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Bungles in the Jungle
The Enormous Crocodile - Roald Dahl
Member Name: duncantorr
The Enormous Crocodile - Roald Dahl
Date: 28/12/11, updated on 28/12/11 (217 review reads)
Advantages: Secret plans and clever tricks
Disadvantages: Betrayed by lesser minds
All the same, you may be thinking: 'great literature' - isn't that rather overstating it? Maybe that depends on whether you believe any story written for children can properly be regarded as great. I see no reason why it shouldn't be, and The Enormous Crocodile is about as good as a story written for children can get. The plot is cleverly conceived, as is the narrative structure, while the descriptive writing is vivid, witty and easily comprehended by those in the target age-group, which is 4-8. Add in the superbly complementary illustrations by Quentin Blake and the book is just about faultless. You can even read deeper interpretations into it if you have a mind to do so, though I don't suppose many younger readers will bother.
* "In the biggest brownest muddiest river in Africa..." *
The scene having thus been set, the story opens with two crocodiles discussing the pressing question of what to eat for lunch. The Enormous Croc (EC from here on) favours a nice juicy child, whilst the Notsobig one prefers fish. "Children are bigger than fish," declares the EC conclusively. "You get bigger helpings." What is more, he goes on to explain, he has devised "secret plans and clever tricks" to help him ensnare a suitable prey for his feast, and with this he sets off on his quest through the jungle. On his way he encounters Humpy-Rumpy the hippopotamus, Trunky the elephant, Muggle-Wump, the monkey and a flamboyantly-feathered creature known simply as the Roly-Poly Bird. To each in turn he outlines his prandial plans, and is not in the least disconcerted to find them met with disapproval. The EC is decidedly a croc with attitude, and a bit of aggro along the way only serves to sharpen his appetite.
Arriving eventually at the outskirts of a village, he begins to put his "secret plans and clever tricks" into practice, disguising himself first as a coconut palm, next as a see-saw, then as part of a fairground carousel, and finally as a bench in the picnic area, in each case hoping to lure a child close enough to eat. In every case, however, he is thwarted by the intervention of the other animals who have followed him through the jungle, and his potential victims escape being eaten. Not only is the EC thus deprived of his well-earned lunch, but the elephant takes the law into its trunk by seizing the EC by the tail, whirling him round to build up momentum and slinging him up, up, up and into the sun, where he is "sizzled up like a sausage".
(Sorry if this outline 'spoils' the story by revealing its ending, but parents might like to be warned in advance of this sad outcome, whereas children won't mind knowing, to judge from the example of my own sons who could practically recite the whole book word for word after repeated readings but still demanded more.)
* "You horrid greedy grumptious brute" *
What a wonderful word "grumptious" is, though "gollop" is arguably even better, a word so onomatopoeic as to be self-explanatory. One hardly needs the context "I'll gulp her up easily in one gollop" to understand its meaning, and children certainly don't need such words explained. Dahl frequently uses words of his own coinage, and almost always to more telling effect than could have been achieved with more conventional alternatives. Not that his use of conventional language leaves anything to be desired; for example, would it be possible to improve on "the Enormous Crocodile grinned again, and his terrible sharp teeth sparkled like knives in the sun"? I don't think so. Dahl's vocabulary is both accessible and bright as a crocodile tooth. What's more, children respond to it instinctively.
His wit helps, of course. The dialogue in The Enormous Crocodile is full of sharp exchanges between the EC and the other animals; his mastery of repartee is on a par with that of the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. Making these exchanges entertaining in themselves also helps Dahl with the pace and structure of the narrative, allowing him to extend the initial phase of the story without it becoming tedious, drawing out the suspense and at the same time introducing the other characters that are going to play a role in the eventual denouement. There is a neat symmetrical balance between the EC's progress through the jungle and the later reappearance of the creatures he meets to frustrate his intentions. Dahl has clearly employed a secret plan and clever trick or two of his own in his skilful story-telling.
* Quentin Blake's illustrations... *
...are a delight. Colourful, evocative, cartoonish in the best sense, and reflecting perfectly the tone as well as the substance of the story. In particular, the EC himself is beautifully drawn, seemingly with the utmost simplicity, but with a glint in his eye that conveys his character and his changing moods as the story unfolds.
* Scary stuff? *
This is a tale about a ferocious and cunning predator seeking to trick, catch and then eat children. One might perhaps expect young children to be a little frightened when imagining such a prospect, but in my experience that simply isn't the case. On the contrary, they enjoy the sinister and threatening aspects of the story, perhaps as a way of coming to terms with the thought of such threats while they themselves are in an unthreatening environment. It probably helps that the story is told with humour, and is amusingly illustrated, but most of all it helps that the EC is strangely sympathetic, coming across as more mischievous than truly villainous in character. One can't help feeling a little sorry for him, especially when he meets his tragic fate in the conclusion.
* 'His tragic fate' *
An old friend of mine well-versed in literature takes the view that the EC is simply "betrayed by lesser minds", but it seems to me that his tragedy is of a more classical variety, with hubris bringing about his nemesis. He could be regarded as a bungler, since he wilfully alienates his fellow-creatures, who might have been neutral bystanders or even allies. Why, after all, should they be on the side of the children? Had the EC gone about his child-hunting in a sneaky and underhand way, keeping his own counsel, he might have proved successful, but this would have ill-fitted his self-image as a proto-hero. His braggartry does not come from bungling indiscretion, but is intended almost as a rallying-cry to his jungle-fellows to assert themselves against the thrall in which they are held by humans, while their failure to respond reflects not just their cravenness but also their resentment of his superiority, without which he would have been unable to lead the way in the first place. His fatal weakness is an intrinsic component of his heroic strength, an essential element of all great tragedy.
All of which you are free to take seriously or not, just as you choose. I have to admit that my own kids, when young, seemed not much interested in discussing this aspect of the story, but did enjoy considering the events from the EC's, as well as from the children's, viewpoint.
* The Enormous Crocodile... *
...is available in paperback from Puffin Books, 40 beautifully illustrated pages including covers, at a recommended retail price of £6.99, though you can of course find it more cheaply on the internet, and probably in some bookshops. Even at full price, it's a bargain, since it will give endless, educational pleasure to any child. Dahl was a great writer, with a unique ability to stimulate and appeal to children's imaginations, and I believe this to be the best of his output for younger children. I can't wait for my grand-daughter to be old enough to have it read to her.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011.
For an assessment of The Enormous Crocodile's place among other great books for children, see:
Summary: A children's classic from a master story-teller