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Four legs good, two legs bad.

The English classroom classic. I would imagine that Animal Farm was present on most secondary school curriculums and therefore, for better or worse, most have experienced Animal Farm. When I read the book, and I can’t remember quite how old I would have been, I recall a book about animals, mirroring flaws that we see in human nature, and struggles for power, for equality. Yes, the teacher at the time may have made some vague remark about it being very much a political book, but I wasn’t really interested and / or I didn’t comprehend it at the time.

Any commentary on Soviet history and communism would have been completely lost on me.

animal farm

Still from the 1994 live action adaptation. “Politics? I thought it was just a film about some animals”

Now of course, it’s a bit clearer. Animal Farm is a satirical novel, written by Orwell during the Second World War. Swimming in allegory and symbolism, it describes the situation in Europe and Russia, but takes away the main players of Stalin, Trotsky, Marx and Tsar and replaces them with an ensemble of animals; pigs, horses, dogs, sheep, and of course humans. It could be considered a dystopian novel too, in the same vein as Orwell’s other masterpiece, 1984.

We are given a short and direct sequence of events that occur at Manor Farm over the course of several years. Mr. Jones is the farmer and owner of Manor Farm, and his cruel and drunken handling of work and treatment of animals. Old Major, an old boar, prophesies a world where animals are no longer ruled by humans, deriding them as parasites who consume but do not contribute, and teaches the farm the song ‘Beasts of England’. He later dies, and this spurs the animals into revolt.

Their lives now, they reasoned, were hungry and laborious; was it not right and just that a better world should exist somewhere else?

They drive Jones and his farmhands from the farm and rename it Animal Farm. They set out a set of rules to ensure life on the farm is fair and better than under the rule of Jones. Named the ‘Seven Commandments of Animalism’, they are as follows;

Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.

Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

No animal shall wear clothes.

No animal shall sleep in a bed.

No animal shall drink alcohol.

No animal shall kill any other animal.

All animals are equal.

Cool cover design by John Holcroft http://crean.es/tag/john-holcroft/

Cool cover design by John Holcroft http://crean.es/tag/john-holcroft/

The animals are overjoyed at their revolution, and news of their victory over the humans soon spreads far and wide. Morale is high, the farmyard tasks run smoothly and life is better than ever before. The pigs are elevated to the leaders as they are naturally the most intelligent, and two young pigs Napoleon and Snowball seem to begin a political rivalry for leadership of the farm. Snowball seems the more educated with rational and well thought out ideas, keen for the farm to prosper and develop. Upon announcing plans to build a windmill, which could provide electricity to light stalls and keep the animals warm in the winter, Napoleon ousts Snowball and declares himself leader of the farm.

Slowly, under the rule of Napoleon, a more controlled and ordered rule of the farm comes into play. The pigs seem to have more and more benefits over the rest of the animals.

This work was strictly voluntary, but any animal who absented himself from it would have his rations reduced by half.

Napoleon also begins to manipulate the thoughts of the animals, primarily through a young pig named Squealer, who claims that the windmill idea was Napoleon’s idea all along, and the animals are required to start working hard (very hard) on the construction of the windmill right away. When the partially constructed windmill is destroyed in a storm, Squealer tells the animals that this was an act of sabotage from Snowball.

“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”

Squealer becomes the charismatic mouthpiece for Napoleon’s regime is Squealer, a pig who spouts propaganda which is lapped up by the animals who have doubts and concerns but ultimately are too afraid of Animal Farm failing, and the possibility of the return of Farmer Jones.

“Surely, comrades, you do not want Jones back?”

Once again this argument was unanswerable. Certainly the animals did not want Jones back; if the holding of debates on Sunday mornings was liable to bring him back, then the debates must stop. Boxer, who had now had time to think things over, voiced the general feeling by saying: “If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.” And from then on he adopted the maxim, “Napoleon is always right,” in addition to his private motto of “I will work harder.”

