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Issue 12 – Assumption 2022


God's Toys

On the Velveteen Rabbit.


My childhood in the mid-1990s was the heyday of toys-come-to-life cinema. Toy Story launched Pixar’s animation empire, The Indian in the Cupboard was on school summer reading lists everywhere (it has since become an obvious target for cancelation), and other people even flocked to see Small Soldiers despite its P.G.-13 rating. Bliss was it in that dawn to be six. It was not until much later, naturally, that I saw Tales from the Hood, which puts a more interesting twist on the vigilante toy revenge story invented in Stephen King’s “Battleground.” In this movie, instead of toy soldiers, dolls possessed by the spirits of enslaved ancestors emerge from the floorboards to kill a contemporary racist politician. Everything I have heard about The Lego Movie suggests there is still potential in the toys-come-to-life genre, but it seems like an act of self-flagellation to pay filmmakers for a lecture on the moral deformity of grown-ups who remain too attached to their old toys. (I already know, believe me.) But the golden age of toys-come-to-life films, which continues to cast its long shadow over cinema, is impossible to imagine without a classic work of English literature that marks its centenary this year: Margery Williams Bianco’s The Velveteen Rabbit.

The Velveteen Rabbit is the crown of toys-come-to-life literature because it combines the most successful aspects of the genre’s two foundational texts from the nineteenth century: the poignancy of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and the tragedy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” The Velveteen Rabbit is a Christmas present who plays an unlikely heroic role in the life of the Boy, much like the Nutcracker does for Marie. Both stories rely upon children who bond with unlikely toys that seem down at the heel in comparison with more impressive mechanical toys. But the Rabbit’s love takes center stage in The Velveteen Rabbit, much like Andersen’s tin soldier. Fate plays a powerful role, however, that is stronger than the Rabbit’s desires, much like the love between the tin soldier and paper ballerina, who can ultimately only be united in death. As Toy Story first taught me, toys in the hands of children are the playthings, sometimes, of a cruel fate. The Velveteen Rabbit explores the disturbing story where the child is the godlike arbiter of the toy’s cruel fate. The Boy loves the Rabbit into existence and then abandons him.

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About the author

Robert Wyllie

Robert Wyllie is assistant professor of political science at Ashland University and a contributing editor at The Lamp