Today is World Elephant Day—and what a fun day to celebrate! I don’t believe I have ever encountered someone disliking the gentle giant. Who could? Indeed, from Disney’s Dumbo to Tolkien’s Oliphaunts, we find them in every range of film and literature.
But not every story starring an elephant is a happy one.
George Orwell is an author famous for his dystopian novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Long before he wrote these, however, he wrote a far more personal account of his time in British-controlled Burma (modern-day Myanmar)—Burmese Days. As a British imperial policeman, Orwell quickly finds himself disillusioned with the Empire’s goals and disgusted by its brutal tactics of subjugation. But still, he had to do is job of a policeman and protect the natives.
And one day, his role as protector brought him face to face with an elephant. The creature, not so gentle at the time, was wreaking havoc on the town due to a highly aggressive stage in his reproductive cycle. He toppled houses, disturbed the populace, and even killed a native man.
Orwell, after retrieving an elephant gun, at last finds it peacefully grazing in a field, no longer terrorizing the town. He realizes its aggression must have worn off; he is sure it would be wrong to kill it, but he knew the crowd of natives behind him expected differently—and would laugh at him otherwise.
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.George Orwell
I wish to spoil no more of Orwell’s grittily beautiful story, so read “Shooting an Elephant” for yourself. Though it is certainly no romantic story of an elephant, it is a very enlightening one. He realized the imperialism is always a sort of self-bondage: the conquerors want the conquered to see them as powerful and courageous, when they have little of both. And between the rocks of an imperial actor, presenting an illusion of power, and the conquered natives, expecting much of their overlords, the innocent are often crushed.
In Orwell’s case, the innocent was an elephant, clinging to life as death slowly subjected it. Now with all that in mind, happy World Elephant Day.
If you would like a timeline of Orwell’s work leading up to his capstone novel, check out this article: Orwell’s Road to Writing ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’