Snowball soon becomes the scapegoat for any and every problem that the farm encounters, and Napoleon begins to rule with an iron-fist. Any animal suspected of collaborating with Snowball are deemed traitors of Animal Farm and sentenced to death. Boxer the carthorse, the most faithful and hardworking of all the animals, strives to work for the benefit of the farm and collapses, injuring his hoof and unable to work any longer. He was close to retirement, and looks forward to a peaceful end to his life. Napoleon however, sells him to the slaughterhouse, disposing of him cruelly and for his own profit, as the pigs use the money to buy whisky. Instances of cruelty and inequality from Napoleon’s dictatorship continue but through Squealer’s propaganda and the animals fear, the farm reverts back to a state not seen since the days of Jones’ rule.

As the years pass, the pigs have taken on many human traits, such as sleeping in beds, drinking alcohol, wearing clothes – even walking on two legs and carrying whips. And all this despite the initial commandments stating otherwise…but when the animals return to the wall of the barn where the commandments were initially painted, they have been replaced by just a single line, reading:

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

The animals, exhausted and starving, leave their pens one night to a raucous event occurring within the farmhouse. Napoleon and the rest of the pigs are celebrating an alliance with a local human farmer, and together men and pig are drinking, gambling, laughing. Napoleon announces that the farm shall return to being named ‘The Manor Farm’. As the animals are about to leave the farm for good, they hear curses and shouts and return to the farmhouse window.

There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously. Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

animal farm cover mine

Animal Farm demands a reread. Orwell achieved something special, with a story that can be as simple, or complex as you like. Take it as a sort of fable at face value, a reenactment of the Russian Revolution leading into the Stalin era, or a commentary on the nature and perils of revolution. I believe the book is not strictly a warning on communism, or criticising the Stalin era, (the Russian Revolution and events leading up to WWII), but of all forms of rebellion and overthrowing those in power. Benjamin, the aged donkey who has lived longer than anyone on the farm, speaks very little. He is distant and disgruntled all of the time, and is heard cryptically saying that a donkey lives a long time. He is cynical and wise, and has perhaps lived through many a regime, thus perhaps he has seen this all before. I think he sees that revolution and struggles for power are always inevitable, but in the grand scheme of things living rarely changes or improves for the masses.

Only old Benjamin professed to remember every detail of his long life and to know that things never had been, nor ever could be much better or much worse–hunger, hardship, and disappointment being, so he said, the unalterable law of life.

The cynical, pessimistic but wise Benjamin.

Life will go on as it always has gone on – that is, badly.

If you haven’t read Animal Farm since you were a young mind in school, take another look. It will be a totally different read to what you remember. If you haven’t read it at all, and you aren’t interesting in such a politically charged piece, give it a chance. It still has Orwell’s simple, easy to read prose, and the short length combined with its fairytale feel means it can be digested quickly and easily. And by digging deeper, one of the most read and arguably important books of the past century awaits.

Four legs good, two legs better.

“Kill the pig. Slit his throat. Spill his blood.”

Cool book art I found on Pinterest by Levente Szabo. Check out his work http://www.goodillustration.com/portfolio/Levente-Szabo-178/

Cool book art I found on Pinterest by Levente Szabo. Check out his work http://www.goodillustration.com/portfolio/Levente-Szabo-178/

I guess Lord Of The Flies can be classed as a dystopian novel in a loose sense; it seemingly takes place in the midst of a future war where young boys are being transported to an unknown destination. There seem to be some obvious parallels with the widescale evacuations of many young children in the UK, out of the cities and into the country during the Second World War.

The plane crash lands, or is shot down. From the wreckage and the scar it causes in the uninhabited jungle, a group of boys emerge to discover they are stranded on an island, alone and away from the eyes of adults. Here they bond, they play, they laugh, they tease, they build, they survive, they hunt, they fight, they kill, they murder, they transform.

“He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet.”

“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?”

A brief synopsis yes, but Lord Of The Flies must be one of the most read pieces of literature in schools. In my secondary school it was not a part of our syllabus yet I always remember a poster that hung on the wall of our English department, depicting a group of scruffy dirty schoolboys in a jungle.

