As we continue to celebrate “Tales of War & Poetry, Refuge & Peace” I knew that these two powerful books would be good companion books as one reads about soldiers, generals, the consequences of war, and its flowery alternative.
The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman
Written and Illustrated by: Raymond Briggs
Published by: Little, Brown and Company, 1984
Book borrowed from the NIE Library, Book photos taken by me.
I learned about Raymond Briggs through Janet Evans who gave a short talk in my institution a few years back. I am glad that most of Briggs’ picturebooks are found in our library, as most of them seem to be out-of-print now. This particular book is an allegorical tale about two heads of states who are at odds with each other. They fought tooth and nail, or metal to iron in this particular case, to prove one’s might over the other, notwithstanding the maimed and dead bodies and destroyed lands in their wake as collateral damage.
The book begins with a description of a sad little island where a few poor shepherds live. They are said to spend their time counting their sheep and having mutton for breakfast, dinner, and even tea.
Now there lived a Tin-Pot Foreign General who lived next door to this sad little island. He is described by Briggs as “not real.” He is not made of flesh and bones but of Tin Pots. And with Briggs’ trademark biting wit and penchant for parody, and capacity to simplify things for what they are showing the comic and the tragic in events such as foreign conflicts, Briggs captured this tin-pot foreign general’s motivation to invade the sad little island:
Now, this Tin-Pot Foreign General wanted to be Important. He wanted to do something Historical, so that his name would be printed in all the big History Books.
So, one day, he got all his soldiers and all his guns and he put them into boats. Then he sailed them over the sea to the sad little island.
Now when an old woman who lived far away over the sea heard that this Tin-Pot Foreign General ‘bagsied’ the little island for his own, she flew into a rage, threw a fit more like it.
Now the thing is, this old woman, who was not real either but made of iron, had far more resources than the Tin-Pot Foreign General. And so she poured out all her resources … literally to ensure that she can reclaim the sad little island:
Then Briggs surprises the reader by introducing the ‘real characters’ in this picturebook – the soldiers, the ‘real men’ portrayed in monochrome, who were sent to fulfill the iron woman and the tin-pot foreign general’s bidding, no mean feat as can be seen below:
Raymond Briggs’ imagery here bears closer investigation and study – one that I could not possibly do in this very short piece. I am sure a lot of academics have analyzed the meanings of the symbols embedded here in much closer detail than I could ever hope to. What begins as an amusing, almost-comical tone in the form of a wicked caricature takes on unflinchingly-horrifying proportions. The travesty of the pointlessness of war is made even more powerful by the fact that it is so understated, and written in such clear-eyed, matter-of-fact fashion.
This picturebook is said to be a satire of the Falklands War, one that is fought between the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (ostensibly the iron woman in this picturebook) and the Argentine dictator General Leopoldo Galtieri (our tin-pot foreign general). It also bears noting that in the beginning of the book, two quotes were cited by Briggs:
Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. – Albert Einstein.
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. – Dr. Johnson
This is a book that has the power to evoke a whole range of emotions from the reader: from mild amusement, spurious interest, to horror, to repugnance, to being confounded by the senselessness of it all. Meanwhile, medals are given out, and families grieve and tend to their dead. There is no redemption to be sought in this book, as there isn’t one in war with its Pyrrhic victories. The reader has to find that from within herself, that is, if she is made of real flesh and bones.
Written by: Janet Charters
Illustrated by: Michael Foreman
Published by: Templar Publishing, 2010. Originally published in the UK in 1961 by Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
Book borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
General Jodhpur is described to be the most famous general in the world, with an army that is admired internationally. And so he spends practically all his time training his men, and their recreation is devoted to cleaning their shoes and their rifles, and yes, reading about other famous generals and their famous battles.
Then one day, General Jodhpur fell off his horse as a fox darted across his path. While he remained unhurt, he landed on the soft grass and he realized that he did not want to move from that spot as he enjoyed the sunshine, the sound of the birds, and the smell of the flowers around him.
He watched the flowers and the bees for a long time. How peaceful it was. Why had he never noticed these things before?
This unforeseen little accident totally changed the general’s life and his perspective of what he finds important in life. In fact, it was late when he got home and he had this strange nightmare of his soldiers trampling on the lovely flowers, and he knew when he woke up that he needed to do something to make sure this never happens. How the story ends, I shall leave for you to discover dear friends.
I thought it would also be good to share with you the Publisher’s Note found at the end of the book which explained why this book was created in the first place:
Janet Charters (now Abis) was born in England in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War. Growing up in the uncertain atmosphere created by the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, Janet developed an acute awareness of the fragility of peace.
Michael Foreman was also born in England in 1938. Having not known a world without war, he thought that it was normal. One frightful night while a three-year-old Michael lay fast asleep, a bomb came crashing through his bedroom ceiling – this was his first memory. The bomb missed him by a few centimetres, bounced on the floor, hit the wall and then dropped into fireplace, where it exploded up the chimney. When the war ended, Michael looked forward to a world of peace, but unfortunately his teenage years were lived under the threat of nuclear war.
In creating their first book, The General, Janet and Michael wanted to produce a fun and lively story that encouraged a sympathetic outlook on the world. Now, almost fifty years later, the book seems even more relevant as not only the need for peace but also the threat to the environment, hinted at in the story, are both plain for all to see.
The jacketflap indicates this to be Michael Foreman’s debut picture book created in the early 1960s and reprinted quite recently in 2010. Unlike Briggs’ pessimistic tone, this one has a flowery, more upbeat, hopeful (although a tad unrealistic) message. I paired these two books as I feel they provide different facets of what it means to be a soldier. It would be interesting to know how students would respond to both stories.