First published in 1961, Michael Foreman’s first picture book is more relevant than ever. It’s a plea for peace, produced during the early years of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The illustrator and the writer of The General were both born in 1938, their childhoods dominated by the Second World War.
The story is about General Jodhpur, a hulking figure covered in medals. He even wears medals on his pyjamas at night! He is obsessed with maintaining his army and wanting to be the most famous general. One day, when he falls off his horse, quite by chance, he discovers the beauty and harmony of nature. He realises how terrible it would be to destroy that beauty and decides to send his army home, where they can lead peaceful lives. When he meets with other generals, they are influenced by his example and declare him to be the most famous general in the world – not for his warmongering but for his dedication to peace.
The illustration style is very striking, as it has a limited palette of reds and blues with a little yellow and green. This gives a timeless appearance and also reminded me of Eastern European folk art. There are some very unusual perspectives, such as the aerial view of an army camp turned into a lovely city, which is a pattern of squares punctuated by large playing fields. General Jodhpur himself does not appear to be based on any specific real person, or be any particular nationality, as far as I can tell, but the other two generals, Custard and Marcovitch, in my opinion, may be American and Russian. As is pointed out in the afterword, the book also has an environmental message, which seems prescient; the World Wildlife Fund was founded in 1961 and Silent Spring was published the year after, but the environmental movement was still in its infancy.
Although the picture book is intended for children, it can be appreciated by adults too. In fact, the people in power today ought to read this book and really think about its message…
This edition was published in 2023 by Templar Books and is out now. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.