Prose by Ted Hughes

The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales (London: Faber and Faber, 1996)

Lorraine Kerslake (University of Alicante) examines Hughes's 'Creation Tales'. 

How the Whale Became and Other Stories

Hughes’s first collection of stories was written and published by Faber & Faber in 1963 and illustrated by George Adamson. Faber republished the book in 2000, and it was later reissued in paperback by Frances Lincoln, accompanied by award-winning artist Jackie Morris’s evocative illustrations that capture the imagery and spirituality of Hughes’s animal tales. Hughes began writing the creation tales in 1956 at the early age of 26, whilst he and Sylvia Plath were living in Benidorm, Spain. The stories were not published though until 1963, shortly after the birth of their two children, Freida and Nicholas, to whom the book is dedicated.

The tales, both imaginative and humorous, are reminiscent of Kipling’s Just So Stories and Aesop’s Fables, in so far that they use animals to show human vices, such as selfishness, meanness, or vanity amongst others. However as Neil Roberts points out they share few other similarities: “Perhaps the most interesting difference, however, is that God plays no explicit part in Kipling’s creation, but is a central figure in Hughes.” [1]. Indeed the Creation Tales feature a very human kind of  God, one who next to his successes also makes a few mistakes along the way. The eleven stories tell the different ways in which his creatures come to be: Owl, Whale, Fox, Polar Bear, Hyena, Tortoise, Bee, Cat, Donkey, Hare and Elephant. Amongst these tales, perhaps the most memorable are “How the Whale Became”, which tells of how the Whale grew up in God’s vegetable patch but was banished to the sea when he became too large and the haunting tale of “How the Bee Became”, where we learn that Bee is made through the precious gems and tears of the demon and as a result must fly from flower to flower, seeking sweetness to overcome the bitter demon that runs through his veins.

As can be seen by looking at his major works of poetry, both for children and adults, Hughes creative power is best expressed through animal forms. The relationship he portrays in the Creation Tales between nature and the animals underlines his sense of responsibility and engagement and allows us to ask what the laws and powers that govern Hughes’ own creative and imaginative universe might be. He gives insight into this in the opening pages of his first book of fables:

"Long ago when the world was brand new, before animals or birds, the sun rose into the sky and brought the first day. The flowers jumped up and stared round astonished. Then from every side, from under leaves and from behind rocks, creatures began to appear. In those days the colours were much better than they are now, much brighter. And the air sparkled because it had never been used." [2]


Tales of the Early World

Published by Faber & Faber in 1988, this is the second collection of the Creation Tales. The genius behind Tales of The Early World followed a commission to write a children’s story for the Guardian as Hughes reveals in a letter to Nick Gammage: “I wrote the Tiger story –liked it, so wrote the rest to complete a book.” [3]. The stories are less moralistic than the stories in his first collection and belong to a more original Hughesian universe, featuring God, as a central character and God’s Mother, as well as Man and Woman as major protagonists. As can be seen in the tale of “The Guardian”, the differences in mind and character between Man and Woman are particularly revealing. Man is a simple creature:  “Man was easy to create. God simply shaped the clay, breathed life into it, and up jumped Man, ready to go. God smiled. “Now,” he said, “I’ll make your better half. Then you’ll be complete.” [4]. Woman on the other hand is clearly superior, much more complex, and far more difficult to create: “God shaped Woman. He took great care, and she turned out perfect. God was pleased. But when he tried to breathe life into her –nothing happened. (…) She just lay there, lifeless clay. He shook her slightly and frowned.” [5].  God will need the help of his mother to find the solution: a human child.

The relationship between God, who lives the life of an old bachelor, and his mother, a female emanation of God who keeps the house, is particularly revealing and full of many ambiguities: although he offers her presents he can also be seen resenting her, to the point that she can be found banished to the corner of the workshop and oblivion:  “(…) there she was –embedded in rubbish, like a Crab under a flat rock –his own little mother! He’d completely forgotten her! Gently he lifted her, and carried her out into the middle of the room. She was a great knot of doubled-up arms and legs, like a big, dry, dusty Spider.” [6]

On a symbolic figure the spider has often been associated with the negative mother figure. However, as Louise Bourgeois claimed referring to her renowned giant spider sculpture, Maman, as a totem figure, the spider alludes to the strength of the mother, and her creative and protective force.        

