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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Reflections on The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

A longstanding favourite story in our house is ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ by Judith Kerr.

For many people this is a wonderful story with no hidden meaning. Certainly the author maintained it was written only as entertainment for her children. However as poet Michael Rosen noted, whether created consciously or unconsciously the story carries powerful metaphors. He noted that despite the tiger being depicted as ‘jolly’ within the images ‘it still is a tiger’. As such I thought it would make a fascinating subject for some reflective practice workshops and the conversations that resulted did not disappoint. The following is an attempt to bring some of the experiences of these discussions into this blog post. To encourage thought and reflection within the reader. Not to regurgitate, or break confidentiality about what was already been discussed, nor generate a specific understanding of anyone aspect of the story or life. My hope is to encourage more independent thought in a world that seems to offer 'right ways to think'. By sharing some of the questions, thoughts and ideas the material raises in the hope it might lead to more conversation and connection.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

The story tells of a mother and daughter who are at home waiting for father to return from work. An unexpected visitor arrives. It’s a tiger who asks to come in. The Mother says of course and offers him tea and buns. The tiger takes a great deal more than the tea - it eats every bit of food and drink including ‘all the water from the tap’. There is not even any water left for Sophie to have a bath. It then leaves. When father arrives home he takes the mother and daughter to a café for dinner, since there is nothing left at home. In the image of the family walking along the road to the café the reader sees a stripy cat, similar to the tiger, in the street. The following day, mother and daughter go shopping and restock with food. They buy a tin of tiger food in case the tiger comes back. It is revealed on the final page that he never does come back.

So how might we go about thinking more about this story?

The tiger is the largest living cat species. As apex predators, tigers primarily prey on animals such as deer and wild boar. They are territorial and whilst generally solitary in their attack they are a social predator. Wild tigers live in Asia. Most populations inhabit tropical regions in countries such as Thailand, India and Indonesia, but tigers can also be found in much colder environments, including in the far east of Russia, according to Panthera, a wild cat conservation organisation.

Tigers have a compelling beauty to them. Can one kill me? Easily. But they are undeniably fascinating. When we look at these creatures, we sense their power. They are thrilling and it is easy to associate their image with something regal, a warrior full of soul. We see their inviting fur and magnetic eyes. How wonderful might it be to be close to one, and stroke it. Tigers remind us that as prey, if not cognizant of consequences, we are not always repelled by predators. We might even try and get a closer look.

History of the Tale

Some of the roots of the Tiger Who Came to Tea could be said to be found in another ‘uninvited visitor’ story: Little Red Riding Hood. Ancient versions of Little Red Riding Hood tales are found in both Europe and Asia. Interestingly Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese cultures tend to be tiger or a panther, such as the story of Great Aunt Tiger.

At about the same time that Perrault was writing about Little Red Riding Hood in the 17th century, the Chinese poet Huang Zhing was writing down the story of the Tiger Grandmother.

Little Red Riding Hood is a story that was taken up strongly in Nazi propaganda and in antithesis the images of Little Red Riding Hood are used in the Speilberg film Schindler’s list. Similarly to Little Red Riding Hood in these versions it tends to be the tiger devouring children, not just the food in the house.

Judith Kerr was born in Berlin and was Jewish. She came to Britain with her family in 1935 during the rise of the Nazis. 'After the war, Judith Kerr was awarded a scholarship to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1945 and began to make a living teaching and designing textiles and wallpapers. She later married scriptwriter Nigel Kneale and had two children. However, the war, had a devastating impact on her parents’ lives. Her father was welcomed back to Germany as a hero in 1948, but on the night he arrived, he suffered a stroke. With the help of his wife, he took his own life.’ (Gerry, 2013)

Judith Kerr, Berlin street scene, 1920s

Some Interpretations

A Freudian interpretation of the Tiger Who Came to Tea is offered by Beasley - Murray (2013). In this understanding the story is about the combination of 'danger, desire, and pleasure' as a necessary part of child development; libido in the form of a tiger is discovered in the child when puberty comes knocking on the door. It might also explain Sophie's lack of bathing. The cat seen out and about in the town suggests a possible new understanding of the tiger as something harmless and not at all as dangerous as was experienced in the home.

In other psychological interpretations of the story we might also think about an ‘uninvited visitor’ story as experiences such as falling in with 'the wrong crowd'; dependence on recreational drugs; disordered eating problems such as anorexia nervosa or binge eating; the development of an obsessive compulsive disorder; internet addiction; or an experience of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria. Interestingly, the tiger is typically perceived by the storyteller and the main character as not that dangerous.

Sophie in the story is playing with the Tiger. Freud regarded play as the means by which the child accomplishes their first great cultural and psychological achievements; through play he expresses himself. This is true even for an infant whose play consists of nothing more than smiling at his mother, as she smiles at him.

Freud also noted how much and how well children express their thoughts and feelings through play. These are sometimes feelings that the child himself would remain ignorant of, or overwhelmed by, if they did not deal with them by acting them out in play fantasy. So in playing with a tiger - what might someone be trying to express?

Children's playthings are not sports and should be deemed their most serious actions" Montaigne.

Open The Door – Stories Collected and Arranged by Margery Fisher, Cover Illustration by Edward Ardizzone 1965.

