Why Was Ferdinand the Bull Banned?
How did a children’s beloved story about a flower-loving bull earn a ban in multiple dictatorships?
In 1936, American writer of children’s literature Munro Leaf wrote what would become a children’s literature classic, and Lawson Robert illustrated it. He wrote the book on a yellow legal-length pad in the afternoon of October 1935. This classic book written by Leaf only took him less than an hour to write, and it was allegedly written largely on a whim, so Robert would have good material to work with.
The book features the story of Ferdinand the bull. But not just any bull: a gentle, peace-loving bull who lives in Spain but opposes and refused to take part in the Spanish tradition of bullfighting, choosing flowers over the practice.
Ferdinand the Bull was said to be Gandhi’s favorite book. In America, President Roosevelt requested a copy of the book for the White House library. The number of copies within the original print was extremely low: 1,500 copies and the first edition of the book is in high demand today.
All that sounds innocent enough. And on the surface, Ferdinand is indeed a children’s book. But not exactly. And especially not in the ominous year of 1936 when it was published. That same year, Spain found itself caught up in a horrifying civil war. Nationalist forces won and Ferdinand the Bull was suddenly perceived as a threat to Spain’s interests.
The bloody Spanish Civil War enabled the general and dictator Francisco Franco (1892-1975), who was supported by both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, to seize the rule over Spain, which lasted from 1939 until his death.
The book would later be perceived as propaganda, with its interpretation depending on the position on the political spectrum.
What Is Ferdinand the Bull About?
In the book, Ferdinand is a bull living in Spain who likes sitting under the tree quietly while smelling flowers, instead of becoming a ferocious fighting bull that he is expected to become.
Leaf wrote the book without a desire to stir controversy or even inspire pacifism in its readers. Instead, he claimed that what he wanted was to provide Robert Lawson, his friend, with a better story to illustrate. But according to Hitler, Ferdinand was nothing other than degenerate propaganda.
However, it did eventually grow into an international controversy immediately after the publication of the book which happened to coincide with major events which had far-reaching implications and global repercussions.
One of those events was the Civil War in Spain a few months which broke out not long after the book was published. Suddenly, Ferdinand the Bul was interpreted as a metaphor for ideological and political discussions on a much larger scale.
Ferdinand the Bull Meaning: a Children’s Book with an Adult Message
This simple tale of the small Spanish bull meant for children now became the topic of some pretty serious discussion. Whether or not this was the author’s intention, the book was generally perceived as a heavily loaded political statement from the get-go.
According to Leaf, the book he wrote was meant for children and intended to be used for educational purposes. According to him, he never knew publishing the book would lead to the provocative controversies that erupted. He adamantly claimed that it was propaganda for laughter only.
In 1951, the great Hemingway who fought in the Spanish Civil War and was fascinated and inspired by bullfighting and the raw force it represented, offered his unique take on the story of Ferdinand the bull in a short story he published. In his story, the bull’s name was not Ferdinand, he wasn’t shy and gentle, and he didn’t care about flowers.
True to form, Hemingway’s macho bull liked fighting and was respected by all, including matadors. He fought all the bulls he could for he was a champion and he died a champion.
Nowadays, the story of Ferdinand is interpreted in the context of masculinity and gender roles. The timeless tale simply outgrew the context of the era in which it was written. But to this day, the story conveys the same message: the importance of being true to oneself.
Widespread Criticism of Ferdinand the Bull Story
Ferdinand was labeled “subversive”, “Red Propaganda”, “Fascist Propaganda” and even an “unworthy satire of the peace movement”. Ferdinand was perceived as subversive at best. It was also labeled red, Communist propaganda, and even a “satire of the peace movement”.
And sure enough, the book was banned in Spain and Germany. Hitler demanded that Ferdinand be burned. In Spain, Ferdinand would remain banned until 1975, when Francisco Franko died. However, it was granted a privileged status by Stalin himself, as the sole non-communist book for children in the whole of Poland.
About 30 000 copies of the Ferdinand book were distributed across Germany after the end of WW2 as a peacekeeping mission, keeping Ferdinand’s true legacy alive.
Is Ferdinand a True Story?
It is not, but the story of the gentle pacifist bull who never wanted to participate in bullfighting and suddenly has his beliefs challenged rang true as a meaningful metaphor, especially at the time of its publication. And it rings no less true to this day.
In the first edition of the book, which is nowadays extremely rare and valuable, Leaf’s words are perfectly paired with the white etchings and Lawson black. The first edition is delightfully intricate, like actual corks on the bull’s beloved cork tree.
Ferdinand the Bull: a Story That Lives On
The book would outsell Gone with the Wind within the first year of its publication and turned into a bestseller, in the United States of America.
Ferdinand the Bull is a timeless classic, alongside Winnie the Pooh. To this day, Ferdinand the Bull has never been out of print and it seems that it will stay that way for generations to come.
The message of the original book is also conveyed by two animated films. Ferdinand the Bull is a 1938 American stand-alone animated short produced by Walt Disney. Ferdinand was made in 2017, as a loose remake of the original animated short and loosely based on the original short.