Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

31. Animal stories

 

Simon Flynn

 

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a ban were to be imposed upon all books that featured anthropomorphised animals. Classics such as The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, The Magic Pudding and The Tale of Peter Rabbit would be instantly suppressed. Animal autobiographies such as Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe would be withdrawn. And, finally, even the least anthropomorphic products of scrupulous naturalist observation such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known and Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter would be pulped. Of course, there would be some equivocal cases. Would humanised toy animals count? Would we have to wave goodbye to Winnie-the-Pooh, Mary Plain, Paddington and all the other teddy bears? And what of fabulous beasts? The gryphons, unicorns, phoenixes and the dragons that still populate the myths and legends that we give our children? I start with this scenario both to indicate the diversity of animal stories and to suggest that animal stories have become so integral to children’s literature that the form is nearly unthinkable without them.

 

The uses of animals in fiction for adults and children

 

The animal story has not, however, always been the preserve of the nursery. Indeed, like the fairy tale, it was an adult genre that gradually entered the children’s domain when the boundaries between literature for children and literature for adults were being redrawn. There is a long cross-cultural tradition of anthropomorphic animal stories, or ‘beast- fables’, in which animals are given human speech and reason, that stretches back in Greece at least to that legendary figure, Aesop (c. 550 BC) and, in India, to the stories of the Panchatantra. Fables use animals as metaphors in order to teach lessons about moral and social behaviour. In the stories attributed to Aesop, for example, various ideas about industry, perseverance, gratitude, moderation and prudence are being taught.

The artfulness of this kind of tale is that although, as Tolkien noted, the ‘animal form is only a mask upon a human face’ (Tolkien 1964: 20), the figures we encounter retain just enough of what we recognise discursively as animality to distance them from us (and so make the instruction more palatable). Whether such stories ‘work’ via displacement, through readerly ‘identification’ or perhaps by a combination of the two, is something I will discuss later. Yet the characteristics that the animal figures exhibit are always culturally mediated. Although the fox has a long tradition of being associated with cunning and deceit, such symbolism is just that, a projection of human attributes on to what we then recognise as the ‘instinctive behaviour’ of the animal. At the same time, the arbitrariness of such characterisation can be illustrated by the Brer Rabbit stories, in which Brer Rabbit and Brer Terrapin demonstrate cunning that we do not commonly associate with rabbits and tortoises (Pittock 1994: 164-5).

After Aesop, many cultures developed their own animal heroes; one of the most enduring was the epic cycle of stories about Reynard the Fox and Ysengrin the Wolf. These anonymous tales were designed for an adult audience and, unlike Aesop’s fables, they used animals primarily in a satiric rather than a moral fashion. The writers attacked the major institutions of feudal French society. The beast-fable provided the perfect vehicle for such a satire, because the animal disguises gave the satirists immunity from censure. Writers such as Chaucer, Henryson, Dryden, Swift, Krylov, Orwell and Thurber have continued the satiric animal tradition.

If animals have generally been portrayed as instruments of satire in adult fiction, in books for children they have also been used to educate children both linguistically and socially. The pragmatist and educationalist John Locke, in his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), maintained that Aesop offered just enough entertainment to repay the efforts of young readers. Locke believed that the stories were ‘apt to delight and entertain a Child [and] afford useful Reflections to a grown Man’ (Locke in Axtell 1968: 259).