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A Writer’s Bestiary

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A few months ago I was giving a talk to a group of students. Afterwards one of them asked if the baboon relationship in my book White Lightning has anything to do with Jody’s fated relationship with a deer in The Yearling, by Majorie Kinnan Rawlings. At the time I denied it, but I now think it a perceptive question. At about the age of 12, I was deeply moved by the book. When the deer has to be killed it is a rite of passage for Jody, tragic but also necessary to growing up and understanding the harshness of life. In my book, the death of the baboon is the end of innocence for the narrator, even though he is middle-aged. When I began to think about the question, I realized that I had read scores of children’s books with animal themes and had been profoundly influenced by them. Graham Greene made the point that we never again read in the same way we read before the age of 14. Later we look for reflections of ourselves and our views in novels.

Reviewers and interviewers have pointed out that animals often feature in my books. When asked why, I have answered that I believe animals are repositories for human emotions, or that animals have symbolic resonances. Both are true, of course, but there are gradations of truth. As Anthony Powell remarked, the opinions you give in interviews are like the kit kept in the barracks – for inspection only. The accepted wisdom is that animals in fiction have three main roles. The first is exemplary: animals teach us about human virtues.

And so fables, from Aesop onwards, have been a popular form of instruction for children. In many societies animal tales prefigure anything that may be called literature. The reasons are clear: as The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books says, ‘the gap between animals and children can be used to make moral points clearer by analogy, to say strong things with a degree of protection and to provoke laughter and ridicule. Above all the gap between animals and

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A few months ago I was giving a talk to a group of students. Afterwards one of them asked if the baboon relationship in my book White Lightning has anything to do with Jody’s fated relationship with a deer in The Yearling, by Majorie Kinnan Rawlings. At the time I denied it, but I now think it a perceptive question. At about the age of 12, I was deeply moved by the book. When the deer has to be killed it is a rite of passage for Jody, tragic but also necessary to growing up and understanding the harshness of life. In my book, the death of the baboon is the end of innocence for the narrator, even though he is middle-aged. When I began to think about the question, I realized that I had read scores of children’s books with animal themes and had been profoundly influenced by them. Graham Greene made the point that we never again read in the same way we read before the age of 14. Later we look for reflections of ourselves and our views in novels.

