Thursday, 12 February 2015

Why do we write about talking animals?

I'm feeling a little emotional, to be frank. I've spent the past eight years writing three books about a group of talking animals (The Last Wild trilogy), whom I've grown very fond of. Last week I sent the final book off to the printers. I won't be making the animals in it, or any others for that matter, talk again for the foreseeable future.

And, pausing before I blunder off into a whole new imaginative realm, I've been reflecting. Why do we do it? Why do we take these dignified, self respecting other species we share the planet with, and imbue them with often wildly mismatched human characteristics, psychology and dialogue? Why are those characters so perennially popular with younger children? Equally, why are they such a literary turn off for some, and many older readers?

 There are many answers to those questions, and they've changed as continuously as human behaviour. One argument is that in making animals talk and walk like us,  we seek to play out the mysteries of our deeper and more unknowable feelings. For children, growing slowly cognizant of more complex and challenging human emotions on the adult horizon, animal characters in books can be like a literary version of play therapy, safe proxies through which to navigate those feelings. (Perhaps that equally repels older or adult readers who have no desire for proxies, hungry for the authenticity of real human interaction.)

But that’s the young reader. What’s the appeal to the adult writer, seeking to put words in the mouths of mice? For me, I keep coming back to the haunting story of another writer and his far better-known talking animals.

In 1906, he was nine years old, known to all as ‘Jack’, and living in East Belfast, enjoying a quintessential turn of the century middle-class childhood. 

The Lewis family, 1906

His father Richard was a successful solicitor, and his mother Flora was the daughter of an Anglican priest. His elder brother Warren was away at boarding school in England, but when he was home for the holidays, the boys enjoyed long walks and cycle rides in the leafy suburbs. The spacious house might sound boring for children  - with what Jack later described as its “long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude” - but he and Warren happily filled it with imaginary worlds and games of their own, inspired by their father’s substantial library.

But 1906 was the year everything changed for Jack. Quite suddenly, his beloved mother passed away at an early age, from cancer.  The world he knew and loved, the idyll of his early childhood - had been changed forever.  And Jack’s response was to lose himself in one of the fictional worlds he and Warren - or Warnie - had created together.  A world he called ‘Animal Land’ - full of delightful characters such as this natty frog.

 In 1907, he wrote to Warnie at his school in England, describing in detail the story of one of Animal Land’s many kingdoms.

My dear Warnie

 …I am thinking of writeing a History of Mouse-land and I have even gon so far as to make up some of it, this is what I have made up.

Mouse-land had a very long stone-age during which time no great things tooke place it lasted from 55 BC to1212 and then king Bublich I began to reign, he was not a good king but he fought against yellow land. Bub II his son fought indai about the lantern act, died 1377 king Bunny came next.

Your loving
brother Jacks

Animal Land, which soon evolved into a universe known as “Boxen”, was a complex imagined world created by the two brothers, which blended animal fantasy with mediaeval romances popular at the time and contemporary colonial politics.  Crucially, it was conceived as a complete world - with its own rules, boundaries and belief systems.  In one story, Jack wrote :

"The ancheint [sic] Mice believed that at sun-set the sun cut a hole in the earth for itself."

Much later in his life, Jack, in his better known identity as C. S. Lewis - wrote in his partial autobiography, Surprised By Joy:

“With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy, but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”

To a pair of young children dealing with their grief, and shortly, further displacement as Jack was sent to join his brother away at school in England - the history, lives and laws of some imaginary mice or frogs offered the one thing their upturned lives suddenly lacked - security.

It's too simplistic for me to dismiss Narnia, as some do, as a mythical paradise completely driven by Christian allegory. Lewis himself always denied this, famously insisting
“I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion.”

Whether he protests too much or not, the promise of innocence, happiness and peace in a fictional land populated by talking animals would be one Lewis returned to again and again in his Narnia books. Perhaps not just to proselytise.  Perhaps also to journey back in the imagination to the secure childhood happiness he could never recover in reality. 

I didn’t grow up in Belfast in 1906, and nor did I suffer the tragedy ‘Jack’ did at a young age.  I like to think that I had a happy childhood. But I also believe that when you write children’s books, especially those with created worlds, you inevitably write out – directly or indirectly – layers of your own feelings as a child. When you finish those books, and leave that world, in some small way, you finish a part of your childhood too.

And perhaps that’s why I’m feeling emotional.

Piers Torday


David Thorpe said...

I never knew that about CS Lewis. Thanks for sharing and you're forgiven for feeling emotional. The British are famous for their sentimental attitude to animals, especially pets. Perhaps at least in Lewis' time seeking comfort in their company and fantasy about animals was a comforting reaction to the 'stiff upper lip' human social code.

Emma Barnes said...

I wonder if some of the appeal of animals in children's books is that animal characters are often powerful, and outside the control of adult humans.

The only book I've written with a talking animal is Wolfie in which a pet dog turns out to be a powerful, talking wolf. As such, she is an exciting, even dangerous companion for her child owner, Lucie. She can protect Lucie, lead her into adventure and also require her help, in a way that a human child or adult would not.

The animals in Narnia - Tumnus the fawn or the beavers in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the talking horses in The Horse in His Boy are more experienced than the child characters, and can help them out - but they also need their help in ways that an adult human might not - and this in itself gives power to the child characters.

Whatever the reason, I'm sure animal characters will continue to flourish! And congratulations on finishing your trilogy.

Piers Torday said...

Yes that's certainly true Emma. I think animals can both echo the vulnerability and helplessness children feel whilst demonstrating power and strengths that lie outside the human realm, which is a great fantasy for children to explore.

Susan Price said...

I think Emma's bang on the money.

Also - doesn't the whole human race, on one level, long for the security of being 'just another animal'? That's partly what 'The Fall' legends are about, surely? - I think talking animals play into that too.

I think some adults scorn talking animals in stories because of residual bitterness and disappointment from discovering that talking animals aren't true.

Piers Torday said...

And thanks David - yes, I think there's an interesting relationship between adults' sentimentality about pets and children's more genuine engagement with animals in literature (often as much about adult feelings in disguise). And why does the concern children feel for animals' more general welfare in so many books sometimes fade as they grow older?!

Piers Torday said...

Susan - I think that's so true about adult scorn! Probably a bit guilty of that myself.

Joan Lennon said...

Interesting! Thanks for posting!

owais said...

Thanks for this nice article. Keep it up. :)

C.J.Busby said...

Fascinating stuff about Lewis - and I agree, I don't think he set out to write a Christian allegory, I think it's just the way powerful ideas and beliefs you have come out in what you write, and you recognise them afterwards (sometimes not even then!) I had lots of fun with talking animals in my first series, and there weren't any in the second one - I have to say, I did miss them! As Emma says, they can help and support your child characters in a much more equal way than adults can.

Nick Green said...

Animals, like children, are more purely emotional creatures. Lacking powers of higher reason (most of them) they are governed by impulse and emotion, but also experience things like joy and love more intensely than any human adult. Lots of people will say I'm talking nonsense, and those people have never owned a dog or a friendly cat.