There have always been animal stories. But throughout most of history, humans have tended to anthropomorphize animals... that is, to make them into animal-shaped humans. Animal gods from the earliest written records are icons with several salient, exaggerated characteristics. The regal carriage of a cat, the wiliness of a fox, or the industriousness of ants and bees... And animal stories of more recent centuries, like Peter Rabbit or the laid-back denizens of the briar patches in the Uncle Remus stories, are basically humans with pelts, scales or feathers, intended to illustrate human stories.
At the end of the nineteenth century, a new trend emerged. It had to do with a growth in naturalism, as people began to go out into the deserts and forests and mountain ranges to collect, to draw, to study the behaviour of, animals in their natural habitat. In addition to the scientific goal of discovery and categorization, an aesthetic element entered in, of appreciation for nature and with that a desire to protect and preserve. The renaissance of 'woodcraft' led directly to the founding of the Boy Scouts of America. The idea of National Parks was born and implemented, beginning with Yellowstone. And wild animals began to be watched for clues about their behaviour and social interaction.
Wild Animals I Have Known
Reviewed by Sandra Smith
This collection of animal stories by Ernest Thompson Seton was originally published in 1900 and is a watershed in the history of 'Furriness'. Born Ernest Thompson in 1860 in South Shields, County Durham, he changed his name often throughout his life, but legally took the name Ernest Thompson Seton in 1905. Many of his illustrations are signed Ernest Seton, or Ernest Seton Thompson.
His family emigrated to Canada when he was six, and evidently he fell in love with nature from the start and remained enamored for his entire life. He became Naturalist to the government of Manitoba and was a founder of the Woodcraft movement, which later amalgamated with the Boy Scouts, of whose board he was Chairman.
What is revolutionary about Seton's stories is that they are modelled on the real life of the animals. They are not sentimental or humanized, although the reader feels a full measure of sympathy for the exploits and travails of the animals. Seton said in the story of Raggylug the rabbit;
'Those who do not know the animals well may think I have humanized them, but those who have lived so near them as to know somewhat of their ways and their minds will not think so.'
'Truly rabbits have no speech as we understand it'
'but they have a way of conveying ideas by a system of sounds, signs, scents, whisker-touches, movement and example that answers the purpose of speech; and it must be remembered that though in telling this story I freely translate from rabbit into English, I repeat nothing that they did not say.'
One other extremely important fact is stressed by Seton in his introduction to the stories:
'The fact that all these stories are true'
'Is the reason why all are tragic. The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end.'
The collection includes stories of all different sorts of animals, and even a couple of notable dogs. It begins with Lobo the Wolf, and goes on to tell the lives of a mustang, a partridge, a crow, a rabbit, and a fox, all with scrupulous attention to true detail and filled with illustrations which would look good in a natural science textbook.
Reviewed by Mike A
Published in 1972 and written by Richard Adams, Watership Down is based on a story he'd told his daughters during a car journey to Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1966. It follows a band of rabbits who have left their warren and are searching for a new one. On their way they have many trials and tribulations, some more drastic than others... a real lapine odyssey.
This is all started by a rabbit called Fiver, who senses a 'bad danger' coming. Fiver is one of several rare psychic rabbits, and another pops up later on in the book. Fiver is well known in the warren for this ability, but on this occasion he actually wants the whole 'tribe' to leave the warren. The Chief Rabbit refuses, leaving Fiver and his brother Hazel to pick a small batch of friends to leave with them.
Note that Hazel is the more dominant of the two. Though gifted, Fiver is quite timid and when he has a 'psychic fit' he can be left vunerable. Hazel is clear-headed, intelligent, and protective of his brother.
The book helps give a great insight into the world as seen by the rabbit. It goes at length to explain what crossing a stream (the Enbourne near the start) or climbing the Down is like for a rabbit. When the rabbits use their own language (Lapine) and you read the occasional footnote explaining things from a rabbit perspective, you feel like this is more than just a story. Fans have taken full advantage of this and over the Internet you will find web sites ranging from role-playing warrens to lexicons of languages for the other animals.
Readers will notice something peculiar about the style in which Watership Down is written. Dialogue between characters has a tinge of 'upper-class English' in it. Take this extract from chapter 11:
'Keep still if you can, poor old chap,'
said Acorn, who obviously wanted to be overheard.
'Just let me clean the blood out. Steady now!'
Some critics have found more than a whiff of elitism in the story, and some have even accused author Adams of creating a fascist society.
So why has this book got so much appeal to it? How could somebody be convinced to read a book about rabbits? Nowadays, people are drawn to the book because of its cult status (which is what originally attracted this author). But, beyond this, it seems that animal stories have always been loved, whether they are the classical fables of Aesop, the black stallion stories of Walter Farley, or the civilized, militarized rabbits of Watership Down.
Richard Adams has admitted to two major influences on the writing of Watership Down. One is The Private Life of the Rabbit by R. M. Lockley, and the other is the animal stories of Ernest Thompson Seton.
There are plenty more books that try to give us a portrayal of animals as they really are. Here are a few more you might like to try. This list is by no means exhaustive; it just represents a few personal favorites.
- The Black Stallion books, by Water Farley
- The Misty books, by Margeurite Henry
- The Call of the Wild and White Fang, by Jack London
- Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
- The Lad books, by Albert Payson Terhune
If you want to contribute your own thoughts on these books, or any other, come join us at the Irving Washington BooK NooK