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Three life-lessons from our best-loved fictional elephants

These elephants' messages are often a bit more complicated than your five-year-old self might have realised at the time!

Children's fiction contains a whole herd of elephants who, through trials and tribulations, have learned something about themselves. As such, these young pachyderms' journeys can teach a lesson or two to children and adults alike.


The Story: Quite possibly the most famous fictional elephant, Dumbo is a lovable circus elephant who is bullied by the other elephants for the size of his ears. A clumsy mistake pushes him into the role of a clown in the circus, but, despite his natural talent, it makes for a miserable existence. One night, he accidentally gets drunk and wakes up at the top of a tree, and Timothy, his mouse companion, convinces him that he flew up there using his giant ears - and a magic feather. One day, however, Dumbo has to fly - but he's lost the magic feather! His friends then reveal that he didn't need the feather to fly all along.

What we learned: The obvious message here is one of self-confidence: Dumbo could always fly, he just needed to believe in himself. However, the more sinister message was hidden away in the, frankly terrifying, two-minute nightmare sequence that was supposed to show the evils of drinking. Dumbo gets a bit tipsy after champagne is tipped into his water, and what follows is so darkly disturbing that it's bound to make any child swear off the liquor for good. His hallucinations include a harrowing kaleidoscope of worm-like elephants that morph into each other to a soundtrack of chilling chants. If it bore any similarity at all to the effects of drinking it could have been the most powerful argument for sobriety ever seen in animation. As it stands, you're just left wondering who slipped acid into Walt Disney's drinks.

The Message: Believe in yourself - but not in Walt Disney's oddly misinformed approach to alcohol.



The Story: Poor Babar is orphaned when his mother is shot by a hunter and runs away from the jungle to look for a safe home. An old lady befriends him and hires him a tutor, as well as buying him some smart new clothes. Eventually, he is found by his cousins who return him to the Elephant realm. When the King of the Elephants dies from eating a poisonous mushroom, the council choose Babar to be the next monarch of the realm. He rules over his citizens and marries his second cousin.

What we learned: Babar's mother is shot by a hunter in a heartbreaking scene, but Babar does not let this hold him back. He strides ever-forward in his attempt to improve himself, and ultimately becomes a King. It taught us not to be deterred by setbacks in life. More recently, the civilising influence has been read as an allegory of colonialist rule. Babar is taught to be cultured by people, and then returns to the jungle where he rules over the other elephants. It's an uncomfortable realisation that has seen the book banned by many libraries.

The Message: You can overcome your struggles, but history won't take to you kindly if your end goal is benevolent dictatorship.


Elmer the Patchwork Elephant

The Story: Elmer has been a loved character for millions of children around the world. He's a cheerful and friendly elephant with a colourful patchwork hide. Elmer feels like the odd one out though, so he tries to cover up his distinctive coat with grey paint. However, his friends no longer recognise him, so he feels like even more of an outsider. It's only when it rains and Elmer's disguise is washed away. His friends recognise him again, and are delighted - they much prefer his multi-coloured coat and fun personality, and they paint themselves in patchwork to show how much they love him.

What we learned: It's a celebration of diversity that stands the test of time. You can apply the message to any perceived differences between people and it holds true. Elmer is a truly remarkable elephant.

The message: There's no sting in the tale here, embrace your differences!

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