The Tiger Who Came To Tea

One of La Serpiente Aquatic Negra’s newest favourite books is The Tiger Who Came To Tea. (One of La Serpiente’s favourite phrases is “it’s my favourite”, along with “almost”.) The Tiger Who Came To Tea is a rather disturbing book, and (as I found when I looked on Wikipedia) possibly a metaphor for the Third Reich.

Sophie, a little girl, is having tea with her mother when the front door bell rings unexpectedly. It turns out to be a tiger, who wants to have tea too. The tiger proceeds to eat all the sandwiches they offer. Then the buns, and the cakes, and the biscuits. And then it drinks the milk, the tea and every other beverage it can find in the house. (Anyone reminded of Hitler’s reaction to the appeasement policies of the 1930s should feel quite familiar with this story.) As I read the story, I worried with every page that it was going to turn nasty. While Sophie is quite enamoured of the tiger’s long, fluffy tail, it shows no concern for the humans as it eats everything in their house. I was waiting for it to eat them as well, but since this is a book for children that wasn’t written by a Polish peasant in the 19th century, the humans remain unswallowed and eventually the tiger leaves.

The father then returns to the house and discovers that the tiger has eaten everything, but saves the day by suggesting they go out to a cafe to eat sausages (is this another German reference?). The story ends with Sophie and her mother buying a big tin of tiger food, in case the tiger ever returns. “But he never did.”

Is that a message of hope? That tigers, and Nazis, won’t ever return, and although we might have to suffer them drinking all our beer, that’s a one-off, survivable experience? It seems quite strange that we’d have this semi-mystical encounter with a large and dangerous animal, and then end the book so flatly, with nothing much ever happening. On the other hand, the constant return of a desperately hungry big cat to a small girl’s house has to eventually be terrifying.

What else is odd? Sophie’s mother spends her day worrying about how to have enough food for her husband. She and Sophie have a life of domestic duties – whether that’s doing the shopping, or waiting for the milkman, or the boy from the grocer’s, or going to fetch tins of tiger food. I wonder if this is a necessarily good example for La Serpiente, or if there should be a rewrite of The Tiger Who Came To Tea where the father spends his time doing the dishes or unblocking the sink, while his wife and daughter are out at an ofice, or gambolling through fields freely. Or if the tiger should say please and thank you, or offer any explanation for why he’s capable of human speech, and doesn’t try eating human beings when they’re available, or even explain why it is that the family so calmly acquiesces with his demands and doesn’t just hide when the ring at the doorbell comes.

Come to think of that, is this again another coded warning about how we should be more cautious when welcoming unexpected visitors into our homes? It all seems terribly deep for a children’s book.

(I came home very late from work tonight, and La Serpiente was halfway through The Tiger Who Came To Tea. She then spent twenty minutes refusing to sleep and shouting “pooping!” at me in an increasingly aggrieved tone of voice. I choose to blame this on my workaholic habits, and not on the reading material. But who knows what the message really is?)


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