Book Review Musings Travel

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Fantastic Mr Fox is an ode to adventure capitalism. My life is an ode to wine.

ASIDE: It’s a Saturday night, I’m sat alone in my kitchen and I’ve just opened a bottle of supermarket Viognier. Not a terrible situation to be in, I suppose, but a situation I’ve found myself in at least once every day for weeks now.

The last time I was at my parents’ house, about a month ago, I looked through the handful of books I left behind when I moved out and decided to take home a short children’s text. Of all the genres of literature, children’s fiction is the one I pay least attention to (less even than science fiction/fantasy). I chose a book from the fifty or so on the shelf and stuffed it into my glamorous London bag. My dad dropped me at the station and I rode the quiet carriage south. On arriving home, I put the book on my bookstack at an appropriate depth, and thought nothing of it until volumes moved and it became exposed. However – and this really pissed me off – it turned out that the same day I took Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox off the top of my to-read pile was the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth, a date that was bandied about as if it were of national importance. I was accidentally joining in with something, which I hate doing. I hate Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s, Hallowe’en, major pop culture events, religion, all for the same reason: I do not want to be doing what all the other losers of the world are doing, because it forces me to acknowledge that I’m not actually any better than them and this makes it harder to pretend to myself that I’m not depressed. “Speak to no one, engage with nothing, and freedom presents itself whole-formed” is the first mantra of my personal proto-religion.

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ASIDE: My drinking has slipped again over the last month and I’m back at the point where I’m regularly waking up on the floor in the wrong room of my house. My tolerance has risen and now I don’t get that sense of fleeting contentment that alcoholics like me seek until I’m barely sober enough to stand. Happiness does exist at the bottom of a bottle, but it’s not at the bottom of the first one any more.

Fantastic Mr Fox was first published in 1970, a different age, and it is tellingly old-fashioned i/r/t its treatment of gender and body-image. In spite of this, it does evoke an exciting claustrophobia and genuine sense of threat, before giving way to more childlike optimism. By its conclusion, though, Fantastic Mr Fox has grown into an absurdity that offers nothing but confusion to anyone paying attention to continuity. All wild animals in the story – the rats, the badgers, the rabbits, the weasels and the eponymous (big word) foxes – are articulate, intelligent and speak to each other in an English that implies an understanding of human language. In fact, their conversation directly states a knowledge of commerce, as they make references not just to farmers’ markets, but to pricing and relative value of the produce of different farms. They are connoisseurs of alcohol and are able to understand the difference between cider and calvados. I don’t know why the reader – who is presumed to be a meat eater like the animals – is expected to feel camaraderie with the wild, thieving, animals, when they are simultaneously expected to – like Mr Fox – see chickens, geese, ducks and pigs as disposable and consumable. In Dahl’s world, the animals that humans eat are barely alive and unfeeling, while the animals humans don’t eat are as clever and intelligent as us. Typical meat eater hypocritical bullshit. (Raises the same problems, with less knowing humour, as the BoJack Horseman episode about chicken farms.)

ASIDE: You can usually tell I’m on a psychological downswing because all of a sudden – often for weeks/months at a time – I don’t write about my mental health on here. If I’m not writing openly about feeling bad, it’s because I’m lying to myself about feeling bad, and it’s only when I admit that I’m sinking without hitting a nadir that I gain the self-awareness needed to engage with what’s going on in my head and start working out a way to get better. The better I seem, the more likely I am to be hurtling towards a breakdown: unless I’m stating that I’m fine with a tone of genuine surprise, I’m not fine, and if I’m saying nothing about myself I’m hiding something. “Dead men tell no tales”, exactly: my silence reveals more than my words.

