Animal stories; I was suspicious. Then, after inconveniently having an idea for a story about dogs, I decided to have a look at them. Animal stories have a very long history. Aesop’s Fables, a collection of sixth century BC short stories, one-liners and aphorisms, is full of animal characters – hens laying golden eggs, hares racing tortoises and so on. The animals lend an elemental quality to the stories – the sense that earthy, fundamental truths are under discussion.
Fittingly for stories about fundamental truths, it seems that during the evolution of the Fables, the original characters switched from gods to animals. Some Aesop scholars think this may have happened to make the spiritual world of gods more accessible to an earth bound readership. Some of the Fables actually involve mythic animals, which exist halfway between the world of gods and man – the halcyon bird for example.
This sense of the elemental and the spiritual continues in animal stories today. There are of course children’s stories, in which authors such as Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne explain down to earth truths through rabbits, bears, kangaroos and pigs. At the literary end of the scale, you have a story like Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, about a pet dog who regresses to its original wolf nature. Jack London sets out to explore basic themes of life, death and survival. There is also that characteristic spiritual quality, where animals are close to gods. Buck the dog actually becomes a god to the indigenous Indians of the valley where he takes up residence with his wolf companions.
Thinking of a modern take on animals inhabiting the realm of the gods, there is the interesting case of the dragon. The dragon is similar to a halcyon bird in that both are mythical creatures, sitting halfway between the earthbound world and the fantastical godly realm. Dragons play an important role in the hugely successful books of Tolkien. They also reappear in more recent fantasy fiction by, for example, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb or Patrick Rothfuss. Patrick Rothfuss is especially interesting in this regard, since his dragons move closer to the status of earthbound animals, with a Latin name and reasonable explanations for their fire breathing abilities.
Animal stories today continue to fulfill the role they played thousands of years ago, revealing basic truths, and bringing the world of spirit and fantasy down to earth.