I've had a delightful thrift store find this week: a lot of thirty hardcover Serendipity books, mostly from the 1970's, all in decent shape. It was actually a somewhat, um, serendipitous discovery: I had forgotten all about Serendipity books - a few of which I'd owned and loved as a child - but they'd been on my mind lately, because just LAST week, I found eight Serendipity softcovers, signed by the author Stephen Cosgrove, at a different local thrift store. I haven't seen ONE of them in a thrift store, or anywhere else, since I first encountered them in the 1970's, when I was six or seven or so; now two unique lots of them pop up in two separate locations, a short time apart, with the first tweaking my recognition of the second! Add to this that I'd given the softcovers to my gal, because, signed or no, they simply aren't as nicely designed as the hardcovers - an aspect of their remembered appeal for me is that they were beautifully made books, uncluttered by unnecessary text or even a barcode - and the fact that this second lot IS hardcover makes it seem almost like someone is listening to me and granting a wish...!
As you might immediately understand, my thought process on seeing that one of these books is entitled The Muffin Muncher was somewhat more complex than with the others. The story itself (which I had to re-read to remember - it's been nearly 40 years since I last laid eyes on this book) is entirely, sweetly innocent. It tells the tale of a poor, walled village that is dependent on their bakery for their livelihood; they make muffins, but make so little money on them that most of their profits go to firewood and flour. One day, a dragon with a muffin problem attaches himself to the village, threatening to burn down their drawbridge if he doesn't get ten muffins a day as a toll for them to cross it, en route to the market. The threat works - but backfires; he gets his muffins, but soon bankrupts the village, since he literally eats up their profits. This means they can no longer afford firewood. This, in turn, stops the dragon's muffin supply, and forces him to recalibrate; his newfound sympathy for the villagers and his self-interest go hand in hand. In collaboration with the village baker, he comes up with a novel solution: HE will stoke the fires in the ovens, dispensing with the need for firewood, and get paid in muffins. The story ends happily for all concerned...
Initially, there was a nostalgic warmth seeing this book in the stack, because this was one of the titles - along with Serendipity, The Wheedle on the Needle, and one or two others - that I actually remembered from my childhood. Then suddenly another, more adult, meaning of the phrase came to mind, around the time I was photographing myself with the books to show my girlfriend. I felt embarrassed at the thought, tried to push the other association away, but couldn't, quite; I wondered if my gal would be dirty-minded enough that she'd go there, too? (After all, she once broke into rather ribald laughter on hearing that I'd "doot-doola-doot-doo'd" with Nardwuar; she was unaware of his sign-off practices and filled in the blanks with... I'm not sure what, exactly; I didn't press for details!). Particularly given the proximity of my face to that said muffin muncher in the photo... I mean, she would have more reason (ahem) than most to make the connection...
Erm, anyhow: idly researching the books this evening, I discover that The Muffin Muncher has been retitled as Muffin Dragon! This makes me somewhat sad, actually, and not just because of the loss of alliteration: it's like the publishers don't trust us to recognize that the original book title is an innocent thing, don't trust that we will endeavour not to sully our minds (or those of our children's) with that OTHER meaning, like Serendipity fans are not adept at compartmentalization. It would be like Peter Paul and Mary doing a re-recording of "Puff the Magic Dragon" where they re-name their dragon "Bill" so to get away from any unintended connotations of marijuana-smoking; in fact, the Muffin Muncher retitling almost calls attention to that other meaning, when you start to wonder why they might have changed the title. It's kinda like the scribbled censoring of a doodle someone did on the art by the doorway of the Fifth Avenue theatre men's room; hardly anyone would have noticed the body part someone drew on this guy if it weren't for the black scribble obscuring it (my title for this picture is "Why Censorship Doesn't Work"):
As a side issue, all this raises the question as to when and where the origin of the other "muffin muncher" phrase began - before or after this book was first published? There's a thread on Wordorigins.org that deals with the slang use of "muffin
," saying it came into parlance as a reference to the female part in the 1950s; certainly any Aerosmith fan can tell you it was in common usage by the mid-1970's. But no one gets into the combination of the word with munching
so much - ditto "carpet munching," "rug munching," and so forth. So was the possibility of a double meaning in the mind of anyone at the time of the book's first publication? (Apparently, from what I see on Abebooks, early editions were
entitled Muffin Dragon
, then the book was, by the time of its first wide publication in 1974, retitled The Muffin Muncher,
which it remained through the majority of its printings; then it changed back again in 2001, and has remained that way since). I find it amusing to contemplate the possibility that the book might somehow have inspired the slang term, but it seems a little unlikely.
Anyhow, my apologies go to Stephen Cosgrove and Robin James, creators of these lovely books, for thinking out loud about these matters, but clearly, given the retitling of The Muffin Muncher
, someone else has been thinking along the same lines. I think the original title should have been preserved, myself - let the sniggerers snigger as they will! But for that matter, I'm no fan of the current design of these books, which actually are so anti-thought, anti-magic as to PRINT THE MORAL OF THE STORY ON THE COVER, so no one has to actually think about what they read; the moral of The Muffin Muncher
- or, sorry, Muffin Dragon
- is given as "When we work together there's more to share" on the Wikipedia page
, while the cover illustration I've found online has it as "Sharing all and working together." I actually think a creative child could come up with more interesting readings than either of those pat blurbs - about how "sometimes self-interest means helping others," say, or about how "sometimes your enemies can become your friends when you find you have a common goal" - but none would be so decisive that they should be printed on the book cover; half the value of a parable is that you're supposed to think
about it, and part of what's so special about these stories is that they invite thought, and can support multiple interpretations. Now with a meaning printed right there on the cover of the book, some of the delight of the series is lost, reducing rich, resonant stories to little advertising-blurbs for morality, so that parents can select them based on the lessons they teach. I liked these books better when there was nothing on the cover but a picture and the title! THAT was some special design!
Which, happily, is exactly how my lot of thirty came...