Albert, the angry brown pudding with sticks for legs, is immortal. Many creatures — both human and otherwise — dig into him, but there’s always more.
And as Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding turns 100 this year, it seems our appetite for this story is endless too: not only has the book never been out of print, but it has been adapted for screen and stage (most recently by Victorian Opera) many times over.
As Lindsay’s granddaughter Helen Glad says of the story: “Like a good Christmas cake, wedding cake or plum pudding, it ages quite well.”
Its enduring popularity has something to do with the vivid characters and illustrations Lindsay created: Bunyip Bluegum the koala, Bill Barnacle the sailor, Sam Sawnoff the penguin, and that famously cranky magic pudding.
In his introduction to the 2004 edition of The Magic Pudding, English novelist Philip Pullman (author of the best-selling His Dark Materials series) described it as one of his favourite children’s books — and suggested another reason for its ongoing appeal: “I think it’s the funniest children’s book ever written.”
Fairies versus food
Published at the end of WW1, The Magic Pudding feels like a welcome distraction from the human losses and food shortages of the Great War, with its patriotically Australian native animals and its never-ending source of nourishment.
But the book’s origin story actually begins with an argument — and a bet — between Lindsay and his friend, literary and art critic Bertram Stevens.
“They were talking about kids’ books, and he [Stevens] said, ‘Kids like fairies’, and Norman poo-pooed the idea and said ‘No, they like food and fighting — and I’ll write a book about it,’” Ms Glad says.
At the time, Lindsay was better known as a cartoonist and artist.
“He was very well known mainly because he’d been drawing nudes and they were very controversial,” Ms Glad says.
At a Melbourne exhibition in 1913, one of Lindsay’s drawings elicited so much outrage that it was removed from display.
“I’m sure that it was a bit of a surprise, that he could suddenly come up with a kids’ book with not a nude in sight,” Ms Glad says.
Lindsay died in 1969, having written 11 novels for adults plus another children’s book (The Flyaway Highway, published in 1936) that didn’t prove as popular as the pudding.
Ms Glad remembers her grandfather as, “a man of tremendous vitality and creativity”.
“As long as he was doing something, he was extremely happy … if he wasn’t painting in oils or watercolours or pen drawings, writing letters, building a ship model, he just never seemed to stop.”
A very rare Puddin’
ABC political reporter Annabel Crabb describes The Magic Pudding (read to her by her mother when she was “very, very small”) as, “Australia’s answer to the Odyssey really: [it’s] a bunch of unusual people travelling around smiting people — with bottles of port in this case”.
The story concerns the adventures of the Noble Society of Pudding Owners (as Bunyip, Bill and Sam call themselves) as they fend off pudding thieves.
For a children’s book, The Magic Pudding runs long (137 pages), though it is divided into slices (rather than chapters) — in accordance with the food theme.
“It’s a book that has to be read to children,” Ms Glad says.
“And what is interesting is how much of the language has fallen out of use.” Words like “nincompoop” (a foolish person), “poltroon” (coward) or “sockdolager” (a decisive blow).
“So it actually can be a way of teaching children about the wonderful variety and depth of language,” she says.
And there’s a playful sing-song quality of the language from the very beginning:
‘You’ll enjoy this Puddin’,’ said Bill, handing him a large slice. ‘This is a very rare Puddin’.’
‘It’s a cut-an’-come-again Puddin’,’ said Sam.
‘It’s a Christmas, steak, and apple-dumpling Puddin’,’ said Bill.
‘It’s a — Shall I tell him?’ he asked, looking at Bill. Bill nodded, and the Penguin leaned across to Bunyip Bluegum and said in a low voice, ‘It’s a Magic Puddin’.’
Albert, the magic pudding, turns out to be quite rude (which makes sense given his life consists of being constantly consumed), but Ms Glad says that’s what kids loved about the book: “Albert could get away with being very rude when he wanted to.”
Lindsay started writing his Australiana Odyssey in 1916, two years into World War I, after having already contributed to the war effort by illustrating army recruitment posters. Then at the end of 1916, his brother Reginald was killed in the Battle of the Somme.
“He might have felt that a story of fun and adventure would have been a bit of an antidote for himself,” Ms Glad says.
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Angus and Robertson published the book in 1918.
“By 1918, so many families in Australia had been affected by the war, [so] the fact that you could replenish something [like the magic pudding] must have been somewhat of an antidote,” Ms Glad speculates.
May Gibbs’ first Snugglepot and Cuddlepie book was published the same year, and it’s notable that both books heavily feature native Australian flora and fauna.
“The joy in our Australian fauna had become so evident, and there was a nationalism [in that] — and the animals were so unique. I think it did entice people to look at what we were as a nation,” Ms Glad says.
‘The integrity of the animal’
Award-winning children’s illustrator Julie Vivas has form when it comes to drawing animals, most famously for Mem Fox’s Possum Magic, and most recently for the non-fiction title Koala.
She describes Lindsay as a “brilliant artist”, particularly admiring the way he was able to “keep the integrity of an animal” in his characters, while also giving them astutely human poses.
She also points to his consistency of depiction, despite the spontaneous nature of his illustration.
“I can see that the work is quite spontaneous … I think they came straight off the end of the pencil, because I can just see the kind of energy in the artwork,” she observes.
“[And yet] the character is just held right throughout the book; in my experience of doing artwork, that’s the challenge of it — keeping the characters as you see them in your head.”