Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

31. Animal stories

 

Simon Flynn

 

Hybrids

 

I have left to last one of the most intriguing themes in animal stories, namely the hybrid and unstable nature of animal characters - the sense that they are presented as a confusing mix of ‘animal’ and ‘human’ and seem to exist in a liminal space in between the categories. As Hunt notes, in The Wind in the Willows ‘Badger is one second a real badger, rooting under a hedge and trotting forward, the next an elderly gentleman who “hates society” ’ (Hunt 1994: 52). Such oscillations are also evident in the work of Joel Chandler Harris and Beatrix Potter. In the Jungle Books, Kipling’s Mowgli is an unsettling hybrid figure. Despite appearing in only eight of the fifteen stories, Mowgli’s presence is significant because it constructs the division between human and animal produced in the text as both necessary and arbitrary (Walsh 2001: 31). But Mowgli’s presence is ambiguous. As Sue Walsh argues, ‘As a human child raised by wolves, Mowgli “the Frog’s” amphibious identity can be read as initiating a destabilising questioning of the relationship of the human to the animal’ (Walsh 2001: 31-2).

In The Wind in the Willows, it is Toad who best illustrates a similar ambiguity. Like Mowgli, Toad is another ‘amphibian’ figure (literally) that seems to slide between and trouble categories. Toad’s slipperiness is even apparent in the uncertainties of his social position (Hunt 1994: 69). It is, however, his encounters with the gaoler’s daughter and later the barge-woman which seem to trouble the boundaries between human and animal, in terms of the difference between how he sees himself and how he is seen by them (Hunt 1994: 71). In these episodes, Toad is a volatile mix of human and animal that does not fit into either category.

If Charlotte’s Web has become a modern classic of children’s literature, White’s earlier novel, Stuart Little (1945), has, despite being turned into a successful film and sequel, a more uncertain position. Stuart Little follows the adventures of the eponymous hero as he experiences life in New York and later as he embarks on a quest to find his beloved, the bird Margalo. Episodic and light-hearted in tone, from this synopsis it would be difficult to see why this book seems to cause disquiet among critics. It is, however, Stuart’s uncertain identity, not quite human and not quite ‘animal’, that seems to unsettle many readers. The book’s opening sentence informs us in a matter-of-fact way:

 

When Mrs Frederick C. Little’s second son was born, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way.

(White 1984: 7)

 

Notably, White’s tricksy prose does not say Stuart is a mouse, merely that he ‘looked’ very much like one. Anne Carroll Moore, the head of the New York Public Library and a powerful influence on publishers, even tried to prevent the book’s publication on the grounds that it was ‘non-affirmative, inconclusive, unfit for children’ (White 1966 quoted in Sampson 1974: 98). Although its lack of closure certainly contributed to its notoriety, there has been speculation that Moore’s objections were primarily to do with the ‘monstrosity’ of Stuart’s birth. In his letters in 1945, White seemed to enjoy the consternation that his hero’s liminality caused, protesting at one point, ‘Nowhere in the book ... is Stuart described as a mouse,’ only to note a few lines later, ‘(I am wrong, Stuart is called a mouse on page 36 - I just found it. He should not have been)’ (Guth 1976: 270).

Interestingly, in the recent film version, the ambiguity of Stuart’s identity was clarified by making him the adopted son of the Littles. Despite this, there are reports on the film’s database that even this measure does not entirely reassure viewers, who still found his centrality in a human family disturbing. Stuart Little provides yet another example of the undecidability of talking-animal figures. As a potentially subversive, boundary-straddling figure, he unsettles categories. As such, he joins a long line of strange animal/human hybrids that inhabit the popular, but always somewhat uncanny, genre of the talking- animal story.

 

References

Adams, R. (1972/1974) Watership Down, Harmondsworth: Penguin (Puffin).

Aries, P. (1962/1973) Centuries of Childhood, New York: Knopf; London: Jonathan Cape.

Axtell, J. L. (1968) The Educational Writings of John Locke, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Baker, S. (1993) Picturing the Beast. Animals, Identity and Representation, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Barker, M. (1989) Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Blount, M. (1974) Animal Land. The Creatures of Children’s Eiction, London: Hutchinson. Carpenter, H. and Prichard, M. (1984) The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cosslett, T. (2002) ‘Child’s Play in Nature: Talking Animals in Victorian Children’s Fiction’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 23: 475-95.

- (2003) ‘Animal Autobiography’. Paper given at Beasts and Texts, conference at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds, 25 April.

Darton, F. J. H. (1932/1982) Children’s Books in England: Eive Centuries of Social Life, 3rd edn, rev. Alderson, B., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ferguson, M. (1994) ‘Breaking in Englishness: Black Beauty and the Politics of Gender, Race and Class’, Women: A Cultural Review 5, 1: 34-52.

