Animals in Literature

DURING the last few years animals have contributed very widely to the enjoyment of the reading public, both here and abroad. The most original work of that author who (whatever his merits or demerits) has stood forth in the world of letters as the conspicuous figure of the nineteenth century’s last decade deals with the adventures of the jungle, and lesser writers have successfully invaded the animal kingdom. From the India of a poet’s imagination, Baloo, the bear, Teacher of the Law to the Seeonee wolf cubs, has come forth to give us of his wisdom; in the New World, a naturalist has so well told his tale that Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, is not dead for us, but still utters his war cry on the plains of New Mexico ; while from far Scotland, Bob, Son of Battle, has leaped into our hearts. Together with these animals have come many others, thrilling us with excitement, arousing tender sympathy, or, it may be, making us laugh at their comical adventures.

Is this present-day interest in books concerning animals to be thought of as a mere fad, a passing whim of a changeful public ? Or are there reasons for believing that the interest in works of this kind is sure to endure, whatever may be the fate of the books considered individually ? The student of life, the knower of human nature, will, I think, answer “yes ” only to the second of these questions. As long as man is interested in man, he will be attracted to animals by reason of his kinship with them; This kinship is the great open secret of our interest. One need not go to the literature of the past to discover the truth of this ; yet past literature well bears it out, giving at the same time evidence of another truth, kin to the first and dependent on it, that we have come to recognize as eternal for all works of greatest art. On the side of life, then, there is this bond between man and animal : the possession in common of the attributes of love, hatred, fidelity, cunning, cruelty, kindness, and many more; the weakness in common before the forces of the elements, of cold, of hunger, of death. On the side of art there is the recognition of this bond ; the realization that it is the human interest, the human appeal, which is the chief thing in every great work, be it of literature, sculpture, or music. The presentation of universal truth, rather than actual particular fact in every detail, is the rule of those writers who have for audience the nations and the centuries. It is for this reason that the naturalist, intent on his specific quest, is in danger of wandering into paths that do not lead to permanent and widespread fame in literature. He may successfully appeal for a time to the whole public, granting it is at that moment specially interested in a thorough and minute study of animal ways ; if he is a great naturalist, he will be lastingly remembered and read by students of natural history. But unless he has something of the poet in him ; unless he appreciates, and causes his readers to appreciate, the human significance of animal action, not explicitly, but by suggestion, not in the technical language of scientific research, but in the more appealing, more imaginative manner of creative writings, his work will not endure as literature. For this reason, the prophecy may be hazarded that The Jungle Book will outlast in general interest all contemporary works dealing with animals, because behind its fantastic unreality we see at play, unhampered, the motives of human life.

I ask every reader of this paper to reflect upon his affection for, let us say, that brave old shepherd dog, Bob, Son of Battle. Is it not because he is like men that we have known, fearless and loyal, like “ Douglas, Douglas, tender and true,” like his master in the book itself, large-hearted, indomitable, faithful ? And what is his enemy, Red Wully, but a projection into the animal world of his master, — more fierce, more the brute, but essentially the same soul ? Here we have a dramatic picture in black and white, man and dog against man and dog, so artfully drawn that we cannot dissociate the human combatants from their animal allies. We watch the actions of Bob and Red Wully with live emotion, because in their passions, their desires, their intelligence, we feel them to be our brothers.

So, too, consider Mr. Seton-Thompson. Do his stories appeal to us chiefly in that they educate us concerning the less known ways of beasts ? It may be interesting to learn, for instance, that wolves are in the habit of going near every carcass they get wind of, or that crows have various methods of cawing ; but such facts, once known, are soon forgotten, or, if remembered, arouse no desire to re-read them. This is what I mean by the naturalistic phase of animal literature, — a phase evoking a general interest little likely to be other than temporary. It is only when the human note sounds clearly that we all listen eagerly. Lobo, king of the wolves, caught at last through your devotion to your mate Blanca, ah, you appeal to us despite all your murders, you terrible old hero ! Nor, Lobo, are you the only hero whom fate could not conquer except by the meshes of love ! And Molly, what a brave and good little mother you are to your reckless son, Raggylug ! And you, O creatures born in the days of Mr. Kipling’s finer imagination, how really living you are, notwithstanding your unreality ! Monkey folk that “ boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people, about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their mind to laughter, and all is forgotten,” well do we know you. Kaa, mighty in your strength, and not forgetful of insults, you are known to us ; and you, Bagheera, not given to much speech, but brave and wise. The Master Word in the jungle is, “ We be of one blood, you and I.” If men but knew it, that is the Master Word for all mankind. But Mr. Kipling will never teach it to them.

