The Gruffalo

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The Gruffalo
Fairuse Gruffalo.jpg
Front cover of the first edition
AuthorJulia Donaldson
IllustratorAxel Scheffler
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreChildren's fantasy
PublisherMacmillan (UK)/Viking Children's Books (US)
Publication date
23 March 1999
Followed byThe Gruffalo's Child 

The Gruffalo is a British children's picture book by author Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Its tells the story of a mouse taking a walk in the woods and deceiving different predators, including the Gruffalo. The Gruffalo was first published in 1999 in the United Kingdom by Macmillan Children's Books. It is about 700 words long and is written in rhyming couplets featuring repetitive verse. It is an example of a trickster story and was inspired by a Chinese folk tale called "The Fox that Borrows the Terror of a Tiger". The Gruffalo has sold over 13.5 million copies and has won several prizes for children's literature including the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize.

It has been adapted into plays and an Oscar-nominated animated film. The book has inspired a range of merchandise, a commemorative coin, a theme park ride in Chessington World of Adventures, and a series of woodland trails. In 2004, The Gruffalo was followed by a sequel—The Gruffalo's Childalso written by Donaldson and illustrated by Scheffler.


Author and illustrator[edit]

Julia Donaldson is an author of children's books, the most famous of which being The Gruffalo.[1] Before writing The Gruffalo, Donaldson had a background in drama and performance.[2] She studied drama at the University of Bristol and then busked in Europe and the United States.[1] She began her career as a writer by writing children's songs for television programmes. In 1993, one of her songs that she sang and performed with her husband—"A Squash and Squeeze", about an elderly lady with a small house[3]—was turned into a book, published by Methuen and illustrated by Axel Scheffler.[4][5] Scheffler was born and grew up in Germany before moving to the UK to study art. He first worked with Donaldson on A Squash and Squeeze, published in 1993.[3]

Creating the book[edit]

In an interview in the book The Way We Write (2006), Donaldson writes that although "It can take months or years for the germination of a book ... writing The Gruffalo probably took two weeks, with all the rewriting".[6] She said that writing the second half of the book was difficult and almost forced her to stop altogether.[7] Donaldson said that she had admired Scheffler's illustrations for A Squash and Squeeze, and when her publisher did not suggest he would also be illustrating The Gruffalo, she sent him the text of the book herself. Scheffler showed the text to Macmillan, who were his publisher at the time and subsequently published the book.[8]


A mouse walks through a wood and encounters three predators—first a fox, then an owl, and finally a snake. Each of these animals invites the mouse into their home for a meal, the implication being that they intend to eat the mouse. The mouse declines each offer, telling the predators that it plans to dine with a "gruffalo". The mouse then describes the gruffalo's frightening features, such as "terrible tusks, terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws".[9] The mouse tells each predator that they are the gruffalo's favourite food. Frightened that the gruffalo might eat them, each animal flees. Convinced the Gruffalo is fictional, the mouse says:

Silly old fox/owl/snake, doesn't he know?
There's no such thing as a Gruffalo![9]

After getting rid of the last animal, the mouse is shocked to encounter a real Gruffalo, which has all the features the mouse thought that it was inventing. The Gruffalo threatens to eat the mouse. Instead, the mouse insists that they themselves are the scariest animal in the wood. Laughing, the Gruffalo agrees to follow the mouse. The two walk through the wood, encountering each of the three predators again. Each predator is terrified by the sight of the Gruffalo and escapes to their home. The Gruffalo believes that they are actually scared of the mouse. Exploiting this, the mouse threatens to eat the Gruffalo. The Gruffalo flees, leaving the mouse to eat a nut in peace.



