Last week I talked a little bit about animals in fantasy. In my opinion, your world isn’t quite fleshed out until there are four-legged creatures wandering around. And winged, and finned, and web-building ones, too. You may not see them around you in the real world, but there are all sorts of critters living in the world with us, and the occasional sighting of a bunny in your backyard or a mourning dove on the power line is unusual enough to make even the hardest-hearted curmudgeon stop and stare for a second. They belong in your fictional world, so don’t forget them while you’re crafting your awesome tale of adventure and thrills. You can also display a character’s personality by showing how they interact with animals.
So is that all animals are good for, as revelation or set dressing?
Glad you asked.
Animals mean many things to many people. Ever heard the phrase “timid as a mouse”? People say that because mice tend to scamper away when people come too close for their comfort. To me, though, mice are far from timid. I live in the country, so every now and then, a field mouse finds its way indoors. At that moment, war is declared. They’re foul, evil animals who have an agenda that involves taking over my house someday and driving me to move to Antarctica. The word I’d pick to describe mice would more likely be impudent.
On the other hand, most people are repulsed by snakes. Me? Love them. Peaceful is the word that I equate with snakes. They’re smooth and warm (when they’ve been lounging in the sun or on their heat rocks) and it’s almost meditative to let a snake slither from one of your hands to the other, over and over. And they eat mice, which makes my life more peaceful, but that’s just a personal bonus.
Many authors have chosen to use animal characters as symbols of higher concepts, in order to make an intangible idea easier for the reader to grasp. A classic example are the animals in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan the Lion, Son of the Emperor-Over-Sea, is representative of Jesus Christ, the redeemer figure from Christianity.** In Christian stories, Jesus was kind and giving, but could be pushed into anger by wrongdoing done in God’s name. Most of all, he was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan gives his life to defeat the evil that threatens Narnia. I’ll be honest…years of Sunday school never made me cry so hard as that one scene in Lewis’ book. Somehow, telling the story from an animal’s point-of-view made it far more touching for me.
Another animal that serves a similar purpose is Bill the Pony, from The Fellowship of the Ring. Bill joined the party in Bree, but they were forced to set him free to find his own way when they entered Moria. Sam grieved that he’d sent Bill to certain death, but Bill survived to the end, to be reunited with Sam on his way home. Bill was a symbol of the life they were being forced to leave behind, something they might never live to return to. He was a pony, but he was also home and family and tradition.
So have you used animals to represent higher concepts in your stories? How did you pull it off?
**Please, don’t forget, we all share different faiths. So please be thoughtful and don’t post anything that might start a religious war. I reserve the right to wield the Delete Button of Justice on anyone who doesn’t play nicely on this issue.