‘I’d forgotten what an impetuous little donkey you are’–The Emperor Hadrian, Julius Zebra: Entangled with the Egyptians.
As part of my mission to think about history and comedy, I’ve been reading Gary Northfield’s very funny Julius Zebra series of middle-grade chapter books In the first of them, Rumble with the Romans, Julius, a zebra from the ‘stinky lake’ in the middle of Africa, is captured and taken to Rome to visit the circus. Actually, that’s what he thinks at first. In fact, he’s taken to be in the circus, to fight for his life in front of the Emperor Hadrian. At first it doesn’t go so well for Julius and his friends, but when a gladiator calls him a ‘stripy horse,’ Julius sees red and finds his fighting instincts, becoming the crowd’s, and the Emperor’s favourite.
It’s a kind of Spartacus-meets-Gladiator –meets Asterix-meets-Beano-and-Dandy romp, mixing madcap mayhem with quite a bit of historical information along the way, and it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read about Ancient Rome in a a long time.
Bundle with the Britons is the second in the Julius Zebra series, in which Julius and his friends are sent to Britain to subdue the Britons by taking on their fearsome gladiators. But when they go on a training run through a swamp, they meet an old woman in a hut, who tells them about the great Iceni warrior, Boudicca, and shows them how to paint themselves with woad, they join forces with their British counterparts, to overthrow the Romans. Next up is Entangled with the Egyptians, where Julius, fleeing from Hadrian, ends up in Egypt, where he is mistaken for a horse god who can make it rain. And the last, so far, in the series, is Grapple with the Greeks, in which the great hero Heracles drags Julius and his friends to Greece to help him find his lost Golden Apple.
Northfield creates a merry band of companions for his hero. There’s Cornelius, the know-it all warthog. He functions much like Brenda the Wonder-Camel in the Cairo Jim books, providing information when necessary. (Even if Julius mishears half of it, and misunderstands the rest, the information is very helpful for readers.) There’s Lucia, the crocodile, whose cunning escape plans seem always to lead the gang back to their captors. Rufus, the amiable giraffe, always up for adventure, Felix, the rock-collecting antelope, and Milus, a grumpy lion. Sometimes the gang is joined by their gladiatorial-combat instructor, Pliny the mouse. And once Julius is reunited with his dimwitted brother, Brutus, even more mayhem ensues.
Together, Julius and friends travel the Roman empire, from Africa to Rome, to Britain, to Egypt and Greece, matching wits with Septimus, a bad-tempered teacher of gladiators, and the emperor himself.
The novels are an enticing mixture of text and cartoons, with a lot of shouting, slapstick and bad puns. Chapters have titles like ‘I came, I saw, I threw up,’ (Romans) and ‘I want my Mummy’ (in Egyptians), and ‘Hoo noo broon coo’ (Britons), and the humour doesn’t err on the side of subtlety. But again, along the way, is a great deal of information, delivered in part by Cornelius the warthog, and visible in the details of Northfield’s text and illustrations. He’s clearly done his research, and for readers eager to know more about Ancient Rome, each volume has a final chapter in which Cornelius teaches how to count in Roman Numerals, and a glossary in which Northfield explains the fundamentals of daily life in antiquity.
These books don’t only give you a good laugh, they teach you something, namely details about a long-ago world. They make me want to know more–to check up on things I’d forgotten, and to think about things I hadn’t heard about before. And they gave me something to think about: they may not be intended as post-colonial critiques of empire, but there’s certainly a resonance in seeing a group of African animals, kidnapped to entertain the humans of Rome, break free and start a rebellion, in Rome and Britain. Hadrian’s obsession with his big Wall in Britain offers another sort of modern resonance. Looking at how the animals band together to outwit the humans, whose intentions are seldom good, I can’t help thinking about how our human world exploits animals. There are other resonances: animals, like children, are often bossed around by adults, and children identify with animals’ innocence and comparative kindness. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it’s nothing to what humans get up to.
Funny books don’t have to be educational, but they often are, perhaps despite themselves. Through humour, action, fun characters, and amusing situations, Julius Zebra and friends convey a great deal of nonsense, but they also teach us a great deal about the the world–ancient or modern.