Thursday, March 31, 2016

Uncute Animals and unhelpful comments

(This is an update of a 2005 post.)

A quote from Tolkien is usually a good place to start:

Beasts and birds and other creatures often talk like men in real fairy-stories. In some part (often small) this marvel derives from one of the primal “desires” that lie near the heart of Faerie: the desire of men to hold communion with other living things... But in stories in which no human being is concerned; or in which the animals are the heroes and heroines, and men and women, if they appear, are mere adjuncts; and above all those in which the animal form is only a mask upon a human face, a device of the satirist or the preacher, in these we have beast-fable and not fairy-story.”

--from “On Fairy-stories”.

Beast-fables are the subject of this post. In SF/fantasy, I think the aim of a beast-fable should be to present the world as we think an animal would experience it, uniquely and differently than how a human would experience it. (I wrote that sentence originally with “see” instead of “experience”, which immediately reveals my human bias towards visual perception. My dog would have written “smell” instead of “see”.) Ultimately, the reader should come away thinking “That story could only have been told by a (mole, rabbit, dog, dolphin). Not by a human, not even by any other kind of animal.”

But animal stories, or beast-fables, commonly suffer from two faults that get in the way of this goal: first, the tendency Tolkien alludes to in the last part of the above quote. All too often, animal characters are merely humans dressed up in animal suits; they don’t offer any insight you couldn’t get from a human. Second, animal stories tend in our culture to be dismissed as “cute”. (I blame Disney. I blame Disney for a lot of things.) A writer who accepts this judgement will tend to dumb down the story, perhaps assuming it’ll be marketed to children. (Kids hate being talked down to; doesn’t anyone notice that?)

Of course, in writing from an animal’s point of view (another visual), one has to create perceptions and thoughts which one’s (human) readers can relate to. There’s a necessary compromise between accessibility and realism. “Realism” here means, of course, adhering to what we imagine an animal’s point of view would really be like; something of which we have no first-hand knowledge.


Much as I love it, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows is not really about animals; it’s about English country gentlemen who wear waistcoats, consult pocket-watches, and drive motor-cars (poorly). On the other hand, William Horwood’s Duncton books (Horwood is also the author of the authorized sequels to Wind in the Willows) are much more succesful as beast-fables. I really like the use of sound-art by the Duncton moles. (You heard that right, moles.) Being mostly sightless, moles “scribe” instead of writing, which is something like Braille, and they also create extremely elaborate and emotionally affecting sonic sculptures. The second Duncton trilogy rings much truer than the first, by the way; I found the wandering mole master martial artist kind of unconvincing...

Then there’s Richard Adams, best known as the author of Watership Down. I like WD a lot, but think it suffers from the second flaw above: it’s a little talk-downy in tone compared to his later books, much like The Hobbit compared to Lord of the Rings. Well, it was his first book. For a more serious look at the world through animal eyes (there I go again), try Plague Dogs. Be warned: it is both intensely evocative and appallingly grim.

I consider Adams to be a terribly underrated author, and in large part it’s because of the success of Watership Down. People expected him to write more cute-animal stories, and were shocked and dumbfounded by the likes of Plague Dogs and Shardik. (Or they dismissed WD as “kid stuff” and didn’t bother with the rest of his books.) By the way, Shardik is not an animal story at all. The bear Shardik is the focus of the story, but he doesn’t talk. Both Shardik and the Duncton books should really have been on the list of religious fantasy in an earlier post.

SF authors have it a little easier, because they get to posit animals whose intelligence has been technologically enhanced to near-human levels, but who retain many of their original characteristics. (Of course SF also gets to posit aliens as intelligent as, but vastly different from, humans. I’m going to leave that subject aside (maybe for a later post).) David Brin’s Uplift books do very nicely here, with the intelligent chimps and dolphins having a different outlook (damn! Can’t get away from those visuals!) from humans. Especially the dolphins; chimps apparently feel quite a bit like humans, but what would you expect?


So apparently the BBC aired WD as an Easter special. And some parents are upset that it was "too violent."

Unhelpful comment #1: "Yeah. They should have aired Shardik instead. It's religious."
Unhelpful comment #2: "Should have read the book."

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