Reviewers and interviewers have pointed out that animals often feature in my books. When asked why, I have answered that I believe animals are repositories for human emotions, or that animals have symbolic resonances. Both are true, of course, but there are gradations of truth. As Anthony Powell remarked, the opinions you give in interviews are like the kit kept in the barracks – for inspection only. The accepted wisdom is that animals in fiction have three main roles. The first is exemplary: animals teach us about human virtues. And so fables, from Aesop onwards, have been a popular form of instruction for children. In many societies animal tales prefigure anything that may be called literature. The reasons are clear: as The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books says, ‘the gap between animals and children can be used to make moral points clearer by analogy, to say strong things with a degree of protection and to provoke laughter and ridicule. Above all the gap between animals and humans keeps alive a sense that the world is strange and full of wonder.’ This perhaps explains fables, but it doesn’t really explain why so many cultures regard animals as having, by proxy, human qualities. It seems to me almost universally the case that animals in fiction stand for a value which is either absent in humans or only unreliably present. Animals are steadfast in an uncertain world. When one of Jonathan Franzen’s characters in The Corrections reads the tales of Narnia with his youngest son, it is against a background of family discord. Aslan the Lion – Christ – has everything that is missing from the family. It’s painfully funny but also wonderfully effective in demonstrating how the father is floundering in a relativist world. The second role of animals is symbolic: they stand for something else. The most popular animals in fiction and mythology are the lion and the horse. Dragons, which may never have lived, are also very popular. Dogs come into their own in nineteenth-century fiction, although there are many earlier accounts. In the twentieth century they compete with horses for popularity in children’s stories. You have only to think of Call of the Wild, White Fang, Lassie (which started life in Scotland before relocating to California), and many more. Cats, too, have played their part, strangely difficult to pin down as symbols, although the Egyptians promoted the cat to god. I find the heraldic association of animals with nations oddly irrational: as a small boy in South Africa I watched with puzzlement as the Springboks, who were massive men with enormous backsides, played rugby against the British Lions, who we re rather skinny and effete by comparison. Horse stories come in various sorts: in America they are typically classless, elemental stories, like My Friend Flicka; in Britain they are more class-ridden with Pony Club or girl-meets-horse, girl-loses-horse, girl-reunited-with-horse, plot lines (so echoing, in a pre-teen way, classic romance). Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is much more than a horse story, but the horses in it are portrayed in a typically English fashion, honest, dumb, brave and somehow the missing emotional element of upper-middle-class life; being able to talk to others about hunting and horses is the hero George Sherston’s social salvation. Horse sports are almost sacramental: by partaking you are drinking from a spiritual chalice. It goes further: horses provide a link to an ancient and pantheistic world, and it is this, I think, which unconsciously underlies some of the pro-hunting lobby’s anger: the ban on fox hunting is seen as a kind of sacrilege, vandalism of our links to the past. If horses stand for honest endeavour, dogs represent unthinking devotion, lions bravery, and dragons the unknowable. Lions have an additional quality, a close association with Christianity, both for their occasional acts of generosity, and their taste for Christians, expressed succinctly by Tertullian: Christianos ad leones. Dragons, for all their mythological unreality, provide a frisson, a real fear of the natural world’s awful possibilities. Pigs have figured memorably both in Charlotte’s Web and in adult literature: P. G .Wodehouse with his Empress of Blandings saw their comic potential and Orwell their satiric possibilities. Smaller animals – mice in particular – have been given interesting attributes over the centuries, a trend that started in 1783 with Dorothy Kilner’s The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse, a moral story about filial obedience. And recently whales have become emblematic of spiritual values to an improbable degree, a dramatic change from the embodiment of natural savagery that is Moby-Dick. The third function of animals in fiction is environmental. The moral perspective on the human treatment of animals is not as modern as you might imagine: the Dr Dolittle stories, for example, have this as a theme, and Kipling noted that mahouts needed to treat elephants with respect. Although Hemingway saw animals as locked in a deadly but noble struggle with the hunter, he nonetheless had a concern for animals and the natural world. That concern has moved in recent times into conservation and animal rights; there is a growing worry about the role of animals. The assumption seems to be that by understanding animals we are understanding our own place in the universe. And two recent Booker winners, J. M. Coetzee and Yan Martel, have tapped into the belief that there is something significant in the way we regard animals. Coetzee’s most recent book, Elizabeth Costello, explicitly states that there are some parallels between the mass slaughter of animals and the Holocaust. We are striving to place animals in a moral hierarchy, and to deliver them from the belief that we have unthinking dominion over them. For myself, I freely acknowledge a debt to sentimental and anthropomorphic animal tales. I don’t think I ever believed that I would share potted meats with a water rat, or meet a clairvoyant rabbit like Fiver, or join Mowgli in a fight against Shere Khan, but that isn’t the point of animals in fiction. No, the idea is to make vivid connections which work on the imagination. Animals have always been one way of doing so. But the animals in fiction, from the consumptive Rocinante to the self-deluding Mr Toad, tell us more about humans than they do about animals in general. Above all, I think, animals are seen as innocent, which is why they are such favourites in fiction. However you look at them, it seems clear that animals provide a direct line to the imagination by way of analogy and metaphor. These have always been, and always will be, the particular tools of the writer of fiction.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Justin Cartwright 2004


About the contributor

Justin Cartwright grew up in South Africa, where a number of his novels are set. Before devoting himself to writing he made documentaries, as well as wildlife films for the BBC and ITV.

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