Animal Farm – the continuing relevancy and appeal of Orwell’s masterpiece

Animal FarmI hadn’t read Animal Farm, by George Orwell, since I was in high school (oh so many moons ago). But in the last two months I’ve read it twice, the second time reading it aloud with one of my classes I teach (all of whom are about 15, 16 years of age). And as a pleasant surprise, quite a number of them actually enjoyed the allegorical novella, as well as understanding the purpose and meaning behind it all. This, more than my own enjoyment of it, makes me realise how powerful and relevant this story still is today, nearly 70 years after it was written.

Subtitled “A Fairy Story” (and in some editions “A Satire” and “A Contemporary Satire”), Animal Farm is based on the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, and then onto the Stalinist Era of the Soviet Union. As it was written during WWII, when a wartime alliance existed between Britain and the Soviet Union and the British generally thought of Stalin with quite high regard, Orwell cleverly chose to disguise his characters through the use of animals (though there were other reasons behind this choice).

When a revolution takes place on Manor Farm in which the animals overthrow the humans, they change the name of the farm to Animal Farm, and the pigs Napoleon (based on Stalin) and Snowball (based mostly on Leon Trotsky) take over the operations of the farm. After Napoleon ousts Snowball, however, the ideals of the revolution are quickly forgotten as he works the animals harder than they have ever worked before, while beginning a campaign of propaganda which includes changing history just to convince the animals that they are doing the right thing to support him. Napoleon even has his dogs (which he raises from when they are pups) to terrify the other animals into obedience, not unlike the Secret Police of the Soviet Union. Throughout it all we meet many other characters, such as the hard working horse Boxer, the wise donkey Benjamin who often sees things as they really are, and the sheep who blindly support Napoleon throughout the tale.

Found on (artist unknown). This poster portrays the atmosphere towards the end of the book quite well.

Found on (artist unknown). This poster portrays the atmosphere towards the end of the book quite well.

I’ve been teaching this book to my students focusing on the concept of ‘Power’, for which this is perfect. The story ultimately reflects on the corruption in the individuals who have power – in this case Napoleon and the other pigs (who soon begin to take more food and give themselves other luxuries while making up excuses for why the other animals must continue to starve and work relentlessly) – rather than any corruption in the ideals of the revolution. Orwell wasn’t trying to condemn socialist ideology, but the way that Stalin corrupted this and managed to brainwash so many people into supporting him. His power isn’t just through this use of propaganda to control a population, but through the use of force in some cases (such as the dogs), and through changing history – in this case changing the “Seven Commandments” whenever the Pigs happen to break one of them, which happens repeatedly until they later replace them with a single commandment “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Napoleon even has power over them through promises of a better life, which he gives them through goals such as constructing the windmill (though when the windmill is built, the better life never actually arrives).

While this allegory of the Russian Revolution does simplify matters too much to teach the actual history with this book, it is a great way of understanding the way that revolutions can and have gone wrong, due to the greed and corruption of those in power. Many of my students enjoyed it, and found it startling to see the connections between the novel and politics around the world in the last century. As far as I’m concerned, any book that can hold a bunch of teenagers’ attentions and interests in this digital age in which so many teenagers simply don’t read books must be a pretty amazing story. The reaction of my students (who, I might add, are not keen readers), in other words, is testament to the importance of this story, and the relevance it still holds today.

If you haven’t read Animal Farm, I strongly urge you to read it. It won’t take you long to read, but you will think about it and remember it long after you have put the book down.

Have you read Animal Farm, or anything else by George Orwell? What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s still relevant?

Mugshots (dedicated to coffee)

When I say “close friends”, I am not referring to actual people, but am in fact talking about mugs. Why? Because let’s face it, if you’re going to be a writer, you probably need to take up coffee drinking at some point (or at the very least, tea drinking), and even if you don’t write but enjoy reading, you’ll probably know nothing beats the feeling of sitting down with a good book and a cuppa.

However, the purpose of this post isn’t to discuss any deep and profound philosophies of drinking coffee, but rather to show you some photos of some of my favourite mugs from which I drink this life-saving liquid. It has occurred to me recently that I collect mugs (it takes me a while to realise I’ve started collecting something else, as I tend to collect collections of things), and this revelation was mostly caused due to a distinct lack of space in my kitchen cupboards. At any rate, I won’t show you all of them, but just a few of my favourites (and I’ll explain along the way why I like them so much).