Boggis, Bunce and Bean are three livestock farmers (Bean also makes cider) who decide to band together to defeat the local fox who is shamelessly stealing their produce on a daily basis. They find the foxhole, shoot Mr Fox’s tail off (this is NOT a symbolic cock-removal, for he is as powerful and as masculine afterwards) and then dig down with black JCBs until they can get no lower and wait to starve Mr Fox out. Mr Fox and his children – all boys – never lose hope or strength, and leave the weak Mrs Fox behind as they dig not towards freedom, but towards the storage facilities of the farms. Mr Fox breaks and enters, burgles, kills fowl, gives alcohol to children and sends foodstuffs back to his wife with orders that she must cook the stolen food, not just for him but for all his friends. His presumptive behaviour regarding Mrs Fox’s ill-health from starvation being irrelevant once she had some “women’s work”, some cooking, to do, is bleak in the extreme, as too is inviting other people over for a meal without informing his partner in advance yet expecting her to prepare sufficient quantities of food. He’s paid for the food, yeah, of course it’s his right that it’s prepared and served to whoever he says it should be? His wife adores him, fawns over him, doesn’t feel put upon. Maybe she is happy in her subservient role, but I doubt it. She is trapped in the foxhole because she lives in a dangerous world and Mr Fox is the best way she can see to keep herself and her children alive. However, if her husband hadn’t enraged the local farmers with his constant thieving their home wouldn’t be under siege, there would be no danger. Mr Fox has created a situation from which he easily becomes the hero – the ease with which he digs to the farmer’s hen coops and store-rooms almost implies that he planned the whole thing: a hero complex, a need to survive, a need to succeed. But Mr Fox’s only success is stealing sufficient amounts of food and alcohol to throw a banquet in celebration of evading three people whose dislike of him is entirely rooted in the fact that he stole from them before. It is Mr Fox’s fault.

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ASIDE: I wish there was something else that worked as well as alcohol. When I was sober two months (though it feels like yearsago, I felt hopeful. This was while I did my camino, my 1,000km pilgrimage across France and Spain. Solitude and physical exhaustion, ill-health, dehydration and a genuine, direct, non-imaginary temporary sense of purpose replaced all that empty-headed worrying about the value and the importance of life. For five weeks, all that mattered was walking, getting from where I woke up to where I intended to sleep, always aiming for a target I knew was a set distance away. I don’t know how to replicate this in my day to day existence, because back here all that keeps the days together is the knowledge that one day I’ll be dead, the only challenge is making sure I start drinking before my hands start shaking (about 5pm), or before I start feeling close to a massive panic attack (7pm). I am trapped in the cycle of alcoholic dependency, but there is no sign of anything coming to change that, the only beacon I ever had was the long-planned sober month and a bit spent walking to Santiago. I’ve done that, and wasn’t able to maintain the sobriety afterwards. I’m 28, which is not a good-sounding age, I’m an alcoholic, I have no savings, no assets, no children, not many friends, no career to speak of, no property, no car, right now no regular income: I am technically a failure. At least I have a bicycle so don’t need to take buses, but there is nothing to hold onto as a source of pride, as a grounding sense of self. The unpaid Huffington Post articles probably count as the most quantifiably good thing to happen to me, but that really isn’t much to brag about, is it, and it certainly isn’t enough to define an existence?

Dahl captures claustrophobia well when the farmers first start digging towards the foxes, when the animals are in a life or death digging race. I found this genuinely exciting, not remembering if Mr Fox lost any children during this adventure and knowing that Dahl’s narratives are often very dark. No children died, though, and other than body-shaming the farmers and a narratorial sexism towards all females in the story, this one isn’t actually objectionable. There’s a normalisation of meat farming and the kind of assumed nonchalance towards violence that Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (review here) writes about in detail. It is weird that the fox is humanised but the chicken is not, it shows a very clear urban attitude towards farmers and the countryside – farmers as disgusting, animal-hating, greedy, fat – which is at odds with reality, and I wouldn’t be surprised if agricultural professionals across the country still gather together to burn copies of this hate-filled book. It’s scary, and it’s a bit exciting, but the text makes it very clear that the narrator believes that meat eating, female domesticity and theft from the affluent are all fine and morally defensible. Why is stealing when you have nothing better than stealing when you have a lot? Unless you believe all property is an inherent crime and have broad anarchist political beliefs, it is unfair and hypocritical to judge differently the theft of the same item based on the reason for the theft. Either property laws are upheld, or they are not, and it is for this reason that I believe Jean Valjean (#24601), Peter Rabbit, Fantastic Mr Fox and Aladdin were due the treatment they received from their relative authority figures: believing that someone stealing to feed themselves and their family is morally better than someone stealing because they want to feel a thrill is conservative, old-fashioned, thinking. We must judge others how we would want to be judged: and do any of us actively want someone to steal our possessions? No, which is why we’re all such fucking hypocrites for praising this book and loving Alan Menken’s Aladdin musical: we wouldn’t like it if the fox was raiding our kitchen, so why should we allow it when he raids the “villainous” farmers’?

