Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne
A person changes, an average person must change, mature, quite a bit over time; but I sometimes wonder how much we change deep down. Do we have similar core values to those we had in childhood or do we lose them somewhere along the way due to the things life throws at us? One way of finding out would be to test our emotional reaction to some core values that we felt deeply as children.
To do this, some tool of measurement is needed, and it must be something that in childhood we held in high value and that has remained unchanged since then.
Many things from childhood no longer interest us, and we no longer place value on them except in a sentimental way. Probably the biggest thing we value from childhood is memories. But memories are an insufficient tool of measurement in and of themselves for this test. Memory doesn’t create the values. It remembers them.
The tool a writer usually has in mind for such a test is a story or a set of them. Stories hold core human values that people react to at a deep emotional level. The Doctor Dolittle stories by Hugh Lofting, my favourite stories as a child, have core values that I once believed in and felt passionately about. To find out if these values still hold true for me, I needed to reread them. Just to make it clear: I don’t mean whether I still enjoy the books in the same way as I once did, but whether the stories’ values stir me in the same emotional way.
Not wanting to write about the horrors or boredom of life in the trenches of the First World War, instead Hugh Lofting breathed life into Doctor John Dolittle in illustrated letters to his children. These stories are set in early Victorian England in the fictional village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Doctor Dolittle is a man who can talk with almost every kind of animal. His aims in life are to help animals for their own sake and to try and understand nature better. He works selflessly toward this end and his housekeeper Dab-Dab (a duck) is always chastising him for giving away all his time and money to any and all animal strays, rather than taking care of himself and keeping enough money for the household needs. John Dolittle is a humble, gentle, thoughtful, selfless man to animals, always putting their welfare before his own, but one who also has some human friends. A child can easily imagine being in company with him on his adventures or helping him out in his surgery tending to the sick and needy animals.
Though the animals in the stories are mostly presented in anthropomorphic roles, they still give us a strong awareness of the vulnerability of real animals and their needs in a world dominated by man. Lofting’s idea for Doctor Dolittle may have come from his witnessing the destruction of regimental horses in the war. Who was to speak for these animals that were being used so cruelly for the sole purpose of war? Doctor Dolittle came to speak for them in story form, as he could not do so in real life. Doctor Dolittle came to speak for all animals. Animals told him of their problems, their needs, their desires and dreams and how their lives might be greatly improved. This man who could talk to animals was able to rise above wealth, class, snobbishness, indifference, fickleness and greed. He grew to be a superhero to the animal kingdom.
It is quite an accomplishment to have created such stories under any conditions, but to have started them from the trenches of that war highlighted Lofting’s tremendous will, enthusiasm and ability to let his imagination rise above the destruction and suffering surrounding him.
Lofting immerses us in his visionary world completely, and amazingly a very light touch of humour manages to run like a bright light throughout all the stories. He presents his philosophy in a very simple way that a child can easily grasp; it appears child-like, naïve and ambitious, and works wonderfully within the context of a children’s story.
So the question is: having read them again as an adult, how do I feel about them? Do I still share Lofting’s core values?
I not only again enjoyed the stories this time round, but felt Lofting’s core philosophy as strong as ever within me. The weak struggling against the strong, the animals struggling against the human world with the doctor on their side, still has a strong emotional pull. The light, gentle humour that runs throughout the stories also works for me as well as ever.
I will add this, though: my greater awareness of the human condition as an adult has left me with a vein of pessimism that makes part of my personality scoff at Lofting’s philosophy. On the other hand, this pessimism is hardly any more (and probably quite a bit less) than what Lofting himself experienced and yet it didn’t stop him from writing the stories and believing in the ability of human society for improvement. And I guess this is what the adult reader may take away from them – a sense of possibility that we humans may yet improve ourselves.
Beautiful and heartfelt stories like these remain a nurturing tool for the child’s emotional development and growing range of core values. But I also think they serve as a means of reawakening or reassuring the adult who may return to them. Though pessimism creeps up on one unawares over the years, there is always a counterweight to it, out there somewhere, if only you know where to look for it. Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle stories are one such example.
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