The Gruffalo is an example of a trickster story—a genre which has examples in traditions including West African folklore, Native American stories, Russian fairy tales, and Bornean folk tales. In every example, the story features a trickster—a character who is neither good nor bad—fooling another character by making them think something beneficial to the trickster.[10][11] In The Gruffalo, the mouse is the trickster. It lies, is assertive, does not make it clear to the audience what it is thinking, and uses humour to get away with its deception.[12] Michael Burke writes that deception occurs when the mouse tells the Gruffalo that everyone is afraid of it, seemingly proves that assertion when the predators run away from it, and then says that its favourite food is "Gruffalo crumble". Burke writes that this trickery requires a theory of mind, with which the mouse in the story can understand the Gruffalo's "intentions, his beliefs, desires, emotions and knowledge".[13] In an article on the language of power in picture books, Brittany A. Stone writes that the mouse uses deception to trick the predators; when they invite mouse for a meal it appears to be a simple invitation, but mouse notices their true intention and gains control of the situation.[14]

In an article for the Royal Society, Sergio Castellano and Paolo Cermelli write that The Gruffalo is about "the 'irrational' nature of fear" which makes people succumb to deception. From an evolutionary perspective, they say that The Gruffalo is about the methods of deception used by prey against their predators, such as when caterpillars inflate themselves to resemble a snake.[15] Burke writes that the mouse in the story is a quick thinker and demonstrates a reaction to the fight-or-flight response when presented with danger.[16]


In an article titled "Humour and the locus of control in 'The Gruffalo'", Betsie van der Westhuizen identifies the following types of humour used in The Gruffalo: "humour with regard to the narrative aspects, humour with regard to the poetic aspects, visual humour and humour and the performing arts".[17] She writes that the most common use of humour in the story is incongruity, arising from the sense that "everything is not as it should be".[18] Some examples include the mouse averting the predators and the unusual descriptions of food, such as "owl ice cream" and "scrambled snake".[19] She writes that there are different experiences of humour among different ages of children who read The Gruffalo: three to five year olds will appreciate the elements of surprise and repetition in the story; six to eight year olds will enjoy the rhyme and rhythm of the text and the story's hyperbole.[17] As for visual representations of humour, van der Westhuizen writes that an example occurs when the mouse scares away the snake, accompanied by fragmented images of the imaginary gruffalo's features, then immediately afterwards comes across the real Gruffalo.[20]

Mice often feature as the main character in stories for children, and one key characteristic of the animal in this context is humour.[21][17] Both Ghassan Fadhil Radhi and van der Westhuizen write that children relate to the character of the mouse who triumphs in difficult situations, along with the humour that is a key element of many mouse stories.[17][21]

Chinese folk tale[edit]

Donaldson has said that the story of The Gruffalo was inspired by a Chinese folk tale known as "The Fox that Borrows the Terror of a Tiger"[22][23] (狐假虎威[24]).The folk tale is about a hungry tiger who tries to catch a fox. The fox is clever and tells the tiger that God has made the fox king of all animals. Whilst accompanying the fox, the tiger notices that other animals run away in fear. Not realising that they are actually running away from the tiger, the tiger believes that fox is indeed a feared king.[23] Donaldson was originally going to have the beast in her book be a tiger, but was unable to think of rhymes for "tiger" so instead invented a new word—"gruffalo".[23]

The Taiwanese translator of The Gruffalo recommended the book for publication in Taiwanese because he noticed the story bore resemblance to the traditional tale. Teachers have used this translated book to demonstrate a modern retelling of the Chinese folk tale. In an article on the traditional Chinese translation of The Gruffalo in Taiwan, Chen-Wei Yu writes that the "resourcefulness" of the mouse in Donaldson's story represents a Western association with "individual autonomy" and "self-achievement", whereas the fox in the original fable is to be looked down upon because it does not accept its correct place in society nor an individual's obligation to others.[23] This latter interpretation of the story has led the phrase "The Fox that Borrows the Terror of a Tiger" to mean someone who makes use of another person's power for their own gain.[23]

Writing style[edit]

The Gruffalo is a short children's story around 700 words long.[25] It is intended to be read aloud as it is written for a target audience of children who do not know or are learning how to read.[26] It is written in rhyming couplets in primarily dactylic tetrameter. This is a relatively uncommon metre, consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, for instance:[27]

