Squirrel Nutkin and the Art of Mischief

Running up and down Yggdrasil, the Tree of trees of Nordic lore, goes Ratatösk the Squirrel. Up and down Yggdrasil Ratatösk runs, making trouble between the eagle that nests in the branches high above and the dragon that gnaws at the roots deep below. The squirrel tells the dragon how the eagle plans to destroy the dragon; then off he goes to tell the eagle how the dragon plots to devour the eagle. Ratatösk the Squirrel is a mythical symbol of mischief: a chattering, scurrying breeder of tension, and the forerunner of another excessively impertinent squirrel with no respect who carries on his ancient ancestor’s rude role of reminding the workaday world that a little mischief goes a long way for good or for ill. This squirrel dances his way with delight between danger and death, rejoicing in the romance of rebellion while pitting the wild and the wise against each other—which is the playful peril of childhood. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter basks in haughty naughtiness, the impervious subversion of youth, whose irrational defiance against all rational odds brings with it an energy that enlivens the young and old alike, even if it is an energy both risky and Rabelaisian.

In a wooded lakeside, a band of squirrels build little rafts and, using their tails as sails, punt out across the water to Owl Island, bringing empty sacks and three dead mice. Upon arrival, the squirrels process to a hollow oak tree where an owl called Old Brown lives. Laying the mice on his doorstep as an offering, the squirrels bow reverently—perhaps fearfully and certainly politely—begging Mr. Brown to favor them with permission to gather nuts on his island. But one squirrel, Nutkin by name, disregards the respectful rituals of his clan, and bobs impertinently before the impassive owl, singing riddling tunes in obnoxious fashion. Old Mr. Brown pays Nutkin no heed, taking the mice without a word and thus allowing the squirrels to fill their sacks with nuts. For the ensuing week, the squirrels return every morning bearing a new gift for Old Brown, and every morning Nutkin taunts the venerable owl with riddles and rhymes. Mr. Brown tolerates Nutkin’s impudence imperviously, allowing the squirrels to labor, while the naughty Nutkin plays alone and does no work. On the last day, as Old Brown inspects an egg brought by the squirrels, Nutkin’s cheekiness creates a crisis, after which he finds himself in the waistcoat pocket of Old Brown—that is to say, in his talons. He drags Nutkin into his house, but the rebel escapes by tearing his tail in two and fleeing, never to chatter another rhyme again.

Graham Greene called The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin “an unsatisfactory book” in comparison with Beatrix Potter’s earlier tales, and it deserves this designation only insofar as it does not satisfy the accepted formula of the nursery morality tale. The ambiguity of Nutkin’s tale is very satisfying indeed. Whether or not Nutkin’s dismemberment is read as justice for nonconformity or a further celebration of nonconformity, what is more startling and poignant than the loss of Nutkin’s tail is the loss of Nutkin’s tales, as he proves unable to speak or sing after his chastisement. Perhaps Thoreau was right when he quipped, “The squirrel that you kill in jest, dies in earnest.” Whether in in jest or in earnest, however, whether in life or death, a little perversity is always satisfactory. The Bohemian life of leisure that dangles its legs above the law in a realm of music and poetry often carries with it an impudence that is almost an innocence in its scorn for societal norms. Nutkin’s is the attitude that does not obsequiously succumb to the formalities of, say, nineteenth century landowners, despite their pride, power, and sovereignty. Nutkin is the ancient Squirrel of Mischief: the irresistible agent of insubordination that launches itself against the rigid systems of the world in the struggle between the playful and the pragmatic. The contract between the silly songs that ring through the woods and the serious industry and poise that rises above them is reflective of a reality that every child knows—and so does every parent.

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin boasts all the free-spiritedness of other free-spirited children’s books by authors like Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak, but avoids the outrageous elements of Dahl and the out-of-control elements of Sendak. Unlike Dahl’s Matilda, Nutkin presents outlaw behavior as opposed to promoting outlaw behavior. Unlike Sendak’s Wild Things, Nutkin’s wild revels are no wild rumpus where the border between the fond and the fierce is terrifyingly blurred: “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” This is not the world of Beatrix Potter, but this is not to say her world is safe. The thing that all three have in common is danger, and it is the thing that makes their stories delightful for children, for childhood is the most dangerous thing in the world. For all of her whimsy, Beatrix Potter never lost sight of reality, even its tensions and terrors. Peter Rabbit’s father was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs were devoured by her canine rescuers. Squirrel Nutkin was mutilated by Old Mr. Brown. The world of Beatrix Potter is the real world: moral, but not moralistic; a world of pursuit and prey, of dangers and delights, of existence and enchantment. As William Fahey wrote in his essay  “Will Rascals Defend Our Civilization…  And What Books Will They Read?”:

Enchantment will not work in an imbalanced world of goody-goody mannequins. The enchantment offered by good literature works because those reading or listening to a tale already know first-hand that life is complex. We need go no further than Squirrel Nutkin to understand how this very real balance is achieved even in a children’s literature. Nutkin is, at once, morally flawed and attractive. No one who encounters Squirrel Nutkin—even one of five years—can fail to miss his conceit, fail to anticipate his demise, or fail to recognize his own fallenness in the impertinent will-to-power of Nutkin.

Not that Nutkin is Nietzschean, but it may be the case, as Fahey suggests, that one must learn to read Nutkin before one can hope to read Nietzsche. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is a tale about the importance of order, the pleasure of disorder, and the need to offset the spirit of Pan with the spirit of Demeter—themes revisited by Miss Potter in a very different tale about a very different squirrel in The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes. The wild things of the world are a delight but they cannot carry the day, as Aesop’s Grasshopper demonstrates. The waggish wiggle of Mother Goose’s tail-feathers and the sublime nonsense that dances like a sunbeam around the grave facts of life must find their place, their balance. The jester must not overthrow the king. Nevertheless, the universe is a song and a riddle and the young know its refrain by heart. And though the rascals may end up in the waistcoat pocket of the world, whose will be the last laugh—or the last limerick? There is a difference between mischief and mayhem, and it is on this difference that The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin provides a winking word to the wise.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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