Ralph Steadman's illustrations for the 50th anniversary edition of George Orwell's Animal Farm prompt Geoff Barton to re-examine the text and and assess its relevance today.
Every age ransacks the literature of the past. It is as if we need to reinvent it by digging up the cables that connect it to our own time. But in the process of rediscovery, the danger is that we chronically distort the original.
Look at the Hollywoodisation of the Frankenstein story, or what Disney has done to Winnie the Pooh, who now scurries through a series of 10-minute adventures with titles like "Party Poohper" and "Pooh Day Afternoon". Cast as Christopher Robin's assistant dog sitter and having hearty fun with someone called Gopher, it can only be a matter of time before Winnie the Pooh pads around haunted houses or ventures hilariously into outer space.
Imagine if Disney met Animal Farm. We'd have big-eyed Boxer, like a huge, clumpy version of Bambi, staggering into the horse slaughterer's wagon, while the rest of the animals gathered against a tinted sky to croon: "Farewell to our chum Boxer . . . you know, we're sure gonna miss you a lot, Sir."
Ralph Steadman has no such taint of sentimentality. His startling illustrations for the 50th anniversary edition of George Orwell's classic novel capture the appalling, anarchic terror of the original. Napoleon and Snowball leer menacingly at us; sheep bleat from blood-spattered hay; the destruction of buildings and ideals is powerfully evoked. It is a breathtaking reinterpretation of the text taking us directly to the cold-blooded horror of Orwell's story.
Of course we usually try to shelter children from horror, dishing out reassuring animal stories like cough sweets, hoping that they will edify as well as entertain.
The formula seems to be: children like animals: this book is about animals: therefore children will like this book. If it has an uplifting message then so much the better. But Animal Farm doesn't, a fact which partly explains the problems Orwell encountered in getting it published.
He first had the idea for the book in 1937, and wrote it in 1943. It was turned down by four publishers, one of whom said: "It would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are."
This reader evidently recognised that the pigs are not just pigs, that this is an animal story with serious human implications.
One of the challenges when teaching Animal Farm is how to deal with the allegorical nature of the tale. Should we present it as a political parable? A thesis on language and education? A dark depiction of human nature? Do our students need to recognise that the pigs might be interpreted as "touchy Russians"? And how much do they need to know about the Russian Revolution, collectivisation, Trotsky and Lenin?
Or is there a danger that over-emphasising the historical context might actually puncture the relevance of the novel, making it seem a kind of propagandist pamphlet, locked in a specific time and place - dusty, quaint and distant? Is to deny the history to sanitise the book? Orwell, after all, emphasised the political element in his work. He said that he aimed "to make political writing into an art" and that his "starting point is always a sense of injustice" (Why I Write).
We know from his preface that Animal Farm sprang from deep feelings of anger and frustration as well as a desire to set the record straight: "In my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country . . . And so for the past 10 years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement." (Preface to the Ukrainian Edition 1947.) If we lose this sense of motivating anger, surely we lose the power of the novel itself.
Yet a lengthy consideration of the novel's historical and political references can be an arid, unrewarding affair in class, which can seem also to limit the book's scope. After all, it is clear that while the novel is a depiction of a political system gone wrong, it is also more than that. It is not simply a fable about Socialism or Stalinism. It is also fundamentally about human nature. As Orwell later wrote about the novel's origins: "One day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same was as the rich exploit the proletariat." (Preface to the Ukrainian Edition.) Orwell had hit upon his central metaphor, and his book came to life. With it - as in other great dystopian novels such as 1984, Lord of the Flies and The Handmaid's Tale - is revealed the darkness of human nature: what someone with power will do to someone without.
Others might choose to focus on what the book teaches us about education - the power of those who control the supply of knowledge - or the slipperiness of language. None of these aspects is mutually exclusive.
But perhaps the greatest service we can do for our students is to give them the freedom to find their own interpretations of the novel. In doing so they are likely to rediscover the story's heart as faithfully as Ralph Steadman's illustrations, unearthing in the process a text of startling relevance.
On re-reading, Animal Farm seems a warning to the wise and the ignorant, the powerful and the weak, the politically uncommitted as well as the astute.
It feels also like an eerie reminder of the necessary bond between power and responsibility when a curriculum falls into the hands of the few.
Geoff Barton is head of English at Huntington School, York