Animals in stories since time immemorial!

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Ever wondered why animals are central characters in fables, classic, folk tales and literature? Here, Shabari Chaudhry throws light on the same.

Reading and being read to are a dominant part of childhood. From the moment we begin to understand language, we are regaled with rhymes and bedtime stories. Most stories written for children often have a moralizing aspect that aims at inspiring a sense of right versus wrong in young minds. For those of us who have read the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare”, even today, we immediately connect it to the adage—slow and steady wins the race. This seemingly simple and straightforward story and other fables—“The Ant and the Grasshopper” or “The Little Red Hen”—seem to have a lasting impression on our minds.

What is it about these tales that has kept them alive for centuries and endured generations?

The common thread here is the talking animals that are central to the stories’ unfolding. Be it fables, classics, folk tales or modern satire, literature is replete with instances where animal characters have been used—allegorically, metaphorically or literally—to convey the essence of the story. From Aesop’s Fables to The Call of the wild to Animal Farm, animals have always had a special significance when it comes to story-telling.

Why animals?

Throughout history, animals have had a consistent presence in human tales, which is a testimony to the human-animal bond. This bond or a sense of association can be traced back to the time of early cave paintings. During the middle ages, men compiled elaborate encyclopedias that documented mythical as well as real animals and their unique characteristics. Today, animals have become a part of the celluloid space as well. It would seem that wherever man goes, so do his beasts—but why?

Perhaps, the history of man is incomplete without his beasts. One of the theories posited by scholars is that using animal characters in stories and assigning them human characteristics allows humans to distance themselves from the actual incident and still experience the emotions or learn the lessons intended.

Whether written for children or adults, good literature works as a thinking device. Works of literature allow us to make sense of our world, understand our belief systems, have a dialogue with ourselves and others, question old systems and create new ones. Populating these works with animals that are similar to us allows us to experience these facets via proxy.

Anthropomorphism or assigning of human characteristics to animals is a device that is used in story-telling. Oral narration being the first mode of transmission of tales, early folklore typically employs anthropomorphism. However, all stories with anthropomorphic characters are not the same. Though the characters are essentially talking animals it is their representation (by the author) that marks the difference. For instance, the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm are quite unlike the pigs from the children’s fable “Three Little Pigs”. While Orwell uses the pig to represent the ruling class of a society—greedy and unproductive—the talking pigs from the children’s story serve a didactic purpose about the benefits of quick thinking and strength in numbers.

In the case of graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus or, more recently, in Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A boy from Kashmir, symbolic and metaphoric visual representation of anthropomorphic characters creates a richly layered and compelling read. Owing to the emphasis on the visual quotient in a graphic novel, it is inherently well suited to depict anthropomorphic characters. Talking creatures imbued with life in full colour have a definitive impact on the readers. In fact, one may forget to remember that the representation is not always literal.

Campfire’s graphic novel adaptation of classics like The Call of the Wild, The Wind in the Willows and The Jungle Book have given readers an opportunity to enjoy this unique reading experience. By bringing these well-loved characters to life Campfire’s adaptations infuse them with a tangible quality that leaves the reader with a lasting impression.

The case of The Jungle Book

An apt example of a timeless tale involving animal characters is, perhaps, The Jungle Book. The book’s popularity led to its being made into an animated series and a live-action film, more than once.

Jungle Book is as much a story for adults as it is for kids. There are characters in it that all can identify with, irrespective of age. Animal characters in stories appear under different guises. A loyal companion—the eponymous hero of White Fang or Buck from The Call of the Wild, an alter ego—the Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a trickster—wolf from The little Red Riding Hood, a guide, a guardian or even a mentor. Jungle Book too has its share of such models. Each animal character in this book also represents a quality or trait that is human. There is Baloo—a lovable mentor and teacher, Bagheera—a manipulating schemer with shades of grey, Kaa—the unpredictable ally, Shere Khan—the archenemy and Mowgli, the – boy-who-talks-to-animals. In the book, Mowgli represents every/any person trying to find his place within ‘the world’ (the jungle in his case).

The Jungle Book presents the fantastical journey of a wild man-cub who defeats his nemesis and finds a home with people who accept him as one of their own. As a narrative that uses animals to convey human characteristics—familial love, friendship, loyalty, courage and determination—the novel manages to connect with the reader every time.

(Shabari Choudhury is a Delhi-based art lover and an editor at Campfire Graphic Novels. She enjoys both superhero and off-beat independent comics and is a fan of films based on comic book characters.)

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