Orwell’s toads

January 20, 2018 3 Comments

On 12 April 1946 the magazine Tribune published a short piece by George Orwell entitled Some thoughts on the common toad.  It’s not perhaps his most original essay – its central theme is the coming of spring, and how ubiquitous it is, even in the centre of a large city like London – but it has a couple of features that mark it out as unmistakably Orwellian.

The first is Orwell’s choice as a herald of spring.  Not snowdrops, daffodils or primroses, but a creature that ‘has never had much of a boost from the poets’, the common toad.  And what interests him about the toad is its behaviour.  It emerges from the ground in early spring and immediately makes for water.  It has ‘a spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent’, but also ‘the most beautiful eye of any living creature … like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet-rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl’.  (Orwell is probably echoing Shakespeare’s line in As you like it, ‘the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his skin’, but typically he fails to clutter his text with literary allusion.)

Having recovered from winter and rebuilt his body somewhat, the male toad ‘goes through a phase of intense sexiness’:

All he knows … is that he wants to get his arms round something, and if you offer him a stick, or even your finger, he will cling to it with surprising strength, and take a long time to discover that it is not a female toad.

Having finally discovered a female, the result, says Orwell, is ‘spawn laid in long strings which wind themselves in and out of the reeds’, and later ‘masses of tiny tadpoles which rapidly grow larger, sprout hind-legs, then fore-legs, then shed their tails’.

Orwell’s knowledge of toads clearly comes from personal observation, not from books (he recalls once digging up, in the middle of summer, a toad that had forgotten to wake up that year), and the water descriptions remind us that when searching for a nom de plume he chose the name of a river in Suffolk.

‘I am aware’, writes Orwell, ‘that many people do not like reptiles or amphibians’, and indeed the toad is a little-celebrated creature.  Even Gilbert White, who took pleasure in most of the living things he found around him in Selbourne, has little time for the toad, except as an alleged cure for cancer.  The toad’s most famous literary appearances are probably in Wind in the willows (Toad as a vain and absurd Boris Johnson figure) and in two poems of Philip Larkin (the toad, ‘with its sickening poison’, as a symbol for the hated drudgery of work).  But it’s precisely the toad’s unfashionableness that appeals to the contrarian Orwell.

The essay goes on to counter two objections to taking a simple pleasure in spring and nature in general.  The first is that in the urban, machine age nature is somehow redundant, and that in any case rural people don’t celebrate its beauty.  The second is that an enthusiasm for nature ‘encourages a sort of political quietism’, when people ‘ought to be discontented’ and impelled to improve their position rather than enjoy what little they already have.  But what, asks Orwell, will we do with our time ‘when our economic and political problems are over’ but take delight in the world around us?  He suggests that ‘the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose’ will be more satisfying that ‘eating an ice cream to the tune of a Wurlitzer’ (today’s equivalent: sprawling on the sofa with a six-pack and a box-set).

The simple enjoyment of the natural world is available to everybody, and what’s more it’s entirely fair to take comfort in it, argues Orwell, when the public world around us appears terrifying or oppressive or when the language of our rulers is routinely deceitful.  The final sentence of ‘Some thoughts on the common toad’ reads,

The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

‘Lies streaming from the loudspeakers’ were much on Orwell’s mind at this time.  In the same month, April 1946, he published in Horizon his famous essay Politics and the English language, in which he attacks the stale imagery and lack of precision in the use of English in political writing, and their role in ‘concealing or preventing thought’ and making ‘lies sound truthful and murder respectable’.  At a time when language, in presidential tweets and Daily Mail headlines, once again takes the form of ‘streaming lies’, we can see the persuasive force of the final words of the toad essay. 

(It’s a striking feature of ‘Some thoughts on the common toad’ that Orwell rigorously avoids clichés and tired expressions throughout, with one exception, when he self-consciously talks of the ‘miracle of spring’ – and then follows it with a strong defence of its appropriate use.)

By now the ‘dictators and bureaucrats’ were in Orwell’s sights on a much larger scale.  Before the end of May 1946 he was living at Barnhill, a remote farmhouse at the north end of the Isle of Jura, intent on using his isolation to begin writing his final novel, The Last man in Europe, or as it became, Nineteen eighty-four.  In chapter 3 Winston Smith dreams of the ‘Golden Country’, a rural idyll beyond the reach of Big Brother, the Party and the Thought Police – a brief, and illusory reprise of the simple natural world evoked in the toads essay.

Comments (3)

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  1. Sian Evans says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Orwell’s interest in toads. I think I like Orwell even more now. Ken Livingstone (another interesting figure) was extremely interested, as I recall in newts and kept them in his flat in his younger days. Some young biologists should take the time to document literacy (and other ) interest in amphibians. It could be very illuminating – amphibians experience a metamorphosis when they reproduce.

  2. Emily Laurens says:

    A lovely piece. Thank you. I haven’t read the Orwell piece but D H Lawrence’s nature writing came to mind from your description of it. Especially his lovely poems about the snake and the bat. His celebration of the “the lower stages of creation”

  3. Andrew Green says:

    Thank you Emily. You’re right about the parallel with D H Lawrence’s poems. Lawrence also has a poem about another unlikely animal, a tortoise. Its phrase ‘like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat’ is similar to Orwell’s ‘like a strict Anglo-Catholic’.

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