The Gruffalo is a children’s book by writer and playwright Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler. The book was initially published in 1999 by Macmillan Children’s Books as a 32-page hardback edition. It is aimed at children aged three to seven, is about 700 words long and is written entirely in rhyming couplets.
The simplistic story follows a little brown Mouse who, during a walk through the woods to fetch some sustenance, avoids being eaten by various ravenous woodland creatures by misleading them with tales of a fantastic monster which he is on his way to meet. The twist in the story is that the monster, the titular Gruffalo, appears and has designs on eating the Mouse himself. The Mouse adds to his fabrications by insisting the Gruffalo should fear him, returning to the other characters to show them the beast and watch them run in fear for their lives. The Gruffalo is not privy to the knowledge that his reputation precedes him and so is led to believe Mouse is the source of the other creatures discomposure. The Gruffalo relents in his desire to devour Mouse and returns to the woods, Mouse is left to enjoy the nut feast he had aspired to.
On the surface, The Gruffalo is an innocent tale of good triumphing over evil. On closer inspection, the story is an scathing analogy of the corrupt nature of celebrity, media and how one can ultimately achieve one’s goals only through deceit.
Where Donaldson succeeds is in her creation of an every-man character in the Little brown Mouse. An every-mouse, if you will. We meet the nameless character partly on his voyage, we are given no back story or character traits. He is a blank canvas on which we, as readers, can project our own personality. We have no cognition of his motivation for the tarriance through the woods, if he has a family or even a home. We are simply told he is on a journey, on which later he sees the chance to dine on a delicious nut. The nut represents the success and stability that we all crave in life, his sojourn through the woodland can only be seen as the transition to maturity and the creatures he encounters represent the hardships of modern day life.
Fox is the first creature to cross paths with our hero. Mouse knows Fox will attempt to outwit him and, doubtless, kill him. Fox attempts to engage in conversation with Mouse, but the dialogue is laced with his personal characteristics. He is cunning, a trait we have yet to see in the innocent Mouse. However, Mouse accepts the trait into his own personality, constructing a lie about an impending synergistic encounter with a colossal beast, the fictional Gruffalo, to cause Fox to flee with trepidation. Fox has no reason to question this, as he has offered Mouse dinner in his own home, knowing full-well that he is intent on eating the rodent himself. He has lied, misjudging Mouse to be innocent and pure in heart. When Mouse retaliates with a bigger lie, Fox is conditioned to accept all he says without interrogation.
Mouse then encounters the dexterously deceiving Snake, whose consummate desires and actions mirror Fox. Mouse proactively adopts a similar strategy, concocting more prefabrication and detail to his pre-existing untruth. Mouse has realised here that the only way to acquire success and defeat your enemies is through the mastery their own skills. By turning their own character traits against them, he will always win. They are weak-minded, devious characters, who have instigated the situation by revealing their own false claims of inviting Mouse to dinner.
Finally Mouse encounters his most natural foe, Owl. Owl is a notoriously erudite creature, here he is using wisdom to prey on what he perceives to be a fatuitous mouse. Mouse’s past experiences have inculated behavioural instinct, and it’s through the experiences we face growing up that shape us as an individual. Mouse is the product of his surroundings, his encounters with the malicious creatures have shaped him into a cunning survivalist. He now knows that in order to gain success, he has to lie and cheat his way to the top. Mouse demonstrates the corruption of the youth and that society is built for the good to fail. Had Mouse had remained untainted and innocent, he would certainly have lost his life.
It is now that the decidedly self-satisfied Mouse encounters the Gruffalo. The monster represents the lies Mouse has told manifesting before him. The untruths we tell will always come back to haunt us.
It is here that the underlying theme shifts to the quest for fame as well as fortune. Mouse realises that he has pre-warned the other woodland creatures of the ferocity and appearance of the Gruffalo. He has created a preordained awareness in the mindset of the other animals, and thus created a need for this creature to appear. Mouse informs the creature that he himself is in fact the most terrifying animal in the wood, a terrible falsehood which the Gruffalo rightly questions, believing the opposite to be true. As evidence of his claim, Mouse returns to the woods, encountering all the foes he had met previously, introducing them to the mythical beast he subjacently informed them of . Mouse is essentially taking advantage of the fame – the beast – he has created from nothing, he has lied about his own credentials and his relationship with the Gruffalo in order to create a reputation for himself.
The animals fear the now-infamous Gruffalo and run in terror, undoubtedly to spread the legend of this monster to all the other creatures in the wood. Mouse has acted as an agent for the creature’s fame, a catalyst of infamy.
The monster himself is a metaphor for the very essence and nature of fame. He is gigantic and all consuming, his size far outweighs Mouse in a figurative and literal sense. Fame, as a concept, is removed from the individual, it becomes an entity of expectation of the subject. The Gruffalo’s fame precedes his actual being and he has become a celebrity because of it. Mouse markets fame to fuel his own desire. The Gruffalo is pure fantasy, but through Mouse’s increasingly detailed marketing and P.R campaign he has come into being.
The lie was told so often and with such relish that Mouse, and all around him, came to believe it was the truth. The line between reality and fantasy has been crossed and Mouse has to deal with his own self promotion. This is undoubtedly a bitter attack on the nature of the Media in society. How a fabricated story, based on no hard evidence, can instantly explode beyond it’s original concept to become accepted as fact. The populace trust the media and will believe what they are told, the media exploits this to create demand and celebrity.
The conclusion of the story revolves around the Gruffalo retreating to the woods in fear of Mouse. He is fearful of what Mouse has become. Mouse no-longer needs the crutch of his lies as his fiction has, to all round him, become fact. He is famous. Mouse now lives in a celebrity world of his own creation and to the victor, the spoils. Mouse is left to enjoy the success he craved when first we met him, the nut.
“And the nut, was good”.