By Richa Jha
As far as authoritarian, megalomaniac tyrants go, you and I have known of (or experienced) many, starting from some right in our midst to those in lands and oceans far away. I type this even as images of missiles and drones and heavy artillery led destruction fuelled by one man’s insatiable greed for power, control and unquestioned obsequiousness in one part of the world continues to bombard the television screens in millions of homes in the rest of it.
To open a picture book, therefore, and find one in it, is something of a sparkling serendipity. We don’t have too many of these madmen in our books for the youngest of our readers. That a book can put it across succinctly with beguiling simplicity in exactly 247 words (I counted) is the stuff that sublime picture books are made of.
So, what is Louis I, King of the Sheep about?
Remember one of those most cliched topics one would get for school essays: Absolute power corrupts absolutely? In a nutshell, that is what it is about.
It is a cautionary tale without any pretences of masquerading as a sweet-nothing; one that the children can learn from, from a distance, of course, but only from a distance. Because revelling in the hunger for power, and too much power, is an adult affliction. We live it, either through ourselves, or by having our lives impacted by it, or by recognising its grotesque reflection in others.
The book’s relevance, therefore, in the hands of the adult readers, too, is why I’m featuring this one here today.
Not least because only we know that strange things could happen when the wind blows east. In Louis the Sheep’s case, the west wind brings him a crown. Just like that, out of nowhere. And plonk, it drops pretty on his head.
“And so it was one windy day that Louis the Sheep thereby became Louis I, King of the Sheep.”
This moment when he realises it’s a regal crown on his head, and he immediately adjusts his posture to a stately erect, is brilliant. His kingship is self-proclaimed; no other sheep seems to notice this life-changing moment in Louis’s life. Nor will they be particularly interested, once they do get to know. But only for a while, that is; until their own lives start to get impacted by his rise to authoritarianism.
Megalomania has a slow, insidious way of creeping over an individual. It starts with tiny, insignificant things, a fetish here and an acquisition there. “The first thing Louis I thought was that to govern, a king should have a scepter.”
A harmless, somewhat even necessary acquisition for a king, the observers would say. He then gets himself a throne, for a throne is necessary to “hand down justice, because justice is rather important”.
The next, of course, is a “grand king’s bed”.
And so it is that, with every page flip, our nondescript Louis goes about becoming every bit more of a ruler that he imagines his crown wanting him to be. It’s a slow, luscious build-up, one laced with beauty and might and grandeur, to the point where he ceremoniously pronounces his racial superiority.
“Next, Louis I decided that only the sheep who resembled him could live at his side. The others must be driven out.”
We know our histories well enough to know that the tides do turn, and that those that rise must also fall. And the same west wind that can crown you can also rob you of it.
Done with disarming and charming simplicity, this picture book is an astute comment on how we adults allow our roles, power, position, titles to define who we are with those around us. The even more dangerous thing is beginning to become these by erroneously believing that they are these. Olivier Tallec maintains a straightforward, somewhat easily-deadpan but witty narrative voice.
The biggest appeal of the book for me is the sheep. That he thought of portraying a sheep as an authoritarian (and, say, not a lion or an elephant, or some such mighty beast) shows the exceptional profoundness of what the book is saying – that the despots come from within us, among us, around us. And while there may be other factors at play in their ascendency to uncontrolled power, it is also the zilch resistance of other sheep that emboldens them to become what they do.
Did I really just finish reading all of this in a picture book meant for minds as young as three and four? I did! Because that’s what exceptional picture books do. They trust a young mind’s capacity to grasp depth as much as they respect an adult’s ability to engage with the world in the books with childlike excitement and a sense of discovery.
Do read this book. It won’t let you down.
Richa Jha, a picture book devourer, reads, writes, publishes, gifts, buys, borrows and hoards them for herself. She believes that there is no better life coach than a picture book created just right. In this monthly column, she’ll share some of personal favourites.
At their best, picture books are powerful meditations on life, its quintessential soul-curry, as I call them. Pick them up- no matter where on the reading spectrum you see yourself – a book novice or an incorrigible bibliophile. They will never let you down.
P.S. – She’s also on a mission of sorts to convert everyone into a picture book devourer. The world needs more of us.