Choosing a book for a reading at the newly opened Doha Children's Library, it was hard to select from the well-loved, (read: torn, chewed, scribbled on), selection on our shelves. I narrowed it down to Slinki Malinki, Six Dinner Sid, and We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Browsing the shelves of the library afterwards, it struck me how many children's books feature animals - and I couldn't think of a single adult book with an animal protagonist. Can you? The last ones I remember reading were in my early teens - Animal Farm, Duncton Wood, Stonor the Eagle, (following on swiftly from an entire bookshelf of horse books). So many of the great children's books are peopled with animals - Aslan in Narnia springs to mind, perhaps you can think of other favourites? What happens - when do we 'grow out of' books with complex animal characters?
There's certainly a long history to the love affair between animals and literature, going all the way back to the medieval Bestiaries. As long as there have been books, there has been the desire to categorise, to illustrate, to understand the animals that share our world. I remember a copy of Diderot's 1751 Encyclopedie in the gallery I worked for in London - the illustrations were clearly not 'from life' and quite fantastical. But then, imagine trying to describe a duck billed platapus to someone who had never seen one before.
One yearly December tradition is Masefield's 'Box of Delights'. I love Judith Masefield's illustrations for the first edition of her husband's work - stark and lovely: 'the wolves are running ...' It is a tale that weaves fantasy, magic and the 'real': Herne the Hunter transforming into a stag, a phoenix rising from the embers of a pub fire, and lovely Barney dog trotting faithfully at Hawlings' side down the centuries.
Perhaps it is 'children's' literature, but I know a lot of adults who still adore the story. Maybe the best of children's historical fiction does this, transcending age - Michael Morpurgo springs to mind for his animal characters, like noble Joey, the unforgettable War Horse.
Writers and animals: 'Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this ...
but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’ Boswell on Johnson and Hodge
Virginia Woolf and Binka
I'd be fascinated to know if anyone can suggest adult historical fiction with animal protagonists, because I'm still drawing a blank. I can think of a few 'bit parts', and there's even a classic scriptwriting text 'Save the Cat' which reinforces the value of animals as a reflection on the human characters' strengths and weaknesses, (the thought being that if the protagonist shows his decency and compassion by 'saving the cat' literally or metaphorically, we identify with them). When so many writers work with four-legged companions at their side, it's strange that they don't appear at the heart of their fiction more often. But then there is ...
If you are enjoying some pre-Christmas boondoggling, there are
I've written with a succession of dogs dozing under the desk, from a rescued husky/MalamuteX in Spain, to an Afghan hound who had more in common with Muir's 'What-a-Mess' than a show dog. This evening there's a pencil stealing pug snoring at my feet, and a rescue flame point SiameseX draped across the bookshelf. All three of us send the HGs and everyone reading good wishes for a peaceful and happy Christmas to those who celebrate it, and we look forward to reading and writing with you next year. If you write with animal companions, it would be fascinating to hear who shares your writing day?