I have tried to suggest, in passing, that in a work of literature in which animals figure the possibility of human application, or, at least, an appeal to those emotions which men have in common with the beasts, is necessary. The animal characteristics and habits may be accurately presented, or they may be thrust wholly into the background, and even falsified. The great use of the animal in antiquity shows this very clearly. Every one will recall the Æsopic story (a typical fable) of the lion and the mouse : how the life of the mighty monarch was saved by the small creature whom he once had spared. To our recognition in this story of a truth universal in its human application is due, almost entirely, our interest in the mouse and the lion. In our eyes they are not a mouse and a lion, but two men teaching the lessons that the mighty shall be humbled, that nothing is too insignificant to be of some service, and that it is good to cast bread upon the waters. We do not stop to consider whether a lion understands the mouse language, or whether a mouse is given to gratitude; in short, as actual animals they do not concern us. They are merely convenient forms, essentially human, and they show animal characteristics only very secondarily, when at all. The purpose of all Æsop’s fables was didactic and moral. In the Indian tales where animals figure as chief characters the method is the same, though there is often the added purpose of doctrinal instruction, feasible because of the Buddhistic belief in the transmigration of men’s souls into the bodies of beasts. The Bible shows a similar use; and perhaps in all literature there is not a nobler instance of the introduction of animals to teach ethical truth than is to be found in the parable of the lost sheep. “ So much more profitable and gracious is doctrine by ensample than by rule,” wisely wrote Edmund Spenser in his famous letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, that serves as introduction to The Faerie Queene.

The method of the ancient moralists was continued well into the Middle Ages, among whose cloisters and schools apologues were widely in vogue. It was then that animals played a considerable part in a large body of short pieces, verse and prose, chiefly interesting in that they furnished a source of one of the most remarkable productions in animal literature, — the Reynard epic in all its branches. In contradistinction to the fabulists and clerical writers of apologues, the many poets who, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, wrought, all over Europe, with the material of animal legend, had for chief purpose the amusement of their hearers. We are presented with a world of beasts, wherein man’s social and religious institutions — the court, the feudal system, and the church — are paralleled ; with Reynard the fox as hero and unifying figure of the whole mass of legend. A strange hero, it must be admitted, — selfish, unscrupulous, treating without any regard to honor the other animals that he meets; and yet we are always glad when he comes forth victorious. The truth is that, in reading this literature, the question of the essential-morality is thrust into the background by a recognition of the frank gayety of it all; just as nowadays we listen to Uncle Remus for the sake of the good fun in his stories. The different animals generally retain their distinctive traits, — the donkey is stupid, the bear is slow, the ape is astute ; and yet they have the manners and customs of men, and reflect in a very delightful way mediæval conditions. The fox sallying out on his plundering raids, and then taking refuge in his strong castle, — what is he but the powerful feudal lord feeling small respect for his king ? The donkey braying forth the liturgy of the dead is the mediæval priest uttering empty words.

And so we might go on, finding a gentle satire playing in and out among the many episodes of the mediæval fox literature, — a satire which was not indulged in earnestly or bitterly for the sake of reform, but which fitted well with the general purpose of affording amusement. The entertaining adventures of the various animals are their own justification ; yet it is unlikely that they would not long since have been forgotten, if it were not for their inherent human interest and possibility of human application. This thought ends in a circle, and has an unbroken continuity and strength ; for on reflection it must appear that what is entertaining in the adventures of the animals has its basis in the fact that the animals are suggestive of men and men’s ways. Goethe wrote his beast epic avowedly as a satire on all mankind; the poets who had preceded him by five or six centuries wrote primarily with the desire of recounting amusing tales ; in the modern writer the amusement is inherent in the satire ; in the mediæval writers the satire is inherent in the amusement; in both modern and mediæval man’s interest in the animal is bound up with man’s interest in man. None of the earlier poems, however, has the breadth of vision, the artistic unity, the universality of application, shown by Goethe’s poem. Reinecke Fuchs marks the highest reach of the apologue in all literature.