Come and have tea in my un- der- ground house

The rhythm of the text is broken at key points in the story. For example, when the mouse announces that he is going to meet the gruffalo "here, by the rocks", the pause on the word "here" lets the reader know the importance of the location and makes them more likely to remember it when the mouse and Gruffalo return there later in the story.[28] The rhythm is broken again after the mouse fools the predators and sees the Gruffalo for the first time, saying "Oh, help! Oh, no! It's a gruffalo".[29]

To create a satisfying rhyming scheme for the story, Donaldson tried a few different names for the creature that would eventually become the Gruffalo.[30]

So I had my plot, but I couldn't get any good couplet, like 'Silly old fox! You ought to know, you really should, / There aren't any tigers in this wood.' Something like that just didn't seem very strong. So then I thought if the mouse were going to meet some made-up creature, it would be much easier for me to write about it. I have just looked at my notes, and see that at first I thought the creature could be a 'snargle' or 'stroog' or 'tiglophant' (I must have been thinking at one stage of having it a cross between a tiger and an elephant). Then I finally thought of the lines, 'Silly old fox! Doesn't he know, / There's no such thing as a gruffalo?' I thought the word had to have three syllables, and end in 'o', and would sound fierce with 'gr' at the beginning, so gruffalo came.

— Julia Donaldson, The Way We Write: Interviews with Award-Winning Writers[30]

In Burke's view, the name is "fittingly crafted by the author".[31] The use of the Gr sound at the start of the name evokes negativity, harshness and discomfort, owing to the fact that it is a common consonant cluster in words with that connotation (for example: growl, groan, grumble). The first syllable in the name—gruff—is shared with the other children's literary characters of the Three Billy Goats Gruff.[31] The sound of the word "Gruffalo" is used to emphasise the first time the Gruffalo is seen in the story: the mouse begins saying the sentence "Silly old snake, doesn't he know, there's no such thing as a Gruffal ...", then the reader turns the page to see the picture of the Gruffalo and the mouse finishes it's sentence with an the exclamation "Oh!". Burke writes that this exclamation works particularly well when the text is read out loud.[32] Van der Westhuizen writes that there is some "very subtle wordplay/manipulation of spelling" when the real Gruffalo is first introduced to make him "more specific, more substantial": from that point on in the text, "Gruffalo" is spelled with a capital 'G'; up until in the story, it was spelled with a lower case 'g'.[33] There is typographic variation in the text, in that the Gruffalo's and predator's dialogue is written in italic font whereas the mouse's dialogue is not.[34]

The text contains a mixture of predictable rhymes (such as mouse-house and wood-good) and unpredictable rhymes (such as toowhoo-flew). It utilises alliteration from the very start (such as "deep, dark woods" in the opening line), which gives more emphasis to the descriptions and helps children remember them easier.[22][29] The word "terrible" is repeated as an adjective to describe the Gruffalo's features (for example "terrible tusks", "terrible claws"), which Burke writes may remind readers of Where the Wild Things Are—another children's book to use the word.[35] The Gruffalo mainly uses concrete nouns (such as "lake" and "wood") rather than abstract nouns.[22]


The Gruffalo[edit]

When writing the story, Donaldson did not have an exact vision of what the Gruffalo would look like. She said that she imagined he would be "more weird and less furry" than Scheffler's final illustrations.[36] She read the story in schools prior to the book being published and invited the children to draw the Gruffalo, which resulted in creatures which she described as looking "more like aliens and less like cuddly animals".[36] In early sketches for the book, the Gruffalo was depicted as being humanoid, troll-like, and wearing a T-shirt and trousers. The book's editor, Alison Green, said that they instead decided that the Gruffalo would look more like a woodland creature and predator, and Donaldson said the resulting illustration is "more natural looking".[36][37] Scheffler's depiction of the creature relied on the physical descriptions within the text with along with features which aren't mentioned, such as a pair of bovine horns. He created a version of the character which is cuddly and furry but still scary.[38] Donaldson describes the Gruffalo's appearance as a "mixture of scary but stupid".[37] Burke writes that the image of the Gruffalo has become "iconic".[26]

