The twentieth century - Animal stories - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn


The twentieth century


Wild animal stories

Although Christian writers such as Gatty and Kingsley parodied Darwinian ideas, there were other writers at the end of the century who found in Darwinian science the justification for a new genre of wild animal stories. Jack London and Ernest Thompson Seton set out to write a ‘realistic’ type of story that appeared to react against the sentimentalism and humanisation of earlier animal stories. In London’s novels The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1905), there is a brutality that is far removed from the pathos evoked by writers such as Sewell. Nevertheless, the images of wild animals in these narratives, although they eschewed the explicit humanisation of books such as Black Beauty, merely presented readers with a different type of anthropomorphism. London’s half-St Bernard, half-Scotch shepherd dog, Buck, in The Call of the Wild is clearly not a young man in disguise! He is merely a different construction of animality. In the case of Seton- Thompson, the critic Marian Scholtmeijer has described his animals as ‘models of virtue’ (Scholtmeijer 1993: 99). The claims for realism made by the writers of wild animal stories prompted debates over the veracity of the behaviour of the animals in the stories. Labelled a ‘Nature faker’, Seton-Thompson’s work was challenged on the grounds that his animals were too calculating (Scholtmeijer 1993: 96). His ‘Springfield Fox’, for example, who manages to lead a pack of hunting-dogs on to a railway line in the path of a train, was felt by some critics to have more affinity with the fabulist hero, Reynard the fox, than ‘actual’ fox behaviour (Scholtmeijer 1993: 96-7).

Another problem with the claim that this type of story was more ‘realistic’ was that, as many critics have noted, London’s novels seemed too obviously structured by moral contrasts between domesticity and wilderness or dog and wolf. But Sue Walsh’s recent work on London, particularly her reading of White Fang, problematises the distinctions that earlier critics have made between ‘wolf’ and ‘dog’. By doing so, she demonstrates the proliferation of meanings that circulate around the concepts of ‘dog’ and ‘wolf’ in London and his critics’ texts (Walsh 2001: 218).

The realistic animal story remained periodically influential in Britain, North America and Australia throughout much of the twentieth century. Later fiction, for example that by Henry Williamson and Jean Craighead George, developed more explicit ecological concerns. However, as Hunt notes, such narratives have had an uncertain position and have often fallen into the limbo between adult’s and children’s fiction (Hunt 2001: 149).


The return of talking animals

Although, as we have seen, there are many pre-twentieth-century examples of animal stories, the common assumption that, as Julia Briggs suggests, ‘the widespread use of animal characters in children’s fiction is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon’ seems an odd assertion (Briggs in Hunt 1996: 179). This is a valid view in the sense that it is in the period since the late nineteenth century that many of the most famous talking-animal characters were created, by writers such as Joel Chandler Harris, Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, E. B. White and Richard Adams. Furthermore, it is the work of these authors that became virtually the blueprint for later writers such as Alison Uttley (the Little Grey Rabbit books), Margery Sharp (the Miss Bianca novels), Brian Jacques (the Redwall books), William Horwood (the Duncton Chronicles) and Colin Dann (The Animals of Farthing Wood series). In the final part of this chapter, I will focus on some of the themes that have constituted critical discussions of children’s animal stories in the twentieth century.