Where has this incursion into the literary byways of the past led us, if not to the facts with which we first started out ? The moralist’s mask use of animals in the fables, where no attention is paid to actual animal nature; the merry use in the mediæval, the serious use in the modern fox epic, where partial attention is paid to animal characteristics ; the method of Mr. Seton-Thompson, with its accurate attention to animal traits, — however widely these may diverge from the naturalist’s point of view, they do not differ radically in their deepest interest. Then with still another method appears Mr. Kipling, who, by skillfully placing his beasts in their natural milieu, invests these imaginative beings with a kind of actuality, and, in doing so, but adds another link to our chain of evidence that in literature the faithful representation of animals as they actually are is not what necessarily insures their permanence. The human note, the possibility of human application, — there must the stress be laid.

Let me approach this truth in yet a different manner ; the past may again be called upon to furnish material for illustration, and as I have already touched upon the literature revolving around the fox, it is an easy transition to the mention of the mediæval legends concerning his old enemy, the wolf. These are the legends of the werewolf. The werewolf, it is true, has not, to any important extent, entered into literature : here, it may be, in some old chronicle ; there, in a modern short story based upon the legend. Briefly, a werewolf was a human being supposed to have the power to assume a wolf’s form and nature. A typical legend is that of the child who was killed by a wolf. The pursuers, losing for a moment sight of the beast, suddenly, in bursting through a thicket, came upon a wild-eyed man, trembling with excitement and ghastly from fear. Him they seized as a werewolf. Again, there is the story of the fierce and murderous wolf whom a certain nobleman attacked. He succeeded in cutting off a part of the animal’s paw. On returning to his castle, the count found his wife pale, frightened, her hand dressed in a bandage. Her explanation of how an

accident befell her hand has not come down to us. Probably the countess did not attempt any explanation ; but if she did, it must have been unconvincing, for the chronicle relates that she was accused of being a werewolf, stood trial, was condemned and burned. The important fact to remark is that in most if not all of these cases, where human beings were put to death as werewolves, not only the judges believed them guilty, but they themselves were fully persuaded of their dual nature.

Mr. John Fiske, in an essay written for the Atlantic Monthly, many years ago,1 dealt with this subject in his characteristically lucid manner, and showed how, in the light of modern science, the belief of the afflicted person in his identity with a wolf is to be regarded as one of the phenomena which the specialist on mental diseases can best explain. Yet, apart from medicine, the belief in werewolves has, I think, a deep though somewhat subtle interest. The werewolf legend suggests immediately the theory of the transmigration of souls, and thus comes into relationship with Indian literature ; it can, if the wolfish traits are looked upon as inherited, be considered among the foreshadowings of atavistic literature, of which Ibsen’s Ghosts is the most terrible example. And further, the werewolf legend contains the possibility of moral and psychological application, in literary form, pointing toward a work that might be made to have all the significance of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This dual nature, the beast and the human, so naïvely explained by the mediæval mind, can well be used to typify the good and the evil in man. Though the legend thus treated has potentialities for literature rather than accomplishment, a method in some ways similar was employed by Edgar Allan Poe in The Black Cat, where the animal is bound up not alone with the man’s consciousness, but intimately with his conscience. The cat is terrible for us, not as an animal in itself terrible, but because of its hold on the soul of the murderer ; and awful, not through any inherited awfulness, but because of its character as an instrument of retribution and justice. Here, then, in a far different manner, we have another indication of the truth that our chief interest in animals in literature is to be associated with our interest in men.