When the Gruffalo first appears in the story, he takes up a large part of the visual space on the page with strong, contrasting colours.[39] He appears menacing with his arms raised in an attack stance, claws extended, and a drooling tongue.[32] The mouse in comparison looks threatened,[39] but the humorous grin of the Gruffalo—who looks directly at the audience rather than the mouse—alongside the playfulness of the text implies that the creature is less scary than he appears.[40] As the story progresses, the Gruffalo gradually appears less menacing and more frightened. Throughout the nine visual depictions of the Gruffalo in the book, he becomes, as Burke writes, more "buffoon-like".[41] In the penultimate picture of the Gruffalo, he holds his hand to his neck area which makes him look uncomfortable. The final picture is of the Gruffalo is him running away.[41]


The Gruffalo is set in a forest. Scheffler was inspired by the forests in Hamburg when drawing rough initial sketches for the book.[38] The setting contains a footpath, stream, lake, mushrooms and other wildlife.[42] He depicts the "deep dark wood" with deep green and brown tones and dark outlines.[38] The darkness of the hues add to the feeling of suspense when reading the story.[43] Burke writes that the trees and tree roots are "reminiscent of the Gruffalo itself, it is as if the forest has in part spawned the creature, and they serve in the story to foreshadow what is to come".[26] Throughout the book, the setting doesn't change—the illustrations at the end of the book are a mirror image of the forest at the beginning.[42]

Publication history[edit]

Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson sitting behind a table in a garden.
Illustrator Axel Scheffler (left) and Julia Donaldson (right) have collaborated on over 20 best-selling books together.

The Gruffalo was published by Macmillan in 1999—a year after its completion.[44] An audiobook version, narrated by Imelda Staunton, was released in 2002[45] and a jigsaw book version was published in 2004.[46] The "Gruffalo song" was released with the audiobook on a musical CD with other songs from Donaldson's books.[47] Scheffler and Donaldson continued to work together in an author-illustrator partnership and as of 2022 have created over 20 best-selling books.[25] In 2019, 20 years after the publication of The Gruffalo, over 13.5 million copies had been sold.[48] It has been translated into more than 100 languages,[1] including Cornish,[49] Scots[50] and Latin.[51] The sequel to the book by Donaldson and Scheffler—The Gruffalo's Childwas published in 2004.[52] It tells the story of the Gruffalo's daughter discovering the mouse after hearing stories about it from her father.[53] The character of the Gruffalo occasionally appears in other books by Donaldson and Scheffler.[54]



The book has been adapted into a 30 minute animated film,[55] which was broadcast on BBC One in the UK on 25 December 2009.[56] This version features Robbie Coltrane in the title role, James Corden as the mouse, Helena Bonham Carter as the mother squirrel narrator, John Hurt as the Owl, Tom Wilkinson as the Fox and Rob Brydon as the Snake.[57] The production was animated at Studio Soi in Germany[58] and produced through Magic Light Pictures.[59] It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film (Animated) in 2011.[60] The film was nominated for a BAFTA in 2010.[61]


The Gruffalo has been adapted for the stage by Tall Stories theatre company, premiering in 2001. The production has toured the West End, Broadway, and Sydney Opera House.[62] A review in The Scotsman says that the play "develops Donaldson's words with perfect understanding".[63] A review in British Theatre praises the "dynamic movements in all the scenes", including fourth wall breaks, but writes that the musical numbers and scenery are not as inspiring.[64] The Gruffalo has also been adapted for the stage by Dutch theatre company Meneer Monster.[65]


