Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Rupert and the Water-lily

Let's get on with the Rupertfest!

My 1958 Rupert annual contains five stories, with Things To Do on the pages in between. The first story is called Rupert and the Water-lily. This is clearly the main story in the annual, although not actually my personal favourite.

This is the opening format for stories throughout the annual: a double-page spread that shows some of the components of the story, to set the scene. You have to imagine a very young child curled up with Mummy, looking forward to being read to. Or an older child, who can read, getting a feel for the story from this scene before the story unfolds. But the only clues are the pink water-lily (top right), a guinea pig in Edwardian leisure wear, and a gypsy caravan with a pot boiling on an open-air fire next to it. Rather mysterious!

In the garden, Rupert and Mrs Bear hear a cacophony like 'hundreds of ducks', and he goes to investigate. He sees no ducks, but finds someting shiny in the stream, a kind of medal. Notice how little Julie, whose annual this was, has pencilled in little stick figures, who seem to link the characters in the pictures together, as if assisting them, or just to be with them. She does a lot of this in the first two stories. Perhaps the stick figures represent herself and her best friend, and in this way she has put herself (and anyone she likes) into the story, as participants. What a nice idea. And the figures are a direct link with the young Julie.

A friend, Gregory Guinea-pig, points Rupert in the direction of a pond where two Girl Guides are comforting a little girl called Sylvia. She's just had an upsetting experience:

Here you see three of the four levels on which the storyline can be apprehended. A large-font title at the top of the page:


A rhyming couplet beneath each picture-frame:

'That lily moved away from me,' 
Sobs Sylvia, crying bitterly.

And of course, for any child who can't read, and for the rest of us too, the picture-frame that shows all you need to know about what's going on, courtesy of artist Alfred Bestall.

Although Rupert and Gregory are wearing clothes that scream 1905, the girls' own attire does look credibly 1958. It's quite subtle how the girls are differentiated. Sylvia is simply a tearful little child who is totally overwhelmed by one unusual surprise: a lily she reached for suddenly zoomed away from her. But the two Girl Guides, Pauline and Beryl, although still only young themselves, have a capable air to them, and are obviously equal to any challenge. The dominant Guide, Pauline, is caring and very adult. I bet Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of the Conservative Party and Britain's first woman Prime Minister, was in this mould. Notice how the pictures make it absolutely clear that (a) this is an annual that both girls and boys can enjoy; (b) the upsets of little children matter; (c) it's the duty of everyone present to cluster around and give comfort; (d) children and talking animals really mix all the time, and it's perfectly normal. We could all learn from that.

Sylvia, shivering with shock, is led away by those managing Guides at a 'brisk trot to make her warm', while Rupert and Gregory puzzle over the fact that there is no lily there now. Then it reappears, moving around on the pond at a rate of knots, before diving and disappearing again. Then a big frog appears, and seems to be waving them both away angrily. Eager to ask someone who may know all about these strange occurences, Rupert finds Rollo, the gypsy boy, collecting firewood:

You can tell he's a real gypsy because of the knotted red handkerchief he's wearing on his head. Note that. Anyone without a red handkerchief worn in that fashion is just a tinker. Note also the 'Rupert sky' in the right-hand picture frame, a classic graduation from yellow at the bottom to deep blue at the top, a beautiful background feature that Bestall made his own. Rollo is not immediately going to accept Rupert's tale of self-propelling lily flowers and strange noises, and says:

'Oh come, that's going much too far,'
Grins Rollo. 'What a chap you are!'

Despite his outdoor appearance, Rollo speaks posh! Obviously a role model for all boys. Although inclined to chortle, Rollo nevertheless takes Rupert to see his Granny, who admonishes Rollo, and takes a much more serious view of it all. It's a forgotten Gypsy Secret. She is vexed to remember nothing about it, and urges Rupert to follow the noise and rediscover the Secret.

So, following the now-deafening noise, Rupert begins to make his way up a rocky but well-vegetated hillside. He sees frogs of all sizes and colours, and some of them are obviously not English frogs. He pluckily follows a stream that runs through a narrow cleft. It's impossible to climb out, but, looking back, he finds he is being followed by dozens of large frogs and can't retreat. Then he comes face to face with a giant frog with a stern expression. It's wearing an important-looking chain around its neck, a chain with medal-like pendants. One is missing. It's the Chief Steward to the King of Frogs. He really is very annoyed. He doesn't like it when Rupert asks him what the 'noise' is. Indignantly he explains it's the singing that all frogs make when their King is close by. Then he goes off in a huff, to attend on the King.

But Rupert, remembering his earlier find in the stream, calls him back and shows him the medal:

This makes a huge difference. The Steward is very grateful. Is there anything he can do to repay Rupert? Rupert bowls him a googly. Could he see the King? And why did the water-lily move around and disappear? Oooooh, that's a toughie. But after much deliberation, his wish is granted - sort of. Rupert is directed to climb up further, and reaches a pond. Apparently the King of Frogs personally inspects all ponds on a two-hundred year cycle, and it just so happens that it's the turn of the ponds near to where Rupert lives. Hence all the excitement and jubilation and singing of the local frogs. As Rupert watches, the pink water-lily he saw earlier comes close. But where's the King? The Steward appears and tells Rupert to look under the lily, where he can now make out a truly gigantic frog. The lily is his crown, and he can breathe through it. A clever way to visit every pond incognito.

The Steward gives permission for Rupert to tell the Granny, and anyone else he likes. Tomorrow the King will be gone, and two hundred years will pass before there is another visit by his successor. So it doesn't matter if a few people do know. Off he rushes to explain to Granny, meeting the two Girl Guides on the way, and inviting them, Sylvia and Gregory all home for tea. (Let's hope Mrs Bear has made some scones!)

What a neat explanation as to why you and I have never heard the singing of the frogs: it only happens every other century. Lucky Rupert, then!

Turning the next page, there are instructions on how to make a frog out of a sheet of paper. Yes, a spot of Origami:

I well recall trying my very hardest to make this, but always doing it wrong. But I was very young, after all, and clumsy, and silly, and a bit impatient. I will now try again, and intend to succeed.
I hope you can see how absolutely charming these Rupert stories are. And how there is no such thing as a 'bad' or 'dangerous' animal in them: we are all equals.

The next post will find Rupert on a bus, and then in town, and reveal how well-accepted he is everywhere.

1 comment:

  1. Actually faintly remember this one from childhood. Memories of the school kids Oz do, however, permanently colour my view of Rupert...


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