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As a child I remember enjoying the Babar picture books about the eponymous elephant and his escapades. Now, many years later, it occurs to me to wonder what kind of elephants Babar and his people were: African elephants or Asian elephants. The Wikipedia page mentions Africa a few times, but also shiitake mushrooms which are native to Asia. Other animals featuring in the stories, such as rhinoceri and monkeys, are also found both in Africa and in Asia. I don't have any Babar book to hand any more to check its text (and more importantly illustrations) for clues as to the setting.

Is it clear from the original books whether they're meant to be set in Africa or Asia? Or is it kept more vague and general, just a civilisation of elephants without regard to real-world geography?

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    After getting this answered, I'll be able to figure out the airspeed velocity of an unladen elephant :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 15 at 18:44
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    The answer to that one is "très vite", apparently; bestofniceblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/…
    – Valorum
    May 15 at 23:26
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    @Randal'Thor African or Asian? May 16 at 8:14
  • I randomly got curious and tracked down the "shiitake" edit: it was made in 2017 and has no references, and actually replaced previous fly agaric wording; a reminder that things slip through the cracks on crowd sourced sites, and "many eyes" don't always solve for seemingly well intentioned edits if the knowledgeable eyes needed aren't present/paying attention to realize they're wrong: en.wikipedia.org/w/…
    – taswyn
    May 18 at 23:36
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    @taswyn Yup. A lot of questions on this site have been based on "Wikipedia says XYZ without citations - is it really true?" and as often as not the answer is no.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 19 at 7:14
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+100

Inasmuch as Babar is from a specific continent, he's either from Europe or from Africa-as-perceived-by-Europeans-in-the-1920s. Which is not exactly Africa, but definitely not Asia.

Babar's adventures spanned many books and had multiple authors and illustrators over decades, starting with Cécile and Jean de Brunhoff and continuing with their son Laurent. They started out as bedtime tales that Cécile told to her children, which her husband Jean elaborated on and turned into illustrated books. As they are children's tales, they do not necessarily take place in the real world and they do not have the kind of internal continuity that you can expect from some science-fiction franchises.

In the first book, Histoire de Babar, Babar lives happily in a forest (p. 3, p. 4–5) until his mother is killed by a hunter (p. 6, p. 7). Other animals in the “forest” include not only monkeys but also a giraffe (p. 11). The depiction of the forest is clearly not realistic (it's more of a savannah with palm trees), but inspired from imagery of Africa, with animals gathering around a water hole. The hunter is a stereotypical safari hunter with a pith helmet. This is definitely happening in Africa as seen by its colonizers.

Out of story, Laurent notes that the stories may have been partly inspired by tales from cousins who lived in Kenya, and by visits to a zoo which had animals from France's colonies in Africa. (Granted, the zoo also had animals from elsewhere around the world.) (source: 80 ans de Babar – quelle histoire ?, via RFI)

Later, when Babar comes back to his native land, we get to see many other animals (p. 41, p. 42), most of which are native to parts of the African savannah (lion, gazelle, hippopotamus, dromedary, …). Babar becomes king of his village (p. 43), an African social structure (as seen through the eyes of Europeans).

In between, Babar is in the city. The city has French architecture (p. 9 ff.) and is home to white-skinned humans with a dress code similar to contemporary France (p. 10 ff.). This is a European city, but Babar could walk to it. In a later book, Babar et ce coquin d'Arthur, Arthur crosses overland from a kangaroo tribe to his homeland. This shows that the world of Babar does not have clearly defined continents as such. It does, however, have an America with specific features of the United States (Babar en Amérique).

Although the city is depicted as European, it has an African interpretation: the city represents the European civilization (humans, clothes, buildings, shops, books, etc.) which has reached the savage lands where Babar was born (animals, no clothes, no buildings, etc.). In the minds of a 1930s French reader, colonization evokes first and foremost Africa.

The depiction of elephants is more African than Asian, as all adult elephants have tusks, not just males (Babar's mother p. 3, Celeste p. 25, mothers p. 30). They have large ears which are not the rounded ears of Asian elephants (p. 6, p. 9 p. 30, …). The head is usually drawn as twinned-domed with a ridge at the top which is characteristic of Asian elephants (p. 14–15, p. 28–29, p. 35), but not always (Babar p. 11, p. 36–37). The lack of indent may either be due to a lack of detail in some images or due to the fact that the illustrator did not consider it significant. Jean de Brunhoff was likely working from multiple models, some African, some Asian. From what I can tell, Laurent kept the tusks and ears (which are how the French public expects elephants to look) but not the head ridges (which most readers would not pay attention to).

I don't know why the English Wikipedia page mentions shiitake mushrooms. This is either something that was added in the English translation or a plain mistake. In the original (p. 34), the species of the mushroom is not mentioned in the text (it's just a “bad mushroom”), and the picture is a fly amanita which probably the stereotypical poisonous mushroom in French culture (and perceived to be more deadly than it really is).

