Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

31. Animal stories

 

Simon Flynn

 

Defamiliarisation

 

As we noted at the beginning of the chapter, there is a long tradition of using talking-animal stories to comment on political and social abuses. Readers who would not dream of reading political critique might still read Orwell’s Animal Farm. The humanisation of anthropomorphic fictions allows itself to be read as an indirect reflection on human society. As Margaret Blount suggests, ‘all [of the] numerous creators who start by dressing animals and giving them human voices end up by saying more than they intended’ (Blount 1974: 17).

Perhaps the best example of the animal story being used to attack human civilisation is Richard Adams’s best-selling Watership Down (1972). In the book, Adams develops something approaching an animal secondary world which both reflects aspects of our world - General Woundwort and Efrafa are an obvious echo of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century - and uses the perceptions of the rabbits to defamiliarise aspects of human society.

Although direct contact between the rabbits and humans in the book is rare, the rabbits do encounter evidence of humanity and its technologies throughout their travels. At such points, we get a rabbit’s-eye view of them. Common human objects are defamiliarised when described by rabbits who are trying to comprehend their purpose in their own terms. Letters on a noticeboard become for Fiver the ‘wedge-shaped little heads [of a] nestful of young weasels’ (Adams 1972/1974: 235). Perhaps the best example of the use of the rabbits to estrange aspects of human culture is Holly’s description of the terrifying encounter with what he takes to be a supernatural messenger from the deity, Lord Frith, but which the human reader recognises as a description of a speeding train.

In his essay ‘Art as Technique’ (1917), Victor Shklovsky noted that Tolstoy uses a horse’s perspective in ‘Kholstomer’ to defamiliarise human experience. What such a technique does is force us to confront the limits of the contemporary world, or what Inglis sees as the ‘interestedness of our systems of concepts’ (Inglis 1981: 206), by seeing that world from the perspective of the ‘other’. For other examples of the use of an animal point of view to estrange human culture, we only need to look back to the narrations of Black Beauty and the other animal autobiographies or, indeed, to the equine perspective explored in Adams’s later novel, Traveller (1988). In Watership Down, Adams extends such defamiliarisation by creating a special Lapine language, words from which punctuate the text and serve to further underline the ‘otherness’ of the rabbit perspective. Hence, in a book that attacks the technologies of modernity, it seems especially suitable that the Lapine word for a motorised vehicle is the ugly onomatopoeic ‘hrududu’.