The Rabbits By John Marsden And Shaun Tan Essay Outline
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John Marsden published The Rabbits in collaboration with Shaun Tan as illustrator. The result is a picture book for juveniles for that is a sobering metaphorical analogy for adult readers lucky enough to come across it. Although easily enough applied as a metaphor for colonization in a general sense by those without a grasp of the history of Australian, those in the know will require but a few pages to realize that Marsden’s little picture about white bunnies and brown marsupials is an example of that quite specific genre of symbolism known as an allegory. The Rabbits is an allegorical rendering of the colonization of Australian by Captain Cook in 1778.
The white rabbits who arrive by ship carrying muskets and equipped with surveying tools are of a quite peculiar breed of soft, furry and fuzzy little mammals. They wear military uniforms and are stiffly upright compared to the indigenous marsupials who soon are united by a common and recurring refrain: “too many rabbits.”
Just as with Cook’s arrival in Australian—and by association the arrival of the likes of Columbus, the Pilgrims and a multitude of other British sailors around the globe—everything is friendly and based on mutual curiosity when the rabbits first arrive. Before too long, however, the white rabbits are exhibiting a much blacker nature as exploration transform into invasion.
The Children’s Book Council court some controversy with their decision to name The Rabbits its 1999 choice for Picture Book of the Year in light of the serious themes within a book aimed at such young readership. The outrage expressed by a minority of critics nevertheless did nothing to stop Opera Australia from commissioning an adaptation of The Rabbits. The adaptation went on to win awards for Best New Australian Work, Best Original Score, Best Presentation for Children, and Best Costume Design at Australian’s version of the Tony Awards—the Helpmann Awards—in 2015.
The Rabbits, written by John Marsden, is partly allegorical fable about colonisation, told from the viewpoint of the colonised. An unseen narrator describes the coming of ‘rabbits’ in the most minimal detail, an encounter that is at first friendly and curious, but later darkens as it becomes apparent that the visitors are actually invaders. The style of the book is deliberately sparse and strange, with both text and image conveying an overall sense of bewilderment and anxiety as native numbat-like creatures witness environmental devastation under the wheels of a strange new culture.
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> Click here for a interview about The Rabbits from 1998.
‘The meeting on the hill’ acrylic, gouache, ink and coloured pencil.
‘They came by water’ Oil on canvas.
‘The building of the houses’ acrylic, gouache and coloured pencil.
‘They ate our grass’ gouache and coloured pencil.
Comments on The Rabbits
The parallels with a real history of colonisation in Australia and around the world are obvious, and based on detailed research, in spite of the overt surrealism of the imagery and the absence of direct references. It was named Picture Book of the Year by the Children’s Book Council, which in part generated some controversy due to it’s confronting themes, and was attacked on several occasions for being ‘politically correct propaganda’, but only by right wing conservatives of course. In spite of this (or because of it), the book went on to win numerous awards in Australia, the US and UK, and is studied widely in secondary schools. It would seem that some of my concepts and designs were unacknowledged inspiration for a section of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, although I’ve never been able to find out if this is true.
One reason for the initial controversy is that The Rabbits is a picture book, and therefore thought to be children’s literature, and wrongly assumed to be didactic, whereas it had been originally conceived as a book for older readers, and generally difficult to categorise. Some children may get a lot out of it, but generally it defies most picture book conventions and is not necessarily a good choice for pleasant bedtime reading!