The Man Booker–winning mega-best-seling novel Life of Pi is now an amazing movie, bringing to
life the fabulous characters of lifeboat mates Pi Patel, teen zookeeper, and Richard Parker, Bengal tiger. But are talking tigers--or cats, or rabbits, for that matter--really such a big deal? A look at some of the all-time-great fictions in which animals think and speak reveals interesting things about the words we put in their mouths.
Yann Martel's book is wonderful, full of fascinating thoughts about animals and humankind: whether zoos are evil or beneficient, what it means to be human, the connection of humans to both divinity and nature, how we relate in the spiritual, material, and animal realms--the book is chockful of provoking insights and some lovely writing. But the primary relationship in the book, between a castaway Indian teen and Richard Parker, a full-grown Bengal tiger, is the crux of the book's appeal.
Richard Parker is hardly the first animal character to capure our imagination. Especially when a book is written from an animal's, or animal society's point of view, I often wind up spellbound by the author's attempt to use language to express animal thoughts. It's a rather bizarre attempt, doomed essentially to failure, for language ability--the capacity to conceptualize and communicate concepts to others--is, after all, one of the marks that distinguishes humans from animals. If animals could talk, they wouldn't be animals, would they?
That hasn't stopped writers from trying to make them speak. In 1970, Richard Bach combined human potential/pop psychology and the age-old tradition of animal fables to craft Jonathan Livingston Seagull, an inspirational novella about a shorebird frustrated by the flock's mundane struggle for food. Jonathan shuns conformity and achieves enlightenment through a Zen-like dedication to flight. Bach writes somewhat lyrically about the joys of taking to the air and the smell of fish, but the words of Jonathan have more to do with sixties idealism and the "Me" generation of the seventies than birdlife.
Just a few years later, the early 1970s brought us Richard Adam's utterly original and very peculiar
Watership Down, an epic fantasy about a rabbit civilization in England. Begun, like Alice in Wonderland, as tales told by an adult man to little girls to pass the time, Watership Down pops into several rabbitholes, but the novel winds up somewhere very different from Alice's Wonderland indeed. The story of Fiver, Hazel, and the warrens of Sandleford and Elfrafa is a daring escape from apocalypse, a city foundation myth, a story of love and repopulation, and a thrilling battle narrative that calls to mind both the Aeneid and the Odyssey. Except the characters are heroic rabbits who speak Lapine.
Unlike Bach, Adams doesn't seem to be making any particular point about the individual vs. society; he's just telling a ripping good adventure yarn in which the main characters are all rabbits. The book is full of rather well-researched details of actual rabbit behavior in wild warrens. Very strange and much beloved, it's one of my favorite books, and I'm not alone: it's one of publisher Penguin's worldwide all-time top sellers.
Although peopled by animal characters, as it were, George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) is no heroic fantasy. Ostensibly about an antihuman barnyard revolt led by pigs, it's not about animals at all; it's an allegory about the early 20th-century Soviet Union's descent from the ideals of Communism to the depths of Stalinism and the Great Leader's despotic corruption of democratic socialism. Orwell noted that his experiences in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s shaped his hatred of Stalin, even though in World War II–era Great Britain, Stalin was somewhat popular because of the USSR's fierce fight against Nazi Germany. Stalin didn't remain a free world favorite for long; Orwell's biting satire became hugely popular as the Cold War broke out. In the book, Stalin is Napoleon the pig; Snowball, another pig and Napoleon's rival, is recognizably a combination of Lenin and Trotsky, and the commentary is bitter indeed. None of the animals do very animal-like things at all in the book; by the end, the pigs are indistinguishable from the human overlords they displaced, which is sort of the point: meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as Pete Townsend would later say.
Finally, I'll bring the discussion back around from the big cat of Life of Pi to the housecats of The Wild Road (1997) by Gabriel King and the Warriors series (2002-present) by Erin Hunter. Both books were