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ASIDE: This is the problem with needing to contextualise everything, with wanting to look at the world that surrounds every act. I understand why I drink now, I worked it out when I was sober, but that doesn’t mean I’m able to stop myself, if anything it has meant that the drinking has continued with a more raucous abandon because now I’m no longer preoccupied with figuring out a “why”. Now that there’s an understood “why” it’s harder to find a “why not”: when the scale was balanced with nothing of weight on either side I could argue against myself with hope and optimism and a false sense of presumed and forthcoming purpose. But now, as my days yet again start blurring into one another and every evening turns into the same RSI-inducing hand-to-mouth action, I once again feel a void, a void that is worse than it once once, because for five weeks a couple of months ago that void didn’t exist. I couldn’t create a life where I was a pilgrim forever, it is practically impossible. I can’t afford to be a pilgrim again, not for a long time. Though, to be honest, I can’t afford the wine I’m drinking, but even when I’m the poorest I’ve been in years, it is the vermouth and the gin and the aperitivo that I find myself buying weekly, pushing me deeper into debt. Last week I worked for 10 hours for a company who are trying to avoid paying me. This is the world we live in, where everyone is selfish, everyone is mean. I’d do the same right back to them if I was in a position of power, so I’m struggling to get as annoyed as I know I should be. It’s to be expected. 

And this is where I neatly tie it all together and pretend this was a structured, sober, piece of creative writing (#postmodernblog) and not just a piece of alcoholic serendipity. 

Fantastic Mr Fox presents a world very similar to ours, where everyone is selfish, where no one respects the property rights or the life of other autonomous characters. The differences in the text are explained away by species difference, whereas IRL (“in real life”, I feel dirty for doing that, it’s never happening again) they are explained away by gender, race, class, religion, sexuality, etc. In Fantastic Mr Fox we are presented with characters from completely different societies competing for the same resources. Everyone steals, is violent, fights, tricks, schemes, for the food. Both parties believe the food belongs to them, both parties feel the behaviour of the other is unfair and both parties are willing to go to extreme lengths to defend their beliefs.

This is our society.

We live in the same bitter, angry, selfish, self-important society. Mr Fox may be willing to share some of his food with his friends and family, but the farmers share with their employees and families too – no side is more altruistic than the other. Mr Fox kills birds: if that is allowed, why is the reader expected to read the attempted murder of a fox as heinous? The whole thing is hypocritical, confused, aggressive, self-important and deeply conservative, deeply capitalist. If a rich man stops paying attention to his possessions, he deserves to have them stolen: Mr Fox is not a socialist redistributing the wealth, he is a venture capitalist sweeping in underneath the buried funds of the old guard who’ve become too busy chasing foxes to worry about their assets. This is a hymn to finance, to capitalism, to whoever owns the means of production being the one in power. Mr Fox doesn’t share his knowledge and his secrets with the people he uses to help him implement his ideas, just his profits. His corporation may pay better, but it’s one that has a heavy layer at the top of centralised power, control, and expertise. Fantastic Mr Fox is a very capitalist text, a text where all characters like good value, all characters hate imposed limits on freedom of enterprise and all characters like indulging in good food and good drink. The women are in the kitchen, the men are on adventures.

The ideology here is like CS Lewis’ Christian propaganda. I firmly expect socialist parents to hold this back from their impressionable children. Here, read this: invite your kids to be brainwashed into loving aggressive capitalist enterprise. Mr Fox isn’t a Fantastic Robin Hood, he’s a wily Martin Shkreli.


7 comments on “Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

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  2. Interviewed Dahl not long before he died. He was an arse.

    Liked by 1 person

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