Monday, 11 May 2015

Squirrel Nutkin: Anarchy for Under Fives

Squirrel Nutkin: Anarchy for Under Fives

Nutkin embodies the spirit of irreverence, making him an excellent role model for children

Graham Greene, writing about Beatrix Potter in 1933, called The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin “an unsatisfactory book, less interesting than her first (The Tailor of Gloucester).” 

I couldn’t agree less. 

First published in 1903, 
Squirrel Nutkin is more than “a Tale about a tail”. It is a story of brave defiance in the face (quite literally in the face) of tyranny, with a morally ambiguous ending. The hero, a squirrel named Nutkin, is one of the most flamboyantly subversive characters in children’s literature.

The book also presents the child with images of a wild, pristine world free from human intrusion: pictures of Lakeland wildlife and landscape that are precise and physical, but also romantic. These images last a lifetime. The one that took root in my own imagination shows the squirrels coming through the wood in a long single file, each carrying a fish. Their leader, however, carries no fish, is not walking in line, but is bounding ahead, singing:
“The man in the wilderness said to me,
‘How many strawberries grow in the sea?’
I answered him as I thought good –
‘As many red herrings as grow in the wood’”

This strange, formal procession through the green forest, with its suggestion of religious or pagan ceremony, together with the teasing beauty of the verse and Nutkin’s ecstatic fearlessness, created a sense of enchanted freedom. When I look at it now, the illustration has lost much of its power - it is even a bit pale and disappointing - but the mental image formed decades ago remains just as vivid. 

The procession through the forest, bearing gifts of fish

The story of Squirrel Nutkin is simple in form, a rhythmical repetition of similar events over six days. The tension builds through the steady escalation of Nutkin’s provocative challenges to authority, and the reader’s nervous uncertainty about exactly when that authority, in the form of a huge tawny owl, will react. 

It begins with a society of squirrels living in a wood by a lake, including Nutkin, his brother Twinkleberry, and their cousins. Twinkleberry has no real role in the story other than as the only named member of the large crowd of cousins. It is Autumn, and the squirrels sail across the lake to an island to gather nuts. But before they can do this, they have to ask permission from Old Brown, the owl who lives in an oak tree at the heart of the wooded island. It is not explained why Old Brown has the power to grant or deny this permission. 

On the first day, the squirrels offer Old Brown “three fat mice” and all of them (except Nutkin) bow down before the owl: “Old Mr. Brown, will you favour us with permission to gather nuts upon your island?” But Nutkin scorns such obsequiousness from the start, preferring to dance up and down and demand that the owl answer a riddle – the first of eight rhymes which punctuate the story. The owl studiously ignores Nutkin and shuts his eyes, saying nothing. 

Each morning, the compliant squirrels bring a new set of gifts to propitiate Old Brown – a fat dead mole, minnows, beetles wrapped in dock leaves, honey, and finally, an egg. Notably, all the presents are either dead smaller animals, or items stolen from other creatures. And each day, Nutkin’s behaviour becomes more provocative and defiant. 

On day two, he tickles Old Brown with a nettle:
“Old Mr B!, Riddle-me-ree!
Hitty Pitty within the wall,
Hitty Pitty without the wall;
If you touch Hitty Pitty,
Hitty Pitty will bite you!”
(‘Hitty Pitty’ is the nettle itself)

Provocation: Beatrix Potter's Old Brown is a remarkably accurate portrait of a tawny owl

Now Old Brown wakes up and fixes Nutkin with the expression of a cat wondering whether it is worth the effort to pounce on an insect. The owl’s ominous silence throughout the story adds to the sense of imminent danger. 

The denouement comes on day six. Nutkin chants another riddle, dancing up and down “like a sunbeam”. But it
’s the picture that tells the real story here: Old Brown’s huge owl-face bursts out of the tree, inches from the reckless dancing figure of Nutkin. The sense of sudden movement in this illustration is extraordinary, and, for a small child, as shocking as those moments in horror films when a face thrusts up out of nowhere, pushing right into the viewer’s own face. 

Dancing in the face of danger: one of the most frightening - and inspiring - pictures in children's literature

A couple of pages later, Old Brown’s patience runs out, and he catches Nutkin: “There was Old Brown, sitting on his doorstep, quite still, with his eyes closed, as if nothing had happened. But Nutkin was in his waistcoat pocket!”

As Potter writes, this should be the end of the story, but Nutkin is not so easily extinguished. He escapes, but loses his tail to the owl’s claws and beak. 

This ending is quite abrupt and is left open to interpretation. Many children will listen to the story being read aloud by a parent, rather than reading it for themselves, so they will be at the mercy of any spin the adult chooses to impose on the conclusion. This might involve the implication that the loss of his tail serves Nutkin right for defying authority, with the adult framing the story for the child as a lesson on the consequences of wilful nonconformity. 

This is certainly the majority interpretation given by the reviewers (all adults) on the Goodreads website.  Almost all of them, depressingly, call the book 
a morality tale in which impudent Nutkin “got what was coming to him”, or “a cautionary tale about how manners do not cost a thing and you should respect people.” Most of them express admiration for the saintly patience of Old Brown, and “no sympathy” for Nutkin.

So the superficially conventional ending allows the books more anarchic subtext to slip neatly under adult radar, like Peter Rabbit squeezing under the fence. 
For children lucky enough to have parents who resist the temptation to moralise (I was one of these), or those with the precocious strength of mind to reject such interpretations, the ‘message’ is less trite and more fertile. Nutkin loses most of his tail, but he’s still alive, and it is his name, not Old Brown’s, on the cover of the book. His loss of speech and poetry is a little more concerning, although this return to zoological reality also occurs at the end of Mrs Tiggywinkle, when she loses her clothes and her true hedgehog nature is restored. 

Potter’s prose tends to be dry and tactfully detached; she never patronises her young readers by telling them what to think, so I doubt whether the ending is intended as a lesson. Also, I’m not sure how much Potter’s original intention, whatever it was, matters, compared with the book’s effect on children. 

This effect, when you are three or four years old, resembles the experience of vicarious pleasure in watching another child defying an adult: Nutkin is the child who goes too far, and who, thrillingly, is not burdened by the natural timidity that keeps others obedient (look at how the other squirrels are all watching intently, from a safe distance).

But there’s more to it than this. Nutkin is the spirit of irreverence. He ignores the concept of ‘respect’ and ridicules the owl’s complacent authority. He suggests that creativity and play are as worthwhile as duty and conformity (he may not work with nuts, but he does invent games). He shows that you can confound and baffle tyrants using words, humour and poetry, and he does it with an inspiring insouciance. I can’t think of many better ‘lessons’ for young children in 2015. If The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is misinterpreted by adults, but continues to fascinate and delight children, then that is a measure of its subversive power. 

© Josephine Gardiner 2015 

Beatrix Potter as a child, photo taken by her father
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

‘Owl Island’ in the book is St Herbert’s Island on Derwentwater, in the Lake District.

The quotation from Graham Greene is from an essay about Beatrix Potter in Graham Greene: Collected Essays, Penguin, 1970.

All illustrations of Squirrel Nutkin in this article are from the Project Gutenberg Ebook of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.

(This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at


  1. Great analysis of this favourite tale - I like the ambiguous interpretations...

    1. Many thanks for commenting! Glad you enjoyed it.

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