in Sydney, July of this year, and we did have a long road trip going to Blue Mountain – but because of the hale, we were unable to really go out and move around the area – hence it was smelling, but not really seeing Blue Mountain. Apparently, Norman Lindsay’s gallery with all the Magic Pudding characters could be found there. I feel bad now knowing I missed out on such an exciting tour. Regardless, The Magic Pudding is definitely a must-read for both children and adults. If not for this NYRB Reading week that Coffeespoons and Literary Stew organized, I would not have been introduced to classics in children’s literature such as this one. This book is a Treat in the literal sense of the word. Yummylicious, pageflickin’ great.
The Magic Pudding has also been made into a film, as you could see in the short video clip extract above, here is an interview with actors Hugo Weaving as Bill Barnacle and Sam Neill as Sam Sawnoff. Enjoy! Happy eating/reading!