Book title: Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years
This children’s book published in 1907 was written by Hilaire Belloc. It’s an amusing read and was designed to be so, as it sought to parody the 19th century cautionary tales that were prolific (and taken in seriousness) in the Victorian era.
Belloc was a French-British writer and historian – and politician and orator and about a hundred other things. Basil Blackwood created the original text’s illustrations (but Posy Simmonds’ illustrations are featured in this post). Both Belloc and Blackwood were Oxonions (yay) and Belloc was President of the Oxford Union during his time there. Belloc died in the 50’s after publishing over 100 texts. Many of them were serious works, such as those relating to politics or his Catholic faith, but it’s The Cautionary Tales that everyone remembers him best for.
The book consists of 11 verses written in rhyming couplets. Each verse provides a satirical story set in rhyme. I called it a children’s book but if you have a young or sensitive kid be forewarned: this is a book full of gruesome, irreverent yet witty tales that appeals to adults. Take for example, the tale of Jim who ran away from his nurse – and was eaten by a lion.
The verses are essentially morality tales but the lessons are hilariously delivered. Henry King, whose chief defect “was chewing little bits of string”, advises:
When Henry, with his Latest Breath,
Cried—“Oh my friends, be warned by me.
That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch and Tea
Are all the Human Frame requires . . .”
I thought of both Dahl and the Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids when I read the Cautionary Tales. Possibly Grizzly Tales was inspired by Belloc’s book, and maybe Roald Dahl read it as a child too and was influenced? It’s been around so long it must have inspired any number of modern works.
I’ve just Googled it and indeed Roald Dahl was inspired by Belloc:
"I always have been a lover of Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tales. I knew every one of those Belloc tales by heart by the time I was 8,9,10… I wanted to do something a bit funny like that [and] I remembered those tales."
He was speaking of Revolting Rhymes, Dahl’s darker reimagining of fairy tales as a series of rhymes.
Interesting too that Dahl had a character named Matilda. If you’re a Pink Floyd fan you might know that Matilda Mother was inspired by Belloc’s Matilda verse in this book.
The Folio Society create beautiful versions of literature they consider to be significant. The Cautionary Tales is so popular it has never been out of print. That’s right – its.never.been.out.of.print since 1907! All of the images in this blogpost are from my Folio Society edition, which is a hardback with a separate sleeve, colour illustrations and super quality.
If you are looking for witty satire Project Gutenberg has the text available to read for free here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/27424/27424-h/27424-h.htm
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