This is one of those books that have found their way onto my ‘to-read’ list not because I’m necessarily interested in the subject or plot, but because it is one of those books that is considered a classic – a must-read – and in fact a book that most people have read. As I am on a mission to drink up as much literature as I can, books like Lord Of The Flies seem like a no-brainer when trying to absorb the classics of the past century.

I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the book, rather it was one that I needed to get under my belt so that I could further enjoy novels that were more up my street. However I soon felt some regret at this viewpoint, as Lord Of The Flies quickly gripped me as its core themes are those which appeal to me greatly.

The prose is rich and vivid – vitally important when your characters, a group of schoolboys, and your setting, an uninhabited Pacific island covered in dense jungle, are so fundamentally different. Bringing these two worlds together, and how the boys initially react and then adapt to their surroundings is fascinating in its own right.

“Along the shoreward edge of the shallows the advancing clearness was full of strange, moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes. Here and there a larger pebble clung to its own air and was covered with a coat of pearls. The tide swelled in over the rain-pitted sand and smoothed everything with a layer of silver. Now it touched the first of the stains that seeped from the broken body and the creatures made a moving patch of light as they gathered at the edge. The water rose further and dressed Simon’s coarse hair with brightness. The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble. The strange, attendant creatures, with their fiery eyes and trailing vapours busied themselves round his head. The body lifted a fraction of an inch from the sand and a bubble of air escaped from the mouth with a wet plop. Then it turned gently in the water.

Somewhere over the darkened curve of the world the sun and moon were pulling; and the film of water on the earth planet was held, bulging slightly on one side while the solid core turned. The great wave of the tide moved further along the island and the water lifted. Softly, surrounded by a fringe of inquisitive bright creatures, itself a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations, Simon’s dead body moved out towards the open sea.”

And then we are introduced to the mentality of certain boys. Friendships are begun, bullies are established, weaknesses are highlighted. Soon the setting could be anywhere – truthfully, it doesn’t matter. The difference is the lack of rules, the lack of guidance and morals.

“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?”

Stills from the 1963 move adaptation, credit to http://oldhollywood.tumblr.com/image/376794485

Stills from the 1963 move adaptation, credit to http://oldhollywood.tumblr.com/image/376794485

While the descent into savagery is a long-time coming, when it does arrive it is no less shocking, and positively terrifying in its childishness. The various putdowns, insults, scorns are delightfully powerful as we witness the victims blush and snarl and swear and cry as the group descends upon them, whether it be at a meeting or being the butt of a joke, to running through the jungle.

It appears that the plane that was shot down contained only children from all-boys schools. Golding made the decision to keep the children as boys on the island. I can see why; with girls and boys the subject of sexuality will eventually raise its head, and with the age of the children at little over ten and the tone of the content as it is it could have been a difficult and controversial task. But would the overall outcome have been any different with girls? It seems unlikely. I don’t think the boy’s descent into savagery is because they are boys. Golding strongly suggests that the human condition leans more towards savagery, violence and chaos, as we how the boys are swayed by fighting and fear of a beast that haunts their dreams.

“Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.”

The beast is nothing. It is driven by the fear and savagery present within the boys’ subconscious. But as night begins to fall with darkness looming, away from the safety of the daytime fear only grows stronger. The titular Lord Of The Flies (a literal translation of Beelzebub) is actually a severed pig’s head, which taunts Simon during a hallucination.

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

Simon’s mouth laboured , brought forth audible words. “Pig’s head on a stick.”

“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!’ said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are the way they are?”

There are many conflicts and symbolism within the book and it’s very much an allegorical novel. Ralph is the protagonist, and wants order. Jack is the antagonist, and wants to hunt and fight. Their conflict can be seen as civilisation vs savagery, or leadership vs desire for power, or even good vs evil. The loss of innocence.

“The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. He gave himself up to them now for the first time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the islands; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”

I’m glad I went back to visit Lord Of The Flies.

Recently added to my to-read list, Animal Farm and The Old Man And The Sea, some other scholarly books from my youth.