on 22 June 2005
2004 saw the first publication of this gleefully savage satire in some 180 years, and I must say that the author of The Rebellion of the Beasts or, The Ass is Dead! Long Live the Ass!!! was brilliantly scathing in his allegorical attack on the English monarchy of his day. I found this book well-nigh hilarious in its obvious lampooning of political corruption and courtly behavior. It's not hard to see why the author, in 1825, published the work anonymously. The content of this book is just the sort of thing that could get you boiled in oil and/or separated from your head by a very much not-amused king. Strangely enough, however, the book seems to have come and gone rather quietly in its day, which explains why it has basically lain dormant for almost two centuries. Although the novel is attributed to Leigh Hunt, the identity of the author is by no means certain - I personally find compelling reasons to doubt the given attribution. It has obvious parallels with George Orwell's Animal Farm, but there is no evidence that Orwell ever perused this little gem of satirical genius.
In the story, the human narrator tells of how he snuck into the library at Cambridge as a prank and pilfered an old manuscript by Cornelius Agrippa, by which he learned how to brew a concoction that gave him the ability to converse with the animals. He acquires his amazing skill on the very eve of the animals' long-planned revolt against the vile, cruel human race. After a successful rebellion and the subjugation of man, the animals all come together to establish a government. The "Rights of Brutes" are quickly established as the first step to liberty and justice for all animals (except man, of course). Different factions soon emerge among the species, however. There were royalists, such as the royal horses, and ultra-royalists, such as the rats; natural predators who favored military despotism; moderate constitutionalists such as the sheep and goats; high democrats such as the raves and kites, and even terrorists such as the vultures and ravens. The strongest voice to arise from the debate, however, was that of the ass; this most power-hungry and deceitful of creatures quietly set about to gain power for himself via political intrigue, outright deception, general warmongering, and complicity with the equine wife of a leading royalist. Political enemies are identified and eliminated in alarming fashion, until such time as the ass centralizes all power in himself alone. As dictator, the ass determines all policy, proclaims the one and only state religion, and eliminates any individual or species he views as a threat.
This is where the story turns truly hilarious. Much time is devoted to a description of the ass's royal court. Courtiers show their respect for the ass by licking his tail, and the author describes the protocol of licking tail in gleefully great detail. We are also treated to a number of official titles for the donkey king, all of them along the lines of "his asinine majesty." The priestly class of elephants is also skewered. We learn how an amazing number of half-elephant offspring start turning up all over the place, an oddity given the fact that the elephant priests are so known for their chastity and faithfulness to their elephant wives (albeit rumors abound that certain priests disregard gender as much as species in these matters). We hear all about the Book of Morals, the authoritative religious work that is only valid when elephant feces have marred great portions of the actual writing. I could go on, but you get the idea. Alas, the great dictatorship of the ass is brought down by none other than the queen, whose infidelity marked a divide that ends in bloody revolution.
This is rapier-sharp allegorical castigation of the king and court of merry old England at the time of original publication, political and social satire told with the greatest of wit. The author ascends to new heights of satirical prowess. Even in our own time, it is by no means difficult to see what the author is actually saying in this allegorical description of the rebellion of the brutes. Comparisons with Orwell's Animal Farm will doubtless get The Rebellion of the Beasts more exposure than it might otherwise get, but this newly recovered novel is of great merit in and of itself. There is no shortage of power-hungry asses in the world today, and the allegorical traits described in this book apply very well to modern governments of all kinds. The price of freedom and liberty is eternal vigilance, and The Rebellion of the Beasts shows you the very personality traits and manners of political subterfuge to always be on the lookout for. Plus, lest we forget, it's a viciously funny read.