Importantly in the story there is a disconnect between the reader's telling, the child’s experience in the story and the material reality of the situation. This also echoes that of many people who experience ‘uninvited psychological visitors' not really being warned of, or able to perceive the full extent of the danger of their situation. After all lots of people survive just fine. In fact, they may only ever experience the Tiger as something positive: a positive initiation into more adult understanding of sexual life; a wanted body shape; an important group of friends; a new identity. However, they are still trickster experiences where things are not quite as they seem. In part this is because it is impossible to predict outcome or how the meaning of an experience will change over time. Adults know, tigers can be lethal and not safe to 'play' with.

Multiple Perspectives

One important way to connect with the story is see things from the perspective of each of the different characters.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea features Sophie's two parents. Jung wrote “parents must realize that they are trees from which the fruit falls in the autumn. Children don’t belong to their parents… In reality they come from a thousand-year-old stem, or rather from many stems, and often they are about as characteristic of their parents as an apple on a fir-tree” (Jung, Letters Vol 1, pages 217-218).

Most parents understand this well and yet this it is easier said than done, when we see our children are playing with tigers. Some risks are just not acceptable to stand by and watch without intervention.

Listening to the story from the perspective of the parent, rather than the child invites in a very different understanding of what it must have been like to be alone in the house when a Tiger knocks at the door. How do you protect your child, when you have so little meaningful power within an experience. It is easy to imagine the hero parent fighting a tiger off, but the reality is both parent and child would likely die. Then seeing how much affection and love the child is giving to the tiger: Sophie holds the tiger and strokes its tail ( or 'tale'). We must wonder - how easy would it be to say no to a tiger, no matter how well mannered. Does the mother have a choice. And as it turns out the tiger isn’t that well mannered as it takes everything edible in the house, including all the water in the taps.

Michael Rosen’s associations to the story took me to the tiger as an unwanted visitor of trauma memory of Jewish survivors of Nazi violence. To build on Michael Rosen’s associations, according to the Administration for Children and Families, "historical trauma, such as the Holocaust and enslavement, is intergenerational trauma experienced by a cultural group with a history of suffering from systemic oppression, more specifically known as genocide". When trauma is left unaddressed, it can have a cumulative impact that reverberates across generations in the form of psychological, emotional, and even physical trauma.

Individuals have varying reactions to traumatic events and often times do not verbalize the impact of the event. Symptoms of intergenerational trauma may vary depending on the events that families have experienced and can be physical, emotional, or behavioral. Symptoms of intergenerational trauma may include denial, depersonalization, isolation, memory loss, nightmares, psychic numbing, hypervigilance, substance abuse, identification with death, and unresolved grief.

In a guardian article by Alix Kirsta in 2014, Rita Goldberg tells herstory of being the daughter of a Jewish survivor of the holocaust. Her mother Hilde Jacobsthal did not speak of her experience and instead was lost for ever "The culmination of intense emotion and physical strain became the foundation of a new personality in my mother." That personality was energetic, cheerful and outgoing, but Goldberg sensed her mother's capacity for joy hid a wound too deep to heal. "Learning to build a wall and compartmentalise pain and conflict helped her to survive but created a remoteness that distanced her, even from us. She buried a part of herself so deep it remains impenetrable." Goldberg at one stage went through periods of depression, consumed by "a vague gloom, like some sort of auto-immune disorder". As the eldest child, she felt the pressure to be responsible and protective towards her mother. "The history was a crushing burden and has to some extent paralysed me."

In the story the Tiger Who Came to Tea might be seen as the trauma symptoms and the relationship each character has within the story and the different ways the people relate to the ‘problem’.

  • Tiger - Demanding, entitled, Potential for violence (Fight)

  • Sophie - as something quirky to be indulged or mastered, at the cost of everything else (Fawn)

  • Mother - as something to be afraid of, go along with and but finds overwhelming (Freeze)

  • Father - something to avoided and ‘throw money at’ (Flight)

It is also helpful to understand the story from the perspective of the tiger. As mentioned above tigers are not indigenous to the UK. How does it feel to be so readily identifiable as 'not being from round here'. Does the tiger know it is a tiger - is it really a tiger or just related to as one behind closed doors? Out on the street we see a pussycat and not a predator. My associations to the tiger and its activities on the story also take me to tiger mothers, tiger tanks, minors as minorities, Tea plantations and Tiger Esso Oil.

Final Thoughts

It is an excruciating task to actively wait watchfully - no wonder certainty of outcome and action is sold so readily. I am also not convinced by stoicism alone, although so much is to be said for watchful waiting and sometimes there is no other choice than to bear with the unbearable. Sometimes there is very little we can do with regards to direct action and instead must place our energies into making plans for repair (shopping) and future reoccurrences (Tiger food). In the story the Tiger does not return, but in real world sometimes the Tiger never really leaves.

A psychoanalyst once said to me, some injuries are too big and grief and rage too enormous to be dealt with by one person, alone, in their lifetime. It is unfair to demand from any one person this task. Some horrors take multiple generations to heal. We might have to learn to live with Tigers. We can only do what we can and then wonder if our children will be able to forgive us; knowing it is not their responsibility to forgive us either. From this they might learn how to live life on life’s terms and maybe heal a little too. They in turn will do some more and their children more again. Bit by bit, we might move our shared stories to healing. We might build our resource and restock our cupboards.

Sometimes we can see new types of tigers arrive, our children devoured by social predators and fresh wounds created happening right in front of our eyes. The cycle starts again.

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