Natural history - Animal stories - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn


Natural history


We can stay with Watership Down as we pass to the next theme: the use of natural history in animal stories. As noted earlier, since at least the wild animal stories of the late nineteenth century, there has been a tendency on the part of some writers to try to ‘authenticate’ their constructions of animal characters by either adopting a type of quasiscientific discourse or by citing authoritative sources on natural history matters. The problem with such a move is that natural history itself does not present the ‘truth’ of a particular animal, but is merely another a discursive framework with its own force, history and regulations. In Watership Down, Adams tries to authenticate his characters’ actions using quotations from R. M. Lockley’s natural history study, The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964). Critics have praised Adams’s restriction of the rabbits’ actions to what has been observed of their behaviour in the wild. Ann Swinfen writes:


Every action which the rabbits perform in Watership Down is physically possible, and most are part of their regular behaviour. Certain deductions about the mental life of rabbits are made in Lockley’s book, on the basis of his observations of their behaviour, and Adams uses these as the starting point for his depiction of the characters and cultures of his rabbits.

(Swinfen 1984: 38)


Swinfen’s admiration for the book is notably tempered here by the steady increase in her use of qualifiers. When we read Watership Down we need to recognise that the natural history of rabbits is supplemented at every turn by fantasy and speculation. For all its attempt to ground its descriptions and actions in ‘science’, Adams’s novel, as Inglis observes, is ‘up against the structural difficulty of any anthropomorphic storyteller. He gives rabbits consciousness, which they do not have, but keeps them as rabbits’ (Inglis 1981: 208). Furthermore, operating from a position that rabbit consciousness is similar to human consciousness or that human consciousness can serve as a metaphor for animal consciousness, Adams’s novel makes a number of what now seem to be problematic analogies between rabbits and ‘primitive people’ (Adams 1972/1974: 28, 169, 301).

Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books have also been related to natural history. John Goldthwaite asserts that the animals in the books are ‘real, if reasoning, creatures inhabiting a real and not make-believe jungle’ (Goldthwaite 1996: 325). Here the ‘real’ is being invoked to authenticate Kipling’s texts. Although the animals are not ‘real’, rhetorically Kipling’s text does set out to produce a different construction of animality. In the story ‘Tiger! Tiger!’, Mowgli rejects the superstitious type of animal stories told by the human hunter, Buldeo. As Cosslett notes, at this point ‘Kipling implicitly claims that his stories about Mowgli and the jungle are “grown-up”, demystified, accurate’ (Cosslett 2002: 477).

Beatrix Potter is another writer who prided herself on the accuracy of her observations of the natural world. In one of the most persuasive readings of Potter in recent years, Peter Hollindale sees her stories as setting up a conversation between her naturalist interest in animals (apparent in her meticulous and anatomically correct illustrations) and her satirical commentary on human foibles, most evident in tales such as Johnny Town- Mouse or Ginger and Pickles (Hollindale 1999: 120). In the case of the former, if The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse is a satire of town and country values, an appreciation of natural history opens the text up to further meanings. Hence, Timmy Willie is different from Johnny Town-Mouse not simply because he lives in the country, but also because Potter has drawn him as a field vole, not as a mouse. This species difference allows both for visual contrast and ‘a distinct and accurate environmental contrast’ (Hollindale 1999: 121).

In contrast to the work of Potter, The Wind in the Willows infamously disappointed one misguided reviewer from The Times, who declared that ‘As a contribution to natural history, the work is negligible’ (Hunt 1994: 15). Indeed, Beatrix Potter took Grahame to task for what she regarded as his rather cavalier attitude to matters of natural history when he describes Toad as having hair in the last chapter of the book. Hunt notes that this charge can be countered by the fact that by this stage in the novel, Toad’s ‘animalness’ has effectively vanished. But perhaps such distinctions are difficult to make in what is such an unstable text. While on his earlier adventures and still an ‘animal’, Toad is described as ‘comb[ing] the dry leaves out of his hair with his fingers’ (Grahame 1983: 108). The other animals retain something of their ‘animalness’, but their animal characteristics remain rather vague. As Hunt observes, ‘There is something Moleish about the Mole, something Badgerish about the Badger’ (Hunt 1994: 51). In other cases, however, the animals exhibit entirely arbitrary characteristics; as Hunt asks, ‘are toads ebullient, or rats artistic?’ (Hunt 1994: 51).