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Humans have been telling stories for millennia. Many of the earliest stories likely centred on the natural world, including the birds and animals living alongside early humans. Some cultures’ creation myths certainly use animals to explain how the world came into being. Since then, animal stories have had a number of functions, including pure entertainment, as moral lessons, or to highlight conservation issues. Their purpose has often depended on when they were written. So, welcome to a (very!) brief introduction to animal stories through the ages.
How the World was Made
Long before we knew about the Big Bang or evolution by natural selection, humans made sense of the world and its origins with creation myths and folk tales. Luckily for us, those of many cultures have survived, passed down through the generations so that we can hear them today. The further back in time you go, the closer humans were to nature. This means that many creation stories include various birds and animals in their casts. In some of these myths, men and animals were equal, could easily communicate and often helped each other.
For example, Raven is a central figure in a number of stories from cultures across the Pacific Northwest of North America. To the Haida People of the Haida Gwaii archipelago in British Columbia, Raven was the Bringer of Light to the world. He also found the first people, introducing men and women and stealing the sun, moon and stars for them from Eagle. To the Inuit, he was the Creator of All Life who helped teach man how to look after the world. Ancient Egypt also revered a range of animal deities, including Anubis the jackal god and the falcon-headed Horus.
Folklore and Fable
Alongside these creation stories, folklore traditions often portrayed animals with particular characteristics in order to send a moral message or comment on human behaviour and society. The most famous of these are Aesop’s Fables. This huge collection of stories is attributed to a Greek slave called Aesop, supposedly born around 620 BCE. The vast majority of the fables involve birds, animals and plants essentially acting as human proxies. The characters’ behaviour provides a commentary on what should or should not be done in certain situations. One of the most famous is ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ which uses the fast hare and slow tortoise to show that the quickest don’t always win.
Many cultures use similar animal characters. In West Africa, Anansi, or spider, stories are part of the region’s oral traditions. A few give him creator status but generally he is the trickster god of wisdom and cunning. He uses this cunning to outsmart those more powerful than himself. Later on, the slave trade took his stories across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Here, his ability to outwit his oppressors became even more important to the enslaved people telling his stories. Foxes also appear in many folk traditions, including Japanese, Celtic and North American cultures. They are portrayed in a range of guises, from trickster to the wisest of animals.
The Rise of Children’s Literature
Before the mid-18th century, people in the Western world didn’t really see children as any different from adults. This meant that there wasn’t a separate tradition of children’s stories. Most of what they read or had read to them would have been religious. As attitudes in Europe changed, however, people started to see children as having more innocent minds than adults. For those wealthier families who could afford to give their offspring a real childhood, reading for entertainment, rather than just for moral instruction, became more popular. As paper and books became cheaper, this gathered pace throughout the 19th century. Many literary critics see the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a golden age of children’s writing. The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden and Peter Pan all came out in the two decades either side of the turn of the century.
Inevitably, because children often feel an affinity with animals, many of these books are animal stories. Indeed, some of our most famous and best-loved animal stories appeared at this time. Beatrix Potter’s stories, beginning with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, were published between 1902 and 1930. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, meanwhile, came out in 1908. A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Alison Utley’s Little Grey Rabbit books and, less well known now, Mary Dunn’s Mossy Green Theatre followed in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
A big difference between these stories for entertainment and the fables of the past, though, is that animals are often even more anthropomorphised. Characters didn’t just talk and have human characteristics. They often wore clothes, lived in houses or even, in the case of Mr Toad, drove cars. This meant that these books are a real mix of the natural and human world, despite having animals as the main characters.
Animal Stories for Adults
An early exception to this trend for heavily anthropomorphised animals was Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson. Published in 1927, it is a much more realistic account of an animal’s life in the wild. This was perhaps because Williamson wrote the book for an adult audience. Then in the 1960s, writers such as Joyce Stranger began consistently writing animal-centred fiction for adults. The trend really took off in the 1970s and 80s. For the next 15 years, foxes, rabbits, moles, puffins and even ants all featured in adult novels. Many made the bestseller lists. There was a slight tweak to Williamson and Stranger’s formula, however. The books certainly featured characters who lived in natural settings and didn’t wear clothes or talk to humans. But they did talk to each other, both within species groups and often to other species as well.
Because we still don’t know what animal consciousness, in all its varieties, is like, most also display human versions of thinking and feeling. Some even gave the animals their own myths and religions. The most famous of these is technically a children’s book, although it is on the darker end of the scale. Richard Adams originally created Watership Down for his daughters but they insisted he wrote it down. It was published in 1972. The novel follows a group of rabbits as they leave their threatened warren to look for a new home. (Another children’s book, The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann, published in 1979, has a similar theme of having to find a new home).
Duncton Wood by William Horwood is definitely an adult novel, however. This 1980 book centres on a mole community with its own writing system, religion and social setup. The first book was a worldwide bestseller and spawned five sequels. One of my personal favourites from this genre is Robin Hawdon’s A Rustle in the Grass. Published in 1985, the novel focuses on an ant colony thrown into turmoil when their leader dies and another ant species attacks. Sadly, many of these novels are now out of print, although fairly easy to track down second hand.
Animal Stories for All
Animals have probably always been an important part of our storytelling. They have been used to help explain how the world came to be, to highlight aspects of human behaviour or simply to entertain us. Many of us grew up reading animal tales. I’ve included some of my favourites here, but there are so many more I could have mentioned. Let me know some of yours in the comments below.
Sadly, some of the books included in this post are now out of print. This applies especially to many of the adult novels published in the heyday of the 1970s and 80s, including Duncton Wood, A Rustle in the Grass and Fledger, a wonderful novel about puffins. Here are just a few of those still in print.
This collection of myths from the Pacific Northwest of North America includes many centred on important animals such as Raven, Owl and Coyote.
There are hundreds of editions of Aesop’s Fables but I particularly like this one because of Robert Ingpen’s beautiful illustrations.
Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, is also available in a range of editions from paperbacks like this one to illustrated hardbacks.
Henry Williamson wrote Tarka the Otter for adults. These days, many publishers aim it at the children’s market. Either way, it is one of our most realistic and unanthropomorphic animal stories.
This was one of my absolute favourite books as a youngster. Its theme of environmental destruction is as relevant today as when it was written in 1979.
Richard Adams’ classic follows a community of rabbits as they search for a new home, much like the animals in Colin Dann’s novel. Ostensibly a children’s book, it is very dark in places but a wonderful read.