Poe’s story illustrates another truth : the modernity of the intensely subjective point of view. When Arthur Dimmesdale, at the climax of Hawthorne’s wonderful novel, is about to reveal the scarlet letter on his breast, he says of the red stigma that it is “ no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart.” In the same way, the cruel drunkard in Poe’s tale sees the outline of the gallows on the breast of the black eat, because in his own soul there is murder, and the cat has become the mirror, as it were, of the man’s nature, and the personification of the spirit of fate. The loathsomeness and terror that the man finds in the cat are qualities which his morbid imagination has created, — qualities so intensely perceived because of his own loathsome and terrible inclinations, and not qualities that a normal person would attribute to the animal, a kind and affectionate creature. To interpret animals in terms of one’s own personality; to embody and then to portray in an animal emotions, passions, moods, existing primarily in the writer; to let, in a word, the animal representation be a subjective reflection rather than an objective image,—this is the subjective method. It is, indeed, a method more common to poetry than to prose ; and by it the poet projects his spirit into the animal world, giving it an individual, vital, suprabestial interest. Shelley’s To a Skylark shows beautifully this use. A greater songster than a lark is pictured in the poem; for Shelley, finding in the bird’s notes a suggestion of the delight and gladness that he himself longed to give to the world, pours forth his own soul into the skylark, and, in describing the bird high in the air of the heavens, describes in reality himself high in the atmosphere of his ideals.

This subjective use of animals is merely one phase of the wide subjective approach to all nature. The solacing power of birds, trees, mountains, rivers ; nature’s sympathetic kinship with man’s feelings in their joyful or sorrowful, calm or tempestuous states, — all this, whether found in Wordsworth or Keats or Shelley or Tennyson, in Lamartine or de Musset, in Goethe or Heine, or, nearer home, in the works of Bryant, Lanier, and others of our poets, points to an attitude that has in modern times been very widely prevalent.

To some little extent indeed it is evidenced in antiquity ; in Virgil preëminently. Not only the forests and the mountains are made to share in the sadness at the death of Daphnis, but the very lions are said to roar forth their sorrow, in token of the universal grief:

“ Daphni, tuum Pœnos etiam ingemuisse leones
Interitum montesque feri silvæque loquuntur.”

Thus the shepherd of the fifth Eclogue attributes his own emotion to all of nature. But this subjective feeling for nature, with its consequent subjective animal use, is not at all characteristic of the Pagan writers, or of the Hebrews, or of the early Christians. The Pagans saw in nature, primarily, its beauty and its wonder, and worshiped it because of them; the Hebrews, seeing this beauty and this wonder, found therein evidence of the Creator, and in singing the praise of his handiwork, nature, they worshiped their God. This Hebraic attitude has endured throughout the Christian centuries, down to our day. But neither in the Bible nor in Homer, whose poetry introduces the animal in many different ways, will any suggestion of the modern intensely subjective method be found. Ancient literature, of which Homer and the Bible may be taken as most representative, is uncompromisingly objective.

And here the reader may say : “ Ah yes, it has not been difficult to point to the human interest in the use of animals in ancient fables, in mediæval imaginative, in modern satiric works, and, easiest of all, in subjective writings, whether poetry or prose ; but what is there to be said of the introduction of animals in the great objective literature of the past ? How is your contention to be maintained there ? ” In this way, I think : A swift study of any of the finest passages in ancient literature will, with but few exceptions, show that where the animal figures, it is in imagery. Let me again go to the master. In Homer, lions, eagles, stags, hares, sheep, bees, — the whole animal kingdom, great and small, slow and swift of foot, — all are introduced ; but almost always in metaphor or simile, — almost always as subservient to the poet’s purpose of rendering vivid the appearance, the character, and the actions of the heroes. So wide is the choice of illustration that one is lost amidst a wealth of opportunity ; yet consider, for example, the verses in the second book of the Iliad,2 with its remarkable instance of twenty-four consecutive lines containing four artistically elaborated and successful similes in which men and animals figure. See how Homer has in these lines given the whole atmosphere of the plain, — the immensity of the army, the excitement of the men, the sense of order in discipline, the magnificent strength and supremacy of Agamemnon (a gradation from the common soldiers to the generals, and then to the commander in chief), all by means of the most familiar scenes in the life of a herding people. This is the use to which genius can put simile, — not merely a parallel picture showing likeness, but a picture adding vividness, reality, intensity, to that with which it is compared. When a great poet likens him to a bull, the king himself gains in majesty.

