Babe: The Gallant Pig -- Politeness Pays Off for a Sheep-Pig
Written: Oct 3, 2007
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Characterizations; humour; captivating story; fun read-aloud
The Bottom Line: "...it looks as though the judges are bound to allow Mr. Hogget to run this, er, sheep-pig I suppose we'll have it call it, ha, ha!"
When it comes to children's books, bears and bunnies probably take top prizes. For whatever reason, those two animals have been immortalized (in both realistic and anthropomorphic fashion) by a huge number of talented writers.
But you know, pigs haven't fared too badly in the world of children's fiction. Who can forget Wilbur, the terrific, radiant pig saved by Charlotte the spider in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web? Although Wilbur still stands as my favorite porcine character, running him a close second is Babe, the fictitious creation of author Dick King-Smith.
In Babe: The Gallant Pig, King-Smith gave the world as lovable and memorable a pig as you could ever hope to meet. He and Wilbur are similar in some ways: when their stories start, they're both small and feeling rather alone in the world. Babe has been separated from his family to become a prize at a local fair. "Guess my weight. Ten pence a shot" reads his cardboard box. A local farmer by the name of Hogget comes closest to the correct weight, surprising himself and everyone else by winning the pig when he'd never won anything before. And so Babe arrives on the farm.
Again like Wilbur, he soon makes new friends. No spiders this time around. Instead he is befriended, in fact adopted, by the maternal sheepdog Fly, who is surprised by how intelligent and sweet the little porker is. She's never really known a pig before. He misses his Mama, and that touches the old collie dog's heart. She lets him romp with her puppies, which not only gives little Babe some fun playmates, but something interesting to watch as well. For Fly is training her puppies in the ways of sheep-herding, since all of them will grow up to be working sheepdogs.
Although Fly cautions him against it, Babe also makes friends with Maaaaa, an old ewe that's been brought in from the fields to spend some time in the barn recuperating from foot rot. Fly has never deigned to speak to a sheep, except in the barking, commanding tones of a sheepdog. In turn, Maaaa, like all the other sheep, indignantly call her "Wolf" as they call all other sheepdogs. It's not exactly a recipe for friendship. But Babe, innocent of heart, is not stained by age-old sheep and sheepdog prejudices. And so he treats Maaaaa as he does all other creatures, and as he's grateful to be treated by Fly...with love and kindness. That astonishes the old ewe, who can hardly remember being treated with such gentleness and civility. And it makes for a very interesting plot twist on down the line when Farmer Hogget discovers, much to his astonishment, that Babe has learned how to herd sheep.
The genius of King-Smith's novel for young readers is in its characterizations. Young children (and the grown-ups reading to them) won't have to suspend much disbelief to enter this world of the English countryside filled with talking sheepdogs, sheep and pigs. The animals have such lively and unique personalities that you almost immediately begin to feel that of course that's what a sheepdog would be like if you could hear her talk and get to know her: a little proud, a bit bossy, very clever, and judgmental toward stupid, silly sheep. And of course if you could get to know a sheep whose spent her life being herded by such dogs, you would expect her to be indignant, and yet at the same time, a bit slow on the uptake and something of a whining, bleating talker. Babe is the one animal who defies your expectations: while he's gloriously pig-like (loving mud and slops) he also tends to think outside the box, perhaps because he wasn't ever given a chance to be raised by his own kind or to be around other pigs. Mostly, he's just young and impressionable, and he learns what he's taught. And since he's taught by a sheep-dog, he learns to be a sheep-pig.
Charlotte's Web was driven by Wilbur's need to survive, to find a way from being turned into bacon. That theme is touched upon briefly in Babe, but not belabored. Babe, in fact, proves himself far too valuable to the farm (in one exciting scene, he chases away some sheep rustlers) to be eaten for dinner. With that overhanging threat defused, King-Smith was free to develop his storyline in different ways, and that's the other bit of genius in this story: how much you root for this little pig to do what no other pig has done...compete in the local sheepdog-trials.
Besides the animal characters, King-Smith has given us two wonderfully funny and realistic human characters in Farmer and Mrs. Hogget. Farmer Hogget is taciturn, slow, thoughtful, and we get to see the pig's developing skills through his astonished and admiring eyes. Mrs. Hogget can never use one word when ten will do, which sets her up as a complete contrast to her husband. It also makes her incredibly fun to read. We read this recently as a family read-aloud, and I loved chattering my way through her long, convoluted sentences, then making a dramatic pause before uttering the Farmer's monosyllabic replies. My husband and I laughed as much or more than our five year old, but the whole family enjoyed the book immensely.
There's a bit of a moral by the time this farmyard fable ends: not only do we learn that politeness and gallantry and how we treat others really do matter, but we begin to see our own silly prejudices about others not like us reflected in the story of the animals' own prejudices. Babe's gentle treatment of the sheep wins their respect (and makes him a formidably good sheep-herder) but his kindness also begins to act as a bridge between the sheep and sheepdog community. King-Smith is smart to show us that not all the old prejudices die (that wouldn't be realistic) but at least some of the old enmity is put aside, and the animals are surprised by what they learn about one another.
So tell me, are there other porcine literary heroes I should get to know? I'll always love Wilbur. But he now has a worthy companion in Babe the Gallant Pig. This is a book our family will read again.
Babe: The Gallant Pig
by Dick King-Smith
Crown Publishers, 1983 (first American edition)
ISBN of current Yearling paperback edition in stock at Amazon: 0679873937
A note about the picture above: this was the only entry in the database I could find for the novel. The cover art of the pictured edition matches the cover art on the available edition of Amazon. The cover makes it look like a movie tie-in edition, since it includes Ferdinand the duck (who is a wonderfully funny character in the admirable film adaptation, but is NOT part of the written version). As far I can tell, however, the in-print edition is not abridged or changed from the original story in any way. It even still lists the original illustrator, Mary Rayner. It just has that new "movie-ish" cover.
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