The Tale of Gregory Grasshopper

“Come out from behind that fungus! It’s no use trying to hide when Jack Frost is about!” (The Tale of Gregory Grasshopper, 37)

Aware that it’s been a long time between posts, and In need of inspiration this lunchtime, I took myself to our local second-hand bookshop, Boobooks, to see what they had in their shelves. Going in a different door than usual, I came upon the rare children’s books section. There, beckoningly, was The Tale of Gregory Grasshopper, written and illustrated by D. H. Gilmore. Of course, I pounced upon it!

David Hunter Gilmore, The Tale of Gregory Grasshopper. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1947.

Gregory is a cheery young grasshopper who prefers to play and muck about rather than work hard like his neighbours. The story opens with him hopping ‘gaily along’ in his blue ‘feathered cap and his red shoes. ‘It was just that kind of morning,’ says the narrator. But we all know that characters that open with such carefree hubris are bound to be taken into challenging territory. As Gregory hops among his friends, such as Mrs Ant and her many children, old Antony Bumble the Bee and Cuthbert the Caterpillar (and his cousins Catkin and Codlin), he discovers they’re busy getting ready for winter and don’t have time to play.

Undeterred, Gregory decides to hang out in a field of wheat, but the farmers are reaping, and a scythe knocks him with a tumble into the web of Silas Spider. Luckily for Gregory, Mr Spider’s cooking pot is not quite big enough for a ‘nice plump Grasshopper like you,’ and while Silas toddles off to his neighbours to get a bigger pot, Gregory is rescued by a tall Green Gentleman, who invites him to lunch.

Unfortunately, the Green Gentleman is none other than Marmaduke Mantis, and Gregory is still on the menu. Mr Mantis whisks Gregory home and gets his kitchen equipment ready.

A large pot was now beginning to bubble on the fire as Mr Mantis piled wood beneath it. Having done this to his satisfaction, he began to get down the knives one by one, feeling their edges and looking earnestly at Gregory as he did so.

‘I think,’ said Mr Mantis reflectively, ‘that perhaps, after all, this scimitar will be best’ (28)

Marmaduke Mantis sharpens his scimitar . . .

Poor Gregory! Out of the spider-web, into Marmaduke Mantis’s cooking pot! ‘I don’t want to smell delicious!’ he cries. ‘I want to get out of here!’ (p. 30). He spies a small window, and with a mighty hop bounds to freedom. Chased by Mr Mantis, Mr Spider, and the other ‘horrid inhabitants’ of their neighbourhood, Gregory seeks refuge in the forest, where the leaves laugh at him because he refuses to believe in winter.

Things go from bad to worse, when an outraged Jack Frost challenges Gregory and buries him in a drift of snow. All that is visible of poor Gregory is the very tip of the blue feather in his hat.

All seems lost, but luckily for Gregory, Antony Bumble, collecting moss for his winter nest, comes across the feather sticking out in from the snow, rescues his friend, and takes him home for a sip of honey by the fire. Poor Gregory, chastened by his experiences, admits that winter is real, and sets about to build his own winter nest. (Meanwhile, Silas Spider and Marmaduke Mantis, still quarrelling over who should have had Gregory for lunch, are punished for their greed when Winter buries them with snow.)

D. H. Gilmore

In discovering Gregory the Grasshopper, I’ve also discovered the existence of his creator, David Hunter Gilmore (1904-1982), a New Zealander who began his career as a schoolteacher, them moved in to journalism, and wrote and illustrated a number of children’s books featuring insects (including the delightfully titled Antony Ant and the Earwig Pirates). His visual style, influenced strongly by Walt Disney, caused him to be know as the ‘Australian Walt Disney,’ and he illustrated many other stories under the pseudonym, ‘Gilly.’ I like his flair–Gregory has lovely flourishes and witty comments that elevate this from boring moralising, and I’ll be doing a bit of digging, to find out more–and I hope, for the sake of some future survey entries for the Our Mythical Childhood survey, to find that Gilmore was inspired by other of Aesop’s fables.

The Flaw in Aesop’s Logic?

The story of the Ant and the Grasshopper (or Cicada) is one of Aesop’s most famous fables. Listed at 373 in the Perry index of Aesopica, its moral is one familiar to all Scouts and Guides: ‘Be Prepared,’ or Prepare for the Future. (This may be why it is so popular in stories for children.) Like most fables it extrapolates a moral from the natural world to human behaviour: in this case, it is a story that contrasts industry with idleness or carelessness, showing a foolish grasshopper preferring to sing and play, in contrast with the busy ants, who store their food in preparation for a harsh winter. Is this fair to grasshoppers, or even accurate? Insect life cycles vary, as Jo Wimpenny points out in one of my other new favourite books, Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables. Grasshoppers prepare for winter in their own particular way: they mate in warmer months, then lay their eggs under ground, and cover them with a sticky substance that hardens and protects them from the cold. After winter is over, the eggs hatch, and the life cycle continues:

None of this seems to immediately contradict Aesop’s portrayal of he grasshopper. Yet in fact, here is the first flaw in Aesop’s fable–come the winter, the grasshopper was going to die anyway. (Aesop’s Animals, 296)

Reflecting on the relationship between human ideas and the insect world is the purview of a field called ethnoentomology, and the wonderfully titled Ethnoentomology: An Open Journal of Ethnoentomology and Cultural Entomology might have a lot to say about this: clearly, human projection of morality onto animal behaviour, or extrapolation of life rules from animal behaviour, has its limits, and often reveals more about how humans think than it does about the world we live in.

The Grasshopper and the Anthropomorphists?

Gregory the Grasshopper certainly reveals more about humans than it does about the animal kingdom: here we see highly anthropomorphic takes on insect behaviour–Mrs Ant lives in an old boot with a thatched roof and many children, like the old woman of the nursery rhyme. Elderly bee-gentleman Anthony Bumble has a cozy home with comfortable chairs and a large store of honey for emergencies (he reminds me a bit of Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows). Good insects are contrasted with bad insects, like greedy Silas Spider and Marmaduke Mantis, who live in the mean-streets of a stony village. Although various known qualities of different insects are well-observed (ants marching in formation, caterpillars spinning cocoons, spiders taking their time to consume their prey), there’s also a humanistic hierarchy at work.

But I like this book: particularly because Gregory is portrayed as young and innocent–he’s not lazy or careless, as depicted in so many retellings of the fable, he’s new to the world and doesn’t know what winter is: as he tells Jack Frost, he thinks winter is just a ‘bogey-man made up to frighten silly creatures who d-didn’t know h-how to enjoy themselves!’ (38). The sting is taken out of the tale: a happy ending is possible, without too much pointing fingers at different styles of behaviour. I’ve always felt that the ants of the original fable are a little too quick to judge the grasshopper (and I like versions in which they share their stores with him in exchange for musical entertainment during the long winter nights). After all, in society as in the natural world, surely it’s better to understand that different styles can be complementary, that ants and bees and grasshoppers (or Antony Bumble and Gregory Grasshopper) can get along, helping one another build their nests, and sipping honey by the fire when they need refreshment….

Elizabeth Hale

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