The Followers of Rupert Bear : Official "Rupert the Bear" Website
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"So (Hee! Hee! Hee!) ... You're a Follower of Rupert, Eh?"
"It's just a bit of fun". "It takes me back to my childhood". "It's for the children really". "It keeps me out of mischief". Have you uttered one of these excuses? I have. I raised the issue in Nutwood#10, so I'll kick off the soul-baring ... why are we so absorbed by a small bear in checked yellow trousers? I guess we have to acknowledge that for some, Rupert is purely "collectable", like stamps or thimbles. There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it does place some material out of reach of true Followers Worse still, it condemns books to the lifeless safes of people who will never enjoy them. For most of us, I hope, the interest goes much deeper than that. Here are some of my "reasons" ...
1. Escapism and Nostalgia
This one's obvious. Nutwood is so much more interesting, pleasant, desirable and real than the "real world", that we are drawn into it by the same emotions that draw us into Narnia, Middle-Earth, Hardy's Wessex and the Wild West. It's a sub-created world, to use Tolkien's term, in which the rules are all different, and magical (or at least alien) things can happen. It's easy to portray this attraction as a desire to run away from reality. In fact it touches upon one of the deepest of human expressions of creativity - the joy of a fully self-consistent alternative reality. Rupert's Nutwood is less elaborate, well-documented and carefully-crafted than Tolkien's Middle Earth. There are neither maps nor genealogical tables. However, it has an almost unmatchable continuity over several decades that gives it a level of credibility that match the sub-created worlds of the greatest writers. No-one would sensibly compare Rupert prose or storylines with those of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, but the world created by Tourtel, Bestall and Harrold is of that quality.
Design? There are many examples of classic design. There's the Mini, the Parker Duofold, the GPO postbox and the traditional teapot. In each example, it has been got spectacularly right first time. Rupert (as an objet d'art - not as a personality) is one such. I do not know of any other character that has survived for so long essentially in the original form Certainly, there has been evolution. He's filled out a little, his colour scheme has changed, but the basic formula - white-faced bear, checked trousers, sweater, scarf and pre-Doc-Marten boots - endures.
This is related to (1) above, but is not the same. Within the sub-created world of Nutwood, it makes perfect sense to juxtapose anthropomorphic Nutwooders and "normal" humans and animals. Medieval knights and primeval sprites share the page with rocket-powered flying machines, and it all makes perfect sense. Most heroically, Rupert reappears at the end of the story with tales of exotic places and characters, and Mummy Bear is not even perturbed! This contrast of the prosaic and the preternatural is very addictive. It's what makes Dali's paintings arresting, and what made Monty Python funny.
4. Story Quality
This aspect of Rupert has evolved more than the rest. The era in which Rupert lives has remained essentially unchanged, but Tourtel, Bestall and Harrold stories are not the same. As the storyline baton has passed from Mary Tourtel down to Ian Robinson the flavour and length of the stories themselves has evolved considerably. The Grimm (and grim) ogres of Tourtel have made way for the more Disneyesque Sage of Um, but the quality of storytelling has remained high throughout. Certainly, there have been ups and downs - even the Bestall team wrote a few "pot-boilers", but the overall quality has not diminished. This is truly remarkable.
5. Artwork Quality
Rupert artwork is renowned for its generally exceptional quality. The linework and colouring have always provided some of the best examples of pictorial childrens' literature (note not cartoon strip). The artwork has, however, suffered more serious ups and downs over the years, reaching its nadir with some of the more hideous exploitation books and ephemera. At its best (In the Bestall endpapers, for my money) Rupert artwork is sublime. We may argue amongst ourselves over the relative merits of Tourtel, Bestall and Harrold and the others, but we are debating detail. The overall quality has been higher, over a longer period of time, than anything else I know.
6. Rupert Himself
Rupert, the eternally idealistic small boy with a bear's head, is an engaging and enduring character. He seems to represent an ideal combination of purity, simplicity and "goodness" with just enough fun and mischief to prevent him from becoming saintly. As a character, he surely equals (at least) Winnie-the-Pooh, Mickey Mouse, Paddington Bear and the Beatrix Potter crew as an encapsulation of some characteristics we'd all like to have. I would argue that Rupert's longevity and continuing evolution lift him above these others, but many would not agree. No matter - Rupert is up there with the best, as one of the "greats " of English-language childrens' characters.
7. And Yet ...
All of this is not really enough to explain why a 41-year old academic (that was me in 1994!) should be so absorbed, should wear Rupert badges and a Rupert scarf, should spend time, money and thought on a small bear in checked yellow trousers. There's something else, and I'm delighted to say that I can't put my finger on it. There's an indefinable something else that completes the picture. It's the Rupert-bug. I have no idea how I got it, it's incurable, and I can't explain it. I hope I never shall.
Alan Murray, 28th March, 1994.
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Published by the Followers of Rupert Internet Elf.