Cautionary Tales for Children

written by Hilaire Belloc
illustrated by Edward Gorey

Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children
illustrated by Edward Gorey

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages 9+

Naughty Children Meet Horrible Fates in Satirical Verse

Fans of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies will rejoice in this volume of old and irreverent stories about naughty children meeting horrible, but varyingly à propos, fates, “rediscovered,” and illustrated by Gorey himself.

Review - Cautionary Tales for Children

Tongue in cheek and over the top, Belloc begins with a little verse explaining that, naturally, the extreme outcomes simply cannot be “True,” as ordinary folks “pretty nearly all day long/Are doing something rather wrong,” and if we all met the ends that we poetically deserved, “You would have perished long ago.”

From there we move straightaway in the tale of hapless “Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a lion.” Even though Jim has the best of everything, he cannot obey the dictate “That children never are allowed/To leave their Nurses in a Crowd.” Immediately upon his committing this crime, “a Lion sprang/and hungrily began to eat/The Boy: beginning at his feet.”

True to its cause, the tale continues apace, with the lion devouring Jim bit by bit. The words and illustrations are understated. “Jim detested it!” and looks, in the drawing, merely irritated, while the lion retains the charm of a plush toy. When the zookeeper yells at the lion to stop, the boy’s bloodless, disembodied head rolls to his feet, comically forlorn.

For a denouement, “Nurse informed his Parents” who are “Concerned.” Mother says, “Well—it gives me no surprise,/He would not do as he was told,” while father uses Jim’s fate as an object lesson to remind the siblings “always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse.”

Review - Cautionary Tales for Children

There are seven instructional tales, three of which—“Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion,” “Henry King, Who chewed bits of String and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies,” and “Matilda, Who told lies, and was Burned to Death”—end in the malefactor’s painful and untimely demise.

There is an unevenness to the punishments. For the sin of “Carousing in the Dirt,” Franklin Hyde is beaten up by his Uncle; Algernon, who plays with a loaded gun and nearly blows his sister’s head off, is “reprimanded.” Hildebrand, frightened by the noise of the newly invented Motor-Car, receives a history lesson concerning his Great Grandfather’s dismemberment in the war, after which his father takes him to town to buy some cars.

Godolphin Horne’s sin is that “the Lad was Deathly Proud!/He never shook your Hand or Bowed,/But merely smirked and nodded thus:/How perfectly ridiculous!” Thus, when a position comes up for him at court, the lords and ladies refuse him, and Godolphin ends up as a bootblack.

The ignominy of this situation most likely will escape young and modern readers, but it seems the only story in which the justice is not only poetic, but also appropriate.

For those of a morbid turn or simply fascinated by extreme measures, Cautionary Tales for Children is a darkly amusing journey; for all others, caution is suggested.

Read more of Monica's book reviews.

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