I have always loved The Story of Ferdinand and I’m not the only one. The book has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1936 and is largely considered to be a masterpiece. I think it’s a masterpiece too, but a flawed one. To me, Leaf’s story serves as a lesson that just about any story can benefit from just one more rewrite.
For those who have not yet read the story, let me just say this: Shame on you. Here’s your synopsis:
Ferdinand is a bull not like other bulls. While his peers in the fields run and jump and butt their heads in the hope of getting selected for the bullfights in Madrid, Ferdinand is happy to laze under his favorite tree and smell flowers.
Eventually, five talent scouts for the bullfights arrive on the scene to size up the herd. Ferdinand heads off to his tree to sniff, comfortable in the knowledge that he will never be chosen. He plops down on a bee, however, and the sting he receives makes him run and jump and snort in pain. The men interpret this display as fierceness, and cart off Ferdinand to Madrid.
The crowds arrive. Picadors, banderilleros, and the matador march into ring. Everyone expects a great show. But Ferdinand doesn’t deliver. He notices that the senoritas in the crowd have flowers in their hair so he plops himself in the center of the ring and smells. No amount of cajoling can get Ferdinand to do anything else, so he is sent back to the fields where, to this day, he’s still under his tree and still happily sniffing flowers.
Ferdinand was published at around the time of the Spanish Civil War and some say the book was written to serve as a sharply satirical commentary on the conflict. I have also heard an alternate story – one that says Leaf scribbled out the entire Ferdinand story in an hour to generate some illustration work for his pal, Lawson (who was especially fond of drawing cows). I’m leaning toward the latter tale simply because the book has a banged-out, rough-hewn quality of an awesome and inspired early draft.
The reason why Leaf wrote Ferdinand doesn’t really matter, though. He may have been commenting on the futility of war, but the theme that stands the test of time is Ferdinand’s celebration of nonconformity. It is a book the urges the reader to defy stereotypes and not let what you are dictate what you do. It’s a wonderful message, beautifully told, and that is why Ferdinand is something special.
But the book does has problems. As a kid, I could never wrap my brain around why all the other bulls in the meadow would spend their entire lives training for an event that would, without fail, get them killed. Make no mistake, the bullfight in Ferdinand is not the sanitized fare shown in other pieces of children’s entertainment; these guys are not just waving a cape around, they are stabbing. The bulls are also fully aware of this. One illustration shows a group of bulls admiring a poster for the fights. On it is a drawing of a charging bull with several spears protruding from his back.
In case that didn’t register, later on Leaf describes the parade into the bullring:
“First came the banderilleros with long sharp pins with ribbons on them to stick in the bull and make him mad. Next came the picadores…and they had long spears to stick in the bull and make him madder. Then came the matador…He had a red cape and a sword and was supposed to stick the bull last of all.”
Leaf doesn’t come right out and say it, but it sure is clear, even to children, that any bull who enters the ring is supposed to get stabbed to death – painfully and repeatedly.
So why would any bull volunteer to do this?
Leaf also fails to address what I consider to be an even larger story flaw. Ferdinand is at the bullfight because of the way he reacted to getting stung by a bee. He is now in an arena where banderilleros and picadors wield pins and spears used to make a bull mad. Yet, when Ferdinand sits down and smells flowers, none of these men get stabby.
It wouldn’t have even take all that much to get Ferdinand worked up. A bee stinger is a whole lot smaller than a spear – and we all know what happened then.
By inserting realistic details about bullfights into his story, Leaf made his story too unrealistic to be believed. In an arena filled with so many weapons and so many people intent on doing a bull harm, poor Ferdinand never would have stood a chance.