A range of official The Gruffalo merchandise includes clothing, accessories, games, and soft toys.[66] A Gruffalo Woodland Trail was opened on 31 March 2012 at the Dean Heritage Centre in the Forest of Dean. The trail depicts scenes and characters from the book carved by chainsaw artists.[67] Other Gruffalo-themed woodland walks and trails have been established in Great Britain, including those at Kilmardinny Loch in Bearsden,[68] Mount Vernon Park in Glasgow,[69] Ardkinglas in Argyll,[70] Whinlatter Forest Park in Cumbria,[71] and several locations managed by Forestry England.[72] In 2017, Chessington World of Adventures opened The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure after securing a licensing deal with the studio Magic Light Pictures, which created The Gruffalo film. This ride replaced the park's Bubbleworks Ride.[73] Another ride based on Donaldson's book, and Magic Light Picture's film, Room on the Broom was also opened.[74]

Sterling silver, gold, and UK 50p commemorative coins featuring "The Gruffalo" were issued in 2019 to mark the 20th anniversary of the book's publication. The coins were not introduced into general circulation, but were sold through the Royal Mint website. The 50p coins sold out within a day of being released.[75] The same year, characters from the book featured on a series of UK postage stamps issued by the Royal Mail.[76]


The Gruffalo won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and Blue Peter Book Award's Best Book to Read Aloud.[77] In November 2009 the book was voted "best bedtime story" by listeners of BBC Radio 2.[78] In a 2010 survey by UK charity Booktime, the book came first in a list of children's favourite books.[79]



