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The Many Faces of Animal Stories

Mostly by happenstance, in the last month I’ve encountered a number of different stories that featured animal protagonists. In fairly short order, as part of my preparation for 2016 Hugo nominations at the end of March, I read Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard and Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, both highly-regarded tales published in 2015; About a month ago, Husband and I went to see Disney’s Zootopia, because we try to take in movies that sound vaguely interesting and get good agglomerated reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Finally, I picked up Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song on a whim, because I’m a cat person and because this book has the rare feature of being one of his novels that I hadn’t read before.

I liked parts of all of these stories; I enjoyed Barsk and Zootopia wholeheartedly, for reasons that probably have as much to do with the kinds of stories I like as the characteristics of the individual works. And putting them all together side-by-side got me thinking about the different ways that storytellers use animals to tell human stories, and consider how those different rationales are also present in genre fiction.

Basically, it seems to me that anthropomorphized animal tales fall into three main categories: allegory , anthropology, and alien familiar. Before I expand on those concepts, let me clarify my analysis with one definition, one parameter, and one caveat:

  • The Definition: Anthropomorphism is the practice of assigning human traits to non-human beings, whether that takes the form of insisting your computer has a grudge against you, believing the ocean is really a short-tempered Greek god named Poseidon, or creating a comic book series about adolescent red-eared sliders who eat pizza and practice martial arts.
  • The Parameter: In this analysis, I’m focusing (for the most part) on stories that have no significant human characters. While there are plenty of examples of stories that include both people and anthropomorphized animals (on a scale from CS Lewis’s Narnia books to Disney’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey), I think animal-only stories have some unique elements that don’t come out when a story also counts humans among its protagonists.
  • The Caveat: Like all typologies, this one will have gray areas around the edges, and a particular story could incorporate themes from more than one of my categories. I’ll demonstrate that by drawing on a fairly multi-faceted animals-only film, Disney’s The Lion King.

Allegory

This category, perhaps best-exemplified by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, uses animal protagonists to explore topics and tales that might be seen as too controversial if they were dealt with using humans. We see this to some extent in The Lion King, which shows its protagonist’s dead father on screen: it’s unlikely this would have been tolerated in a children’s movie if Simba had been a human boy prince and Mufasa a human man king. Particular animal species are also often used to symbolize particular aspects of human society. In Maus, Art Spiegelman presents readers with a graphic novel dramatizing his father’s tales of surviving the Holocaust; by choosing mice to represent the Jews and cats to represent the Germans, he can tap into his audience’s associations with those species, while also showing more explicit violence in his pages than he could probably have gotten away with if he’d been drawing human figures. I’d argue that Zootopia also falls into this category; while it’s both a fun buddy cop movie and a message piece about not being afraid to follow your dreams, it’s also a story about prejudice, stereotyping and microaggressions, and given the widespread pushback that still exists around perceived attempts to politicize children’s media (I wrote about this at length early last year in the context of the 2015 Annie remake), I don’t know that such a movie could have been made without the animal “filter.”

Anthropology

These stories are the ones where authors try their best to envision what “realistic” animal societies might look like. There are hints of this in The Lion King, like the moment when the young Simba and Nala get bathed by their mothers as they talk about sneaking out to the Elephants’ Graveyard (we’ll just ignore the fact that all the prey creatures are bowing down to the apex predators, or that Simba and Nala would probably be half-siblings). While they may appear to be less removed from reality than the other categories, in their own way “animal anthropology” tales are as fantastical as the others. After all, no matter how much I love Richard Adams’ Watership Down, there is no evidence that rabbits have their own language or a heroic trickster god. Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song falls very consciously in this mold, as he gives his feline heroes their own language and a trio of gods who (unsurprisingly for those who’ve read Williams’ other books) end up playing a rather more active role in the plot than might be expected at the beginning. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any film examples of straight-up “animal anthropology” that try to craft an anthropomorphized culture onto what’s known about animal behavior — this might be for the same reason that Foz Meadows suggests in her analysis of why there haven’t been many great fantasy movies until recently, that the things that make these stories work are more difficult to transfer from page to screen.

Alien Familiar

This category might be the one most people think of when they consider the subject of “talking animal stories”; animals in human clothes, living basically-human lives that are only slightly altered to accommodate differences in anatomy or physiology. The Lion King skirts the edge of this one, with its hula-dancing meerkat, but other examples range from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to Brian Jacques’ Redwall. It seems like these stories, more than any other, tend to be aimed toward children (think Arthur the Aardvark, Daniel Tiger or The Berenstain Bears), maybe because stories that might be seen as “too ordinary” acquire enough magic to be interesting if they’re told about animals instead of “real children.” That said, the two stories I read as part of my Hugo-nominee canvassing in the last few weeks, Schoen’s Barsk and Polansky’s Builders, both fall solidly into this category, and neither one is by any stretch of the imagination intended for children.

Barsk takes as its opening premise a galaxy with multiple sentient species, where the “furred” races have deep-seated prejudices against the mostly-hairless “Fant” (elephants) and exile them to a single planet where their continued existence is permitted only because they hold the secret to manufacturing a drug much-desired by the other races. The Builders is the tale of a squad of broken war veterans from half a dozen different species, reuniting for one last try at setting things right: one part Firefly, one part Crown for Cold Silver, no guarantees of a happy ending. Both books feel more like “traditional” genre fiction, where the protagonists might just as well be aliens as animals, and the point is for readers to enjoy the process of dawning recognition and familiarity as much as they do the more straightforward plot aspects of the story.

As a self-identified “animal nut,” I grew up reading stories of all three of these types, and I still have examples of all of them on my shelves. And while I haven’t written anything with anthropomorphized animal protagonists since my first attempt at a novel — a ten-year-old’s homage to Black Beauty — animals continue to play important roles in most of the stories I tell. And stepping back to look over the categories I’ve drawn up, I suspect that people like encountering animals in their fiction for some of the same reasons people like reading genre fiction; an animal’s experiences, like those of a fantasy-world protagonist, are familiar enough to be relatable and strange enough to be escapist. Maybe I’ll have to try my hand at writing an animal protagonist in my next creative piece.

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