What prompted the question is that a former student had sent me a few photographs of the mangel-wurzels in her garden. They’re ready to harvest, and back in the spring when she told me she’d included these ungainly root vegetables—beets, not turnips, usually fed to animals—I asked her to send pictures.
Mangel-wurzels—unforgettable in the silliness of their name–feature in the song Old Major teaches to the animals in Orwell’s classic allegory of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent years under Stalin, Animal Farm.
This story about overworked and underfed farm animals, who are inspired by Old Major’s words and brought to the point of delirium by the promise of a limitless bounty of “wheat and barley, oats and hay/Clover, beans, and mangel-wurzels” that will be theirs when Mr. Jones (“Tyrant Man”) is overthrown, is satirical. Many students need help recognizing that, even though Orwell writes that “it was a stirring tune, something between ‘Clementine’ and ‘La Cucaracha.’”
For the most part, middle schoolers, 9th graders, even Honors 9th graders haven’t been schooled in satire yet, but the mention of mangel-wurzels tips them off–especially after the whole class sings the song together from beginning to end. That’s what I used to do when I was teaching Animal Farm. Students were startled when I began a sprightly rendition of “Beasts of England,” belting it out to the tune of “Clementine.” I invited them to join in. Right away a few did, but most hesitated. I didn’t waver (even though I felt self-conscious, too) and eventually the others joined in for the sheer fun of it. In a good year, the singing became quite spirited—especially after the giggling started: which was when we got to the word mangel-wurzels.
That inspired and absurd song—its sprightly tempo, the mangel-wurzels, the “rings from our noses,” the “golden future time”—all of it—helps students recognize other points of satire in the first chapter. For example:
- Mr. Jones, unsteady on his feet, drunk, tottering up to bed to his snoring wife
- Old Major, a boar with a vision—and a pedigree (He was exhibited under the name Willingdon Beauty)
- The various animals with their human traits
- The cat voting on both sides of question “Are rats comrades?”
- Old Major mentioning that when he was ”a little pig,” his mother used to sing to him
- The animals readily learning the words to “Beasts of England” and singing the song five times straight before they awaken Mr. Jones
In the next chapter, after the Rebellion, the animals take Mr. Jones’ hams out of the farmhouse to give them a proper burial, and Molly, the white mare, prances and preens in front of a mirror, admiring her hair ribbons.
It’s just silly. And that’s the way that satire starts.
But Animal Farm doesn’t stay silly for long. Satire is not the same thing as parody. Because of those human characteristics—particularly those of Clover, the motherly cart-horse and Boxer, the long-suffering, devoted and steady work horse—the students identify with the animals and become invested in their struggle to make a success of the farm. But when Napoleon squirrels away the milk and apples and later when he tells the assembly that Snowball is a traitor, the students see his duplicity and share the animals’ befuddlement. When the sheep are murdered, the animals are horrified—and so are the students. When Boxer is taken to the knacker’s, the students are outraged—and hurt. They feel the betrayal, too—just as Orwell intended.
What’s in a name? Orwell choosing an absurdedly named root vegetable to represent the hope and promise of rebellion—the utopia of Old Major’s vision—is an early clue that Animal Farm is satire. Looking back from the end of the book, it’s also Orwell’s final word on the subject. In his view, the ideal is impossible. It is the nature of power to corrupt; eventually, the new leaders will morph into the old, again there will be masters and slaves.
Mankind can achieve and sustain egalitarian self-rule?