This one’s a little bit nostalgic for me.
The Magic Pudding turned 100 this year! For those of you who are not familiar, The Magic Pudding, both written and illustrated by Norman Lindsay, is probably neck and neck with May Gibbs’ Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie as the most famous example of classic Australian children’s literature. I think you would be unlikely to find a primary school library that doesn’t carry a copy.
The story starts with Bunyip Bluegum, a young koala who’s off to find his way in the world. He’s been living with his Uncle Wattleberry, but as he decided there was not enough room in the house for both him and his Uncle’s impressive set of whiskers, he feels he needs to leave (Yes, it’s a rather odd source of teenage angst, but we’ll just roll with it.)
Unfortunately, as he’s in such a hurry to take up life as a Gentleman of Leisure, the poor naive fellow doesn’t pack any lunch. But luckily for him, he comes across a group of travellers having a feast at a bend in the road. These people turn out to be Bill Barnacle, a sailor, and Sam Sawnoff, a penguin. And their lunch.
Which turns out to be a pudding.
A magical, talking pudding.
Who has terrible manners?
Albert, with his bulbous head and spindly limbs, looks like a time-displaced Miyazaki character. If you saw him in the background of the bathhouse in Spirited Away, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. And if you’re worried about everyone feasting on him, don’t: Albert loves being a pudding, and encourages his friends to: ‘Eat away, chew away, munch and bolt and guzzle, Never leave the table till you’re full up to the muzzle.’ And if you’re not eating enough, he’ll nip out of his basin and run off, making you chase after him.
Albert also has a rather sharp tongue and is pretty bright for a sentient food-stuff. As Bills states: ‘You have to be as smart as paint to keep this Puddin’ in order. He’s that artful; lawyers couldn’t manage him.”
What Bill and Sam, the “professional puddin’ owners”, constantly have to worry about though are the “professional puddin’-thieves”; a possum and a wombat who are also hustling for a good feed. Whenever they all cross paths, Bill and Sam feel obliged to fight them. Bill and Sam might have slightly guilty consciences here that makes them defensive; they didn’t come by Albert 100% honestly themselves, although they could plead extenuating circumstances.
But as Bunyip was kind enough to mind Albert (read: sit on him, so he doesn’t run off) while the two have an altercation, he’s invited to join them, and the three become the Society of Puddin’-owners and go on to have drama filled adventures.
Much of this book runs in the same vein as the old Loony Toons shorts, with a touch of Ronald Dahl. There’s a lot of prose and verse, cartoonish fighting, and absurdist humour. I’m personally a fan of most of the dialogue, which favours alliteration, food-related similies, written-in accents, and colourful insults. This makes the book very fun to read out loud, but I wonder if some of the languages is a bit obscure or if most of the wordplay works for non-Australians.
However, The Magic Pudding is still a product of its time. While there are no egregious cases of racial stereotyping – like what you see in TinTin in the Congo or Noddy – the original owner of the pudding, the Chinese chef Curry-and-Rice, is not portrayed in the most favourable light. And another character is referred to as ‘an unmitigated Jew’, although, I found that one of the Project Gutenberg versions of the book removed that line.
While this book is in the public domain and freely available on Project Gutenberg, it wouldn’t hurt to track down a print copy. Not all of the free copies have the illustrations, and for those that do, the quality isn’t always that good.
And with that 100 year birthday, The Magic Pudding qualifies for This Old Thing on the bingo card
(Small footnote – if you do let your kids read this, don’t let them search Norman Lindsay without SafeSearch on)