Book Review: The Story of Ferdinand

Written by the wonderfully named Munro Leaf and lovingly illustrated in black and white by Robert Lawson, The Story of Ferdinand, set in Spain, was first published in 1936, the same year that the Spanish Civil War (subject of my first novel, The Poet’s Wife!) truly erupted.  Due to the sensitive timing of the book’s publication, at a time when fascism was rapidly spreading across Europe, Ferdinand, a gentle bull who prefers smelling flowers to bullfighting, caused considerable controversy as he was believed to represent a left-wing pacifist. Not only was the book burned as propaganda in Nazi Germany but it was also banned outright in Spain, a country embroiled in bitter civil war and edging further and further to the political right. The controversy continued, for Stalin granted it privileged in status in communist Russia whilst over in India, Ferdinand was said to number amongst Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite books.

Yet it matters not how many times Ferdinand was burned or banned, this book has been translated into over sixty languages and has never once gone out of print. When Leaf created this story (which he apparently wrote in a single sitting in a yellow legal pad so his friend Lawson would have something to illustrate), did he intend a subtle dig at the rise of fascism in Europe? He claims not; that he simply wanted to write something to entertain children. And reading it now, as I often do to my children, I must admit it is hard to understand what the fuss was once all about.

Ferdinand is a gentle soul who enjoys nothing more than sitting quietly and alone beneath his favourite cork tree all day. All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers. When five men arrive at the pasture one day to find the toughest bull to fight in the ring in Madrid, whilst all the other bulls do their best to win the men over, unfortunately for Ferdinand, he doesn’t look where he’s sitting and places his behind firmly on a bee (above picture.) Ferdinand jumped up with a snort. He ran around puffing and snorting, butting and pawing the ground as if he were crazy.

The unwitting Ferdiand gets picked and is carted off to Madrid where he is called Ferdinand the Fierce, everybody quaking in their boots at the imminent arrival of this terrifying beast in the bullring.

‘Then came the Matador, the proudest of all – he thought he was very handsome, and bowed to the ladies. He had a red cape and a sword and was supposed to stick the bull last of all.’

Ferdinand enters the bullring in something of a daze whilst the crowd clap and cheer, waiting for him to fiercely fight. But Ferdinand has other ideas. He has caught a scent of the flowers in the hair of all the lovely ladies, and he cannot quite help himself but sit down quietly and smell. Nothing that the matador does to try to provoke him entices him to fight. Oh no. He wouldn’t fight and be fierce no matter what they did. He just sat and smelled. And the Banderilleros were mad and the Picadores were madder and the Matador was so mad he cried because he couldn’t show off with his cape and sword.

Happily for Ferdinand, and unhappily for the Matador and bull-fighting fans, the gentle bull gets taken home to his pasture.

‘And for all I know,’ the story ends, ‘he is sitting there still, under his favourite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. 

He is very happy.’

This wonderful book is a classic that has stood the test of time, beloved to generations of children. As interesting as the purposeful or unintentional political connotations are, at heart The Story of Ferdinand is a celebratory tale of being different, standing apart from the crowd and the moral and philosophical implications of how we choose to interact with others.