Read part 1 and part 2 of this story.
While the reason Leila Berg was acceptable in the Soviet Union seems clear, it is less obvious with another favourite: Muffin the Mule. When I started my academic studies of children's literature in Sweden, Muffin the Mule was not a part of children's literature canon, and somehow I lost sight of it, until sometime in mid-90s I was guest lecturing at the University of Edinburgh and visited the Museum of Childhood, where I suddenly saw the puppet of Muffin the Mule in a glass case. This brought back fond childhood memories and kindled by curiosity.
When I mentioned Muffin the Mule to an elderly Cambridge colleague some years ago, she immediately started singing the signature tune from the television series. Muffin is probably less known to contemporary audience, although BBC Two released a new animated series in 2005, and there are several picturebooks based on this series. However, I don't think Muffin is as famous in the UK today as he is in Russia. I was surprised to find scores of print editions, the most recent from 2017; free digital editions at numerous portals; as well as audio dramatisation from 1972 available both online and on CD. The book is included in the unofficial primary school curriculum. When I was a child, it was presented as one of the most popular children's books in England, and its author, Ann Hogarth, as one of the most important English children's writers.
I could not find any evidence of Ann Hogarth's or her co-author Annette Mills's support of the Soviet Union or the Communist Party of Great Britain, so there must be other factors – as with all translations, extraliterary and frequently serendipitous. I have found information about Hogarth Puppets performing in Moscow, at the famous Obraztsov Puppet Theatre, and indeed the translation from 1958 has a foreword by Sergei Obraztsov, Russia's most celebrated puppeteer. In 1953, a provincial Russian film studio made a puppet animation, featuring crocheted figures and settings. For some reasons, the film was not released until 1974, by which time it was probably only of interest for specialists. I didn't see it then. It's available on YouTube.
The book, which is a collection of Muffin stories, was published in 1958 when I was six. In addition to Muffin stories, it also contained riddles, find five errors, colouring pages, join-the-dots drawings, patterns for cardboard figures and soft toys, and two board games, one a standard snakes-and-ladders game, but the other a child-appropiate version of Monopoly called “Carrots”, played with matches. The reason it is called “Carrots” is that the eponymous protagonist loves carrots. I remember playing it with my friends well in our upper teens. We were not familiar with Monopoly until much later.
But the main attraction was the stories. Anthropomorphic animals are prominent in Russian children's literature, as elsewhere, but Muffin and his friends were particularly attractive because of their exotic English names. I have read on a recent Russian webpage that the author was very clever when she gave her characters interesting English names – no comment! What I didn't know when I was a child, and that most Russian readers probably don't realise still today is that the names in English are alliterations: Muffin the Mule, Peregrine the Penguin, Sally the Seal, Oswald the Ostrich, Peter the Puppy, Grace the Giraffe, Poppy the Parrot, Hubert the Hippo, Louise the Lamb, Willy the Worm, and Katy the Kangaroo. Knowing this now, I wonder whether the translator gave up or simply didn't notice. It would have been difficult, but not impossible to render this wonderful linguistic feature in translation. The Russian Muffin was not a mule, but a donkey, probably because mule doesn't sound particularly nice in Russian. Donkey in Russian sounds even worse, just like “ass”, so Muffin got a diminutive suffix, oslik, little donkey, which is fine.
Muffin is anthropomorphised so that he sleeps in a bed and eats at a table, bakes a cake and combs his mane with a comb in front of a mirror. But he also eats carrots and walks on all four and wears a saddle and a bridle. In my book, the illustrations were printed in monochrome, alternating between red, yellow, green and blue. This irritated me because I didn't know which was the right colour of Muffin's saddle and bridle. Today, I am irritated that an antropomorphised animal wears a saddle and a bridle at all, and is proud of it. There is something profoundly wrong with it.
Muffin's friends are anthropomorphised in various degrees. Sally the Seal and Hubert the Hippo swim or soak in a pool, Peter the Puppy loves digging up flower beds, while Peregrine the Penguin reads scholarly books on statistics. Unlikely friendships, such as between Oswald the Ostrich and Willy the Worm, did not bother me, and I never wondered what had brought all these exotic animals together. One detail that did bother me was Poppy the Parrot who, on learning that Muffin is baking a cake, contributes an egg that she has just laid. Even to a very young me it sounded like cannibalism. Every time I re-read the book, I tried to get over this episode as quickly as possible.
Something that didn't bother me at all were the two characters who would definitely be expunged from any children's book today: the only two human characters, siblings Wolly and Molly. I presume that in the original puppet show they were golliwogs at a time when golliwogs were still acceptable, but I could not find information on whether they featured in the TV show. They are not listed among the TV characters, so probably not; and they definitely do not appear in the 2005 BBC production. Yet they are quite prominent in several stories, and it is mentioned that they come from Louisiana. Today we would of course object to these children being equalled with exotic animals – just as indigenous people were one time displayed in European zoos. For me, as a child, although I knew that these children were supposed to be human, they were certainly in the same category as the animals and came from similarly exotic countries as Peregrin's Antarctica, Oswald's Africa or Katy's Australia. Moreover, the characters were in line with a large number of black children popular in Soviet children's literature for various reasons, but always as tokens and never as central characters. Soviet publishers in the 1950s would not see any reasons for eradicating these characters.
There are two more human characters in the stories whom I, with my critical eyeglasses on, might call metafictional: Annette and Ann. In the story, at least in Russian, they are presented as little girls, but the names point at the creators of the TV show, Annette Mills and Ann Hogarth. The story they appear in was a disturbing one, and it wasn't until I was grown-up that I realised what was really implied. Muffin wants to write a book for Annette and Ann, with each of his friends contributing a chapter. The purpose is, as the Russian text states, for the girls to remember the animals in case they have to travel away. This statement puzzled me. Why would the animals travel away, “for a long time”, as specified some lines further down?
What strikes me now is the inversion of the toy-animal trope we recognise from Winnie-the-Pooh or Toy Story: the toys' anxiety about the child growing up and abandoning them. Here, the toys – if the characters are indeed toys rather than animals – are anxious that something will happen to them and their humans will forget them. With my today's critical eyes, I don't put high demands on the stories' psychological sophistication, but the fact that it troubled me as a child implies that there was definitely something wrong with the idea.
I was also disturbed by what I probably saw as a breach of genre conventions. I was prepared to accept that animals could talk, but I had problems with Muffin's magical gadgets that enable him to catch a thief and retrieve the stolen objects; or with the magic wish-granting comb. I also had problems with a spider who turns out to be an enchanted fairy.
Considering these stories today, I see them as rather bland, not without humour, but also with a good deal of morals. I am sure they worked well as short puppet shows, but there is very little literary merit in them. However, we all know that children do not necessarily appreciate books for their artistic quality. Also of significance is that the book was published in Russian three years before Winnie-the-Pooh, which doubtless offers a substantially more profound animal/toy narrative. Pooh was quickly incorporated in Russian children's literature, followed by a tremendously popular animated film, as far away from Disney in its aesthetics as can be. Pooh quickly started to function as an independent cultural icon, which I have written about and will not repeat now. Muffin was more of an oddity, and far from all in my generation in Russia still remember him. Yet it is still in print today, in dozens of editions, with various illustrations, and available on various online readers.