I do not mean to say that there have been no beautiful instances of animal description except in comparisons between man and beast; but is it not true that passages written solely for the sake of picturing animal life are very difficult to recall ? When we summon animals from the shadowy recesses of literary memories, the albatross flaps its wings, heavy with human fate, from out the pages of English poetry; the golden ass, fired with human passions, comes from the Apuleian days of Italy ; modern French fiction brings to sight the tiger of Balzac’s story, A Passion in the Desert, wherein supremely is shown man’s kinship with the beast. But has there been a single work of animal literature, purely descriptive, and without this human interest accentuated, that has endured ? I think not. An isolated passage, such as the picturing of the horse in the book of Job, may come to mind, illustrating anew the literary greatness of the Bible; and here a happy epithet, there a vivid phrase, may be remembered. But that is all.

Nor can we escape this conclusion even if we seek the less known regions where such creatures as the phœnix and the unicorn have wandered into literature, or wend our way to the fanciful realms of fairyland animals. If we study the Norman trouvère’s legend of the unicorn that could be caught only if a virgin were placed where the beast might find her (for on beholding her he would cease to be fierce, and would quietly lie at her feet), we shall find that the meaning is allegorical, and with a perpetual significance. The unicorn is Christ, who, through the Virgin, became man, and then was crucified after having been captured by the hunters of blood ; while the single horn is supposed to signify the unity of Christ and God. And if we study such a story as Grimm’s tale, with its strange enchantments and magical changes of swans into men, shall we not find that it is much less removed than it might seem to be from a story, actually true, perhaps, such as Rab and his Friends ? Though from far different sides, in all the writings that have been mentioned in this paper, the animals attract through their connection with the world of men.

Once more I desire to revert to Mr. Kipling and to Mr. Seton-Thompson, in order to illustrate a thought that has so far been left in the background, but which is of importance in explaining our interest in animals in literature. This thought has to do with man’s consciousness of his superiority over the beast. Men have steadfastly refused to believe that entire truth inheres in the line of Ecclesiastes where it is said that “ a man hath no preëminence above a beast; for all is vanity.” Men have, since the days of Eden, harnessed the beasts to their will, and made them their servants forever. And so, although the chief human interest in The Jungle Book comes with the unconscious recognition of how Tabaqui, the jackal, can be paralleled by many a dish-licker among men ; how Father Wolf resenting the entrance of Shere Khan, the tiger, represents the idea of a man’s home being his own ; how the whole conception of the Law of the Jungle interests us through its human analogy; yet, further, it can be shown how the position of Mowgli among the animals intensifies the reader’s enjoyment, and this book’s fascination for large numbers of persons may be explained by its underlying motif of man’s superiority over the animal. “ ‘ Look at me,’ said Bagheera ; and Mowgli looked at him steadily between the eyes. The big panther turned his head away in half a minute.” So, too, in Mr. Seton-Thompson’s account of The Springfield Fox, we are told how one night the fox took her cubs to a field “ where there was a strange black flat thing on the ground. She brought them on purpose to smell it, but at the first whiff their every hair stood on end ; they trembled, they knew not why ; it seemed to tingle through their blood and fill them with instinctive hate and fear. And when she saw its full effect she told them, ‘ That is the man-scent.’ ” Thus in this story, again, is found the interest arising from the thought of man’s superiority ; and in it, too, is the suggestion of the less unequal relationship between man and animal. The mother love so strikingly set forth, — who among the sons of men has not felt it, even as did these little foxes ?

Human nature seems to transcend both space and time. Centuries cannot entirely change it, nor far-divided nations display it wholly differently. If we should wander in search of the animal use in literature from long-gone days to our own hour, from the soil of Greece and the banks of the Ganges to the very publishing houses of America, we should, throughout our quest, perceive that we ourselves are at the bottom of our interest in the animals ; and (the baldly didactic use excepted) there would remain the underlying and overshadowing thought of the animal, our brother, having passions, needs, sorrow, love, hate, and death, as we have, — teaching us not only our kinship with the animal world, but also humility and compassion ; while over all and under all there would be the other thought of the animal, our inferior, yielding us precedence because of our intellect, by right of which we are the lords of the universe, and the masters thereof, and far below us because of our will, which makes every man the lord of himself, and of his fate the master.

George S. Hellman.

  1. Werewolves and Swan-Maidens, August, 1871.
  2. Lines 459-483.