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    The other two answers were good, based on some valid research from different points of view, but this one is excellent - so much detail about all the different types of evidence, with frequent page citations, and from someone who's clearly familiar with the source material. Thanks a lot.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 16 at 21:09
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    @Randal'Thor “clearly familiar with the source material” — hrrrm, well, I had read it before today, but the last time was [mumble] decades ago. I'd say mostly I'm familiar with the cultural context. May 16 at 21:42
  • "Definitely not from Asia", why that ? "Asia-as-perceived-by-europeans" was a land where elephants were very common (and trained to hold loads, etc...). May 18 at 13:07
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    @JeanMarieBecker Read my answer? Almost all clues that point to a specific continent point to Africa, not Asia. May 18 at 16:15
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    Broadly, Babar's own ears seem almost designed to leave the Question open but find two or three pics of Cornelius and Ask again! Similarly, much of the landscape is innocuous but smoe clue shriek out… as Celesteville being the capital of the kingdom. How many African and how many Asian townships have you heard of with French names? As Valorum shows us, Babar's territory seems to house significant numbers of giraffes! May 19 at 23:38
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In the original story L'histoire de Babar: le petit éléphant (translated and published as The Story of Babar), his companion's absence is communicated by a 'vieux marabout' (an old marabous [bird]).

A two-page illustration from "L'histoire de Babar: le petit éléphant" showing a marabou stork communicating with the elephants.

In a subsequent book, Babar and his Children, his son is saved from a grisly fall by a giraffe.

A two-page illustration from "Babar and his Children" showing a giraffe interacting with the elephants.

As both marabous and giraffes are, as we all know, only found in sub-Saharan Africa, this would indicate that Babar's point of origin is Africa and hence that he is an African elephant.

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    And yet there's the very Asian Mughal Emperor Babar, after whom I'd venture this elephant is named. Historians have now taken to spelling the Emperor's name Babur to avoid confusion with the usurping pachyderm.
    – verbose
    May 16 at 4:14
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    The French Wikipedia says that the stories come after letters from the author's sister-in-law's trip to Belgian Congo, then settlement in Kenya. May 16 at 8:52
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    @OlivierGrégoire - Certainly De Brunhoff's son feels that he was strongly influenced by the Paris Exhibition Coloniale of African culture : nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/…
    – Valorum
    May 16 at 9:30
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    "un vieux marabout" is certainly the name of bird, but with the hidden second meaning (enhanced by the adjective "vieux = old) of "wise person". See the Wikipedia article (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marabout) May 18 at 13:29
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I submit that Babar is an Asian elephant on the basis of the artwork.

Asian elephants differ from African elephants in a few ways, most prominently in the sizes of their ears: Asian elephants have smaller, rounder ears, whereas African elephants have larger, fan-shaped ears.

Asian elephant on the left; African elephant on the right: Asian vs. African elephants, a side-by-side front view comparison.
© SunnyS/Fotolia; © john michael evan potter/Shutterstock.com

Asian and African elephants also differ in their head shape: Asian elephants have twin-domed heads, so you can see a ridge running up the middle, whereas African elephants have rounded heads. You can easily spot this difference in the above picture, too.

Another difference is in the number of toes: Asian elephants have five toes on their front legs and four toes on their back legs, whereas African elephants have four toes on their front legs and three toes on their back legs.

One can compare these facts with the illustrations in the Babar picture books. I don't have the books at hand, so I'll borrow an image from Valorum's answer to make my point:

A two-page illustration from "L'histoire de Babar: le petit éléphant" showing many elephants assembled in a semi-circle facing towards the viewer. The ears (small), head shape (ridged), as well as the toes (5 on the front, 4 on the back) of these elephants are all clearly visible in the illustration.

  • Smaller, rounder ears? Check!
  • Twin-domed head, with ridge running along the middle? Check!
  • Five toes on the front legs, four toes on the back? Check!

It seems we have a winner!

In the other images I could find, the number of toes are not prominently visible, but the ears are always drawn smaller and distinctly not fan-shaped, and the head seems to be consistently drawn with a ridge.

Ergo, Babar is an Asian elephant. Possibly settled in Africa, based on the other pieces of evidence! But, he is genetically an Asian elephant.


Resources for my elephant facts

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    The tusks in Babar seem to differentiate adults from juveniles, rather than males from females, which matches African elephants more than Asian ones. May 16 at 16:56
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    In the original Babar book, we see (variously) elephants depicted with three toes on each foot, four toes on each foot and five toes on each foot. The artist seems to just draw as many toes as will fit onto the foot depicted without rhyme or reason, so I don't think we can read that much into it.
    – Valorum
    May 16 at 18:49
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    @Bahudari Since the 2017 change to HTTPS, links shared within SE do count towards the Announcer etc badges. I've no idea why anyone would edit out a referral ID though - they're frequently used in posts all over the SE network, except in things that are specifically anonymised for some reason (such as moderator private messages).
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 16 at 21:05
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    I agree Gilles's answer is even better, but this one is also good - no need to delete it! I'll probably accept Gilles's in the end, but the other two answers represent some valid research too :-) By the way, if you are who I think you are, welcome back! Good to see you again :-D
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 16 at 21:07
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    @Bahudari Good to know you're staying around this time :-) See you in chat when you have time for it.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 16 at 21:10

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