  1. ^ a b c Franklin-Wallis, Oliver (17 December 2020). "How Julia Donaldson conquered the world, one rhyme at a time". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  2. ^ Creasy 2015.
  3. ^ a b Freeman, Hadley (3 September 2022). "'At first she didn't like my drawings': Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson on three decades of collaboration". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  4. ^ Baker 2006, p. 49.
  5. ^ Burke 2022, p. 56.
  6. ^ Baker 2006, p. 57.
  7. ^ Baker 2006, p. 60.
  8. ^ Baker 2006, pp. 53–54.
  9. ^ a b Donaldson 1999.
  10. ^ Zunshine 2019, p. 17.
  11. ^ Burke 2022, p. 43.
  12. ^ van der Westhuizen 2007, pp. 64, 72.
  13. ^ Burke 2022, p. 54.
  14. ^ Stone 2012, pp. 74–75.
  15. ^ Castellano & Cermelli 2015, pp. 1–2.
  16. ^ Burke 2022, pp. 53–54.
  17. ^ a b c d van der Westhuizen 2007, p. 58.
  18. ^ van der Westhuizen 2007, p. 61.
  19. ^ van der Westhuizen 2007, pp. 61–62.
  20. ^ van der Westhuizen 2007, p. 70.
  21. ^ a b Radhi 2022, pp. 59–60.
  22. ^ a b c Burke 2022, p. 50.
  23. ^ a b c d e Yu 2011.
  24. ^ Lobscheid & Inoue 1867, p. 533.
  25. ^ a b Burke 2022, p. 42.
  26. ^ a b c Burke 2022, p. 44.
  27. ^ Burke 2022, pp. 48–49.
  28. ^ Burke 2022, p. 49.
  29. ^ a b Radhi 2022, p. 68.
  30. ^ a b Baker 2006, p. 59.
  31. ^ a b Burke 2022, p. 48.
  32. ^ a b Burke 2022, p. 45.
  33. ^ van der Westhuizen 2007, p. 66.
  34. ^ Burke 2022, p. 53.
  35. ^ Burke 2022, p. 51.
  36. ^ a b c Sweet, Matthew (4 September 2004). "We've Created a Monster". The Independent. Retrieved 21 August 2022.
  37. ^ a b Baker 2006, p. 54.
  38. ^ a b c Creasy 2015, p. 2.
  39. ^ a b van der Westhuizen 2007, pp. 71–72.
  40. ^ Piesse 2007, p. 148.
  41. ^ a b Burke 2022, p. 46.
  42. ^ a b van der Westhuizen 2007, p. 69.
  43. ^ van der Westhuizen 2007, p. 72.
  44. ^ Baker 2006, pp. 49–50.
  45. ^ Gruffalo (CD). Macmillan Audio. 2002. ISBN 9781405005180. OCLC 1042875051.
  46. ^ Julia, Donaldson; Scheffler, Axel (2004). The Gruffalo jigsaw book. London: Macmillan. ISBN 9781405034968. OCLC 877603901.
  47. ^ Donaldson, Julia (2005). The Gruffalo Song and Other Songs (CD). Macmillan Audio Books. OCLC 63210687.
  48. ^ Burke 2022, p. 41.
  49. ^ "Children's story The Gruffalo has now been translated into Cornish". The Cornish Times. 31 May 2021. Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  50. ^ Flood, Alison (25 October 2016). "Gruffalo gets gallus makeover in Glaswegian translation". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  51. ^ "The Gruffalo Latin Edition". Pan Macmillan. Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  52. ^ Radhi 2022, p. 59.
  53. ^ Radhi 2022, p. 65.
  54. ^ Hahn 2015.
  55. ^ "Gruffalo to menace Christmas TV". BBC. 22 June 2009. Retrieved 27 December 2009.
  56. ^ "The Gruffalo, Christmas Day, BBC1, 5.30 pm". Daily Mirror. UK. 24 December 2009. Retrieved 27 December 2009.
  57. ^ "The Gruffalo BBC One Christmas special". BBC. 22 June 2009. Retrieved 27 December 2009.
  58. ^ "The Gruffalo". Studio Soi. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  59. ^ "Productions". Magic Light Pictures. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  60. ^ Hueso, Noela (15 February 2011). "How Director Jakob Schuh Turned Best Seller 'Gruffalo' Into Oscar-Nominated Short". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  61. ^ "Film | Short Animation in 2010". BAFTA. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  62. ^ "Theatre". The Gruffalo. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  63. ^ "Recent Reviews and Feedback". Tall Stories. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  64. ^ Hochstrasser, Tim (6 July 2015). "The Gruffalo". British Theatre. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  65. ^ "De Winter Gruffalo". Meneer Monster (in Dutch). Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  66. ^ "Personalised Gruffalo Gifts". Gruffalo Shop. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  67. ^ "Walford Timber help bring The Gruffalo to Dean Heritage Centre!". Walford Timber. 21 March 2012. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  68. ^ the Gruffalo (in Bearsden...), Glasgow With Kids, 29 October 2015
  69. ^ Vandals steal Gruffalo trail statue after ransacking east end community space, Glasgow Live, 26 December 2019
  70. ^ "The Gruffalo Trail & Fairy Trail". Ardkinglas. Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  71. ^ "Whinlatter Forest, Braithwaite, Cumbria". Kids Day Out Reviews. 16 August 2015. Archived from the original on 5 August 2021. Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  72. ^ "Gruffalo in the Forest". Forestry England. Archived from the original on 28 August 2022. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  73. ^ Richards, Stuart (2 January 2017). "Gruffalo River Ride Adventure coming to Chessington World of Adventures". Surrey Live. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  74. ^ Yossman, K. J. (16 August 2022). "'World of Jumanji' Attraction Coming to U.K. Theme Park Chessington World of Adventures". Variety. Retrieved 3 September 2022.
  75. ^ Harper, Paul (21 February 2019). "Gruffalo 50p coin released by Royal Mint: how rare is it?". Which?. Retrieved 3 September 2022.
  76. ^ "Commemorative Gruffalo stamps released to mark book's 20th anniversary". ITV. Retrieved 25 September 2022.
  77. ^ "The Story so Far". The Gruffalo. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  78. ^ "Jeremy Vine's Bedtime Stories". BBC Radio 2. Retrieved 28 August 2022.
  79. ^ "Gruffalo tops list of children's favorite books". BBC News. 18 October 2010. Retrieved 19 October 2010.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]

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