In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the meaning of Orwell’s famous six-word slogan, ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’
The six-word sentence ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ is one of the two widely known lines from George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm – the other being ‘all animals are equal but some are more equal than others’.
In many ways, these two quotations neatly encapsulate the central plot: what begins as a noble (or noble-sounding) ideal and plea for equality descends into self-contradictory and deliberately deceptive language, the sort of double-talk Orwell would himself make central to his next work of fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, through the concept of ‘Newspeak’.
But let’s focus on ‘four legs good, two legs bad’, which appears early on in Animal Farm. It’s worth recapping the events of the early part of the novella:
The novel opens with an old pig, named Major, addressing his fellow animals on Manor Farm, which is owned by Mr Jones. Major criticises Mr Jones, because he controls the animals, takes their produce (the hens’ eggs, the cows’ milk), but gives them little in return. Major tells the other animals that man, who walks on two feet unlike the animals who walk on four, is their enemy.
They sing a rousing song in favour of animals, ‘Beasts of England’. Old Major dies a few days later, but the other animals have been inspired by his message. Two pigs in particular, Snowball and Napoleon, rouse the other animals to take action against Mr Jones and seize the farm for themselves.
The pigs draw up seven commandments which all animals should abide by:
Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
No animal shall wear clothes.
No animal shall sleep in a bed.
No animal shall drink alcohol.
No animal shall kill any other animal.
All animals are equal.
Appended to these commandments is the mantra or slogan ‘four legs good, two legs bad’, because animals (who walk on four legs) are their friends while their two-legged human overlords are evil. ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’, then, is a political slogan in Animal Farm. Indeed, more than this, it’s a revolutionary slogan. The animals of the renamed Manor Farm – now known as Animal Farm, of course – found their own political ideology, Animalism, which is designed to echo the name (and values) of Communism.
Since Orwell took the Russian Revolution of 1917 as his historical inspiration for Animal Farm, it seems fair to say that ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ carries the force of a rallying cry. But it is also political propaganda, designed to bring the animals together – and specifically, to bring them together against a common enemy, man.
However, ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ is soon quietly altered in something akin to the slippery slope principle. The first time this happens, it seems like an honest piece of clarification from Snowball:
‘A bird’s wing, comrades,’ he said, ‘is an organ of propulsion and not of manipulation. It should therefore be regarded as a leg. The distinguishing mark of man is the HAND, the instrument with which he does all his mischief.’
‘The birds did not understand Snowball’s long words,’ Orwell tells us, ‘but they accepted his explanation, and all the humbler animals set to work to learn the new maxim by heart. FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BAD, was inscribed on the end wall of the barn. … When they had once got it by heart, the sheep developed a great liking for this maxim, and often as they lay in the field they would all start bleating “Four legs good, two legs bad! Four legs good, two legs bad!” and keep it up for hours on end, never growing tired of it.’
Of course, it’s not Snowball’s innocent-enough explanation that is the problem here: more that the slogan ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ clearly doesn’t adequately express the political outlook of Animalism. Birds are animals, so it’s fair that they are included, but the verbal gymnastics Snowball must perform (and he does it very smoothly like many a real-life demagogue) in order to make a wing into a leg sounds a warning note about what will follow. Once a politician can convince the populace (or the animalace) of a little lie, he can start to think big and begin coming up with some whoppers.
And sure enough, that is what happens. Napoleon (modelled on Stalin) is caught walking about the place on two legs, like a human, rather than the usual four. And the sheep (whose name is a byword for gullibility and willingness to follow orders) become the chief propagandistic tool at the pigs’ disposal, bleating in unison the altered slogan: ‘Four legs good, two legs BETTER! Four legs good, two legs BETTER! Four legs good, two legs BETTER!’
Of course, the slide from ‘bad’ into ‘better’ is made possible because, although their meanings point in completely opposite directions, their sounds – those plosive ‘b’ sounds and the shared alveolar stops of the ‘d’ and ‘t’ letters – are shared, so that in changing the final word, and getting the animals to accept this rewriting of history and manipulation of language, they completely overturn their central political slogan, not only altering but actively inverting its meaning.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.