Fulwiler, L. (1996) ‘Babe: A Twentieth-Century Nun’s Priest’s Tale?’, Conference of College Teachers of English 60: 93-101.

Gatty, M. (1899) Parables from Nature, Second Series, London: George Ball.

Goldthwaite, J. (1996) The Natural History of Make-Believe, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gose, E. (1988) Mere Creatures: A Study of Modern Fantasy Tales for Children, Toronto: University of Toronto.

Grahame, K. (1983) The Wind in the Willows, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guth, D. G. (1976) (ed.) Letters of E. B. White, New York: Harper and Row.

Hollindale, P. (1999) ‘Aesop in the Shadows’, Signal 89: 115-32.

Hunt, P. (1994) The Wind in the Willows. A Fragmented Arcadia, New York: Twayne.

- (ed.) (1996) International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, London: Rout-ledge.

- (2001) Children’s Literature, London: Blackwell.

Inglis, F. (1981) The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children’s Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, M. V. (1989) Engines of Instruction, Mischief and Magic: Children’s Literature in England from Its Beginnings to 1839, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Keenan, H. T. (1987) ‘Joel Chandler Harris’ Tales of Uncle Remus. For Mixed Audiences’, in Nodelman, P. (ed) Touchstones: Reflecting on the Best in Children’s Literature, vol. 2, West Lafayette, IN: Children’s Literature Association.

Kenyon-Jones, C. (2001) Kindred Brutes. Animals in Romantic-Period Writing, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Lesnik-Oberstein, K. B. (1994) Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

- (ed.) (1998) Children in Culture: Approaches to Childhood, London: Macmillan.

Lesnik-Oberstein, K. B., Nicholson, C. and Watkins, T. (eds) (1999) ‘Editors’ Introduction’ to ‘Contemporary British Children’s Literature’, The Lion and the Unicorn 23: 1: 1-11.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1962) Totemism, trans. Needham, R., Boston: Beacon Press.

Moore, O. and MacCann, D. (1986) ‘The Uncle Remus Travesty’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11, 2: 96-9.

Neale, S. (1990) ‘Questions of Genre’, Screen 31, 1: 45-66.

Pittock, M. (1994) ‘Animals as People - People as Animals: The Beast Story with Special Reference to Henryson’s The Two Mice and The Preaching of the Swallow,’ in Simms, K. (ed.) Language and the Subject, Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Rauch, A. (1997) ‘Parables and Parodies: Margaret Gatty’s Audiences in the Parables from Nature’, Children’s Literature 25: 137-52.

Ritvo, H. (1987) The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rose, J. (1992) The Case of Peter Pan or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, rev. edn, London: Macmillan.

Sale, R. (1978) Fairy Tales and after: From Snow White to E. B. White, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sampson, E. (1974) E. B. White, New York: Twayne.

Scholtmeijer, M. (1993) Animal Victims in Modern Fiction: From Sanctity to Sacrifice, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Scott, C. (1992) ‘Between Me and the World: Clothes as Mediator between Self and Society in the Work of Beatrix Potter’, The Lion and the Unicorn 16: 192-8.

Scott, J. H. (1989) ‘Excising the Other: Liberation Ethics and the Politics of Difference - A Perspective on the Afro-American Animal Tale’, Bestia: Yearbook of the Beast Fable Society, May: 72-84.

- (1994) ‘Clothed in Nature or Nature Clothed: Dress as Metaphor in the Illustrations of Beatrix Potter and C. M. Barker’, Children’s Literature 22: 70-89.

Stephens, J. (1992) Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, London: Longman.

Swinfen, A. (1984) In Defence of Fantasy: A Study of the Genre in English and American Literature since 1945, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Thomas, K. (1983/1984) Man and the Natural World. Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tolkien, J. R. R (1964) Tree and Leaf, London: Unwin Books.

Townsend, J. R. (1976) Written for Children, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Trimmer, S. (n.d) The History of the Robins, London: Griffith and Farran.

Tucker, N. (1981) The Child and the Book: A Psychological and Literary Exploration, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, S. (2001) ‘Untheming the Theme: The Child in Wolf’s Clothing’, DPhil thesis, University of Reading.

Watson, V. (ed) (2001) The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, E. B. (1984) Stuart Little, Harmondsworth: Penguin (Puffin).

 

Further reading

Adams, C. and Donovan, J. (1995) (eds) Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, London: Duke University Press.

Ritvo, H. (1985) ‘Learning from Animals: Natural History for Children in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, Children’s Literature 13: 72-93.

Tester, K. (1991) Animals and Society, London: Routledge.

Walsh, S. (2002) ‘Animal/Child: It’s the “Real” Thing’, in Lesnik-Oberstein, K. (ed.) Yearbook in English Studies ‘Children’s Literature’, 32: 151-62.