Enjoy! And maybe make a cuppa for yourself while you’re at it…

A mug of George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. Readers who have followed my blog since the early days (i.e. January, February), will remember I also have a similar one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

On the left, a mug of The Beatles, with the pattern from the album A Hard Day’s Night. On the right, a mug of Led Zeppelin, featuring the cover of their first, self-titled album (the back of the album cover is on the other side of the mug), along with the four symbols along the bottom that featured on later albums. Both of these bands share the prestigious position of being my favourite band.

On the left: “Keep Calm And Have A Cuppa”. On the right: “No coffee, no workee!” Two good philosophies to live by, I think. Yes I have used the mug on the right at work before, just for a bit of fun.

On the left: “D’oh for it” with a picture on the back of Homer running. On the right: “I couldn’t agree more with whatever you said!” also with a picture of Homer. What can I say – I like The Simpsons. Always have, too.

Yes, this is a mug shaped to have bits of liquorice allsorts decorating the outside and sticking out. This photo doesn’t show it, but this mug is actually enormous, so I tend to use it for hot chocolate mostly.

To finish off this post, some coffee quotes I like:

“The morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it which the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

“As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move…similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.” – Honore de Balzac (1799-1859)

“Coffee makes us severe, and grave, and philosophical.” – Jonathan Swift

“Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation.” – Author Unknown

“Deja Brew: The feeling that you’ve had this coffee before.” – Author Unknown

“Only Irish coffee provides in a single glass all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and fat.” – Alex Levine

Are you a coffee or a tea drinker? Do you depend on it for reading/writing, or is it just a nice way to relax?

30 Day Book Challenge Day 22 – The Book(s) That Made Me Fall In Love With Reading

I have in fact fallen in love with reading three times over my life, once as a young child, once as a teenager, and again, finally, as an adult. In between each of these phases, I must sadly admit I also “fell out of love” with reading. It seems madness now that this happened to me, especially as I have loved writing since a very young age as well. But I think in both cases, it came down to being forced to read books for school/university that I didn’t enjoy or didn’t want to read, and often it is very hard to recover from that. In each case, it has taken a special book to drag me back to the joy of reading, but I think I can confidently say that from this point onwards I will always love reading and it will always be a big part of my life.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

This book fostered a love of both books and chocolate in me...

When I first fell in love with reading, as many of my regular followers will know from past posts, it was Roald Dahl who was the instigator of such connections to the written word – most particularly the books James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory took me to a world beyond my wildest little dreams, and would spark in me an interest in the weird and quirky for many years to come.

Don't panic!

As a young teenager though, having outgrown these books, the Goosebumps books by R. L. Stine, and having read the Tomorrow series by John Marsden, I became bored with reading as the books thrust upon me at school became less and less interesting. It took a few years, until late high school, before I fell in love with reading again, and there were a number of books that caused this. Firstly, I discovered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its various sequels by Douglas Adams, which taught me just how funny fiction could be, regardless of genre. Then in school I studied All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, which, unbeknownst to me, had started a love for fiction set in war-time which survives to this very day. Not much later after this, I also studied Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which started a love of dystopian fiction which would eventually lead me to classic writers of this genre such as George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut.

There's only one catch...

But as I moved into a university life which was to last seven odd years, and more importantly, into adulthood, the pressure that came from the sheer amount of literature I had to read exhausted me, and I stopped reading for pleasure in my spare time again. The book which brought me back to reading for the final time was given to me by a friend, just before I started a second degree, in post-grad creative writing (good timing, really), and being her favourite book, it meant a lot to her, and so meant a lot to me before I even read it. But as it turns out, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, completely blew me away, pushed me through every emotion as I whirled my way through its pages, stunningly written, hilarious, insightful, tragic, and just beautiful. After this amazing book, set in WWII, it was as if someone had flicked a switch inside my head, and there was no turning back. It’s been a little over four years since I read this, during which time I have read somewhere between 150 and 200 books, and my love for books, and for reading and writing, has never been stronger (and I seriously owe that friend big time)!

What book made you fall in love with reading? Did you ever have to fall in love with reading all over again, like I did?