Following the previous narrative, the stories tell how God continued to craft and create more creatures of the world: by accidentally breathing life into a miniature trunk made out of the remains of elephant clay God creates the earthworm; when he tries to make a dancer he fist produces Cat and later mouse, hence their rivalry; in “How Sparrow Saved the Birds” we learn of Sparrow’s heroic battle against the bird-swallowing Black Hole. On other occasions however the tales are strongly reminiscent of Crow, such as in “The Guardian” where we encounter the Serpent in the form of Puff-Adder, or in “The Playmate” where Woman claims that “All I’ve got is a snake. It sleeps the whole time. I’m perishing of boredom and snake sleep!” [7]

One of the most outstanding stories is Hughes own Crow-like prosaic adaptation in “The Shawl of the Beauty of the World” in which we learn how God created the peacock: “it was a funny-looking object. Just like a Turkey all plucked and ready for the oven. Even its head was pink and bare. And it had no legs.” [8]. Once again it is God’s mother who saves the creature and lends the strange bird a beautiful shawl, thus creating the peacock.

The Dreamfighter

In the third and last collection of the Creation Tales we learn more about the laws and powers that govern Hughes’s own creative and imaginative world through the different universes: Heaven, the Earth, the Moon and the Underworld. Along with the creatures and Man and Woman we meet the Angels and Demons in “Goku”; in “The Dreamfighter” God advertises for a bodyguard to defend him from nightmares, and Space Beings; whilst in “How God Got His Golden Hair” we meet a Poltergeist who lives in God’s workshop and later a Demon who is jealous of God’s creatures.

Sometimes his creations are failures, such as Camel: “Camel was a mistake. He was simply made wrong. He stood in God’s backyard, where the different kinds of clay and the fuel for the kilns lay in heaps, and he knew he was wrong. And he felt wrong all over” [9] or as in the case of “The Last of the Dinosaurs” we learn how God got carried away in the early days and filled the Earth with Dinosaurs and then set out wiping them out right up until the last one, the Pterodactyl, which he turns into a heron. In the last tale “The Secret of Man’s Wife” we learn about the bond between Moon, Woman and Hughes’ favourite totem figure and mythic animal, Fox. This illustrates how there are many interconnections between Hughes’s animal motifs in his different writings. However read as a collection The Creation Tales also disclose some revealing and rather puzzling facts. As Claas Kazzer points out in his brilliant essay “Family relations –Traces of a cosmology in Ted Hughes’s Creation Tales”:  “looking at the entire body of published Creation Tales one cannot help noticing certain inconsistencies in them as regards some of the characters and/ or their creation” [10]

These inconsistencies refer mainly to conflicting narratives regarding the creation of Man and the creation of Woman, the human child or other creatures, such as the figure of the snake. However, as Kazzer shows despite the apparent contradiction, there appears to be a reason behind Hughes’s choice of rewriting inconsistent and even ambiguous accounts: “They give him the freedom to adapt a story to particular circumstances (…) so that the storyteller rarely tells the exact same story the same way twice.” [11]. Moreover, Hughes’s choice of employing such narrative techniques is strongly related to his own views on education and writing as can also be seen inCrow or other of his works. As Neil Roberts underlines: “An important and subtle part of the educative function of these stories, then, is introducing their readers to narrative modes, and associated ways of thinking about the world, from a different cultural context” [12]

Read as a collection The Creation Tales also offers insight into the importance of myth and religion for Hughes and the way they influenced both his writing and his mental and imaginative universe. Like Crow, the Creation Tales are set in the same context, a world where in the words of Hughes: “Christianity is just another provisional myth of man’s relationship with the creator and the world of spirit” [13]

However, perhaps the key difference in his children’s work can be found in his superb essay “Myth and Education” which underlines his own views concerning literature for children, and suggests the healing function and sense of recovery that lies in children’s work. Indeed Hughes’s main reason for writing for children is best summarised by Hughes himself, for as he exquisitely reminds us: “every new child is nature's chance to correct culture's error” [14]

Lorraine Kerslake holds a BA in English and French studies and an MA in Translation and Interpreting from Alicante University, Spain, where she teaches English Language and Literature. She has worked as a translator of literary criticism and art and published essays on children’s literature. Her current research lines of interest include children’s literature, the representation of animals and nature in literature and art, and ecocriticism. She is currently researching and writing a PhD thesis on Ted Hughes’ children’s works and ecocriticism.  


1. Neil Roberts. Ted Hughes: A Literary Life. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006: 171.

2. Hughes, How the Whale Became and Other Stories, 5.

3. Letters of Ted Hughes, 2007: 572

4. Hughes, Tales of the Early World, 16

5. Tales of the Early World, 16.

6. Tales of the Early World, 21. 

7. Tales of the Early World, 73.

8. Tales of the Early World, 85.

9. The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales, 275.

10. Claas Kaazler. “Family relations –Traces of a cosmology in Ted Hughes’s Creation Tales”.

11. Ibid.

12. Roberts,  A Literary Life, 171.

13. “Ted Hughes and Crow: an Interview with Ekbert Faas” in Faas, The Unaccomodated Universe, 1980: 205.

14. Winter Pollen, 149.