I’ve recently been enjoying André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, a short novel about a group of canines in a Toronto veterinary clinic suddenly gifted, or perhaps cursed, with human intelligence. The premise is that Hermes and Apollo have a bet about whether human reasoning would make animals happier or not, and it’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that the question is never definitively decided.
Animal tales have a long history in both oral and written literature throughout the Old and New Worlds. You can find talking, reasoning animals in the morally instructive categories of either apologues or fables; famous examples of the latter include Aesop’s frustrated fox, whose rationalization of his aborted attempts to reach a high branch led to the phrase “sour grapes.” The iconic Coyote, an indigenous trickster character is, arguably, another.
You might say that personifying human desires and struggles in anthropomorphized animals set the stage for authors of recent centuries to do the same with fictional races of science fiction and fantasy. Examples include Tolkien’s elves, hobbits, and dwarves as living embodiments of the (perceived) character of different ethnic groups, and Star Trek’s Klingons, Betazoids, and Vulcans, as personifications of human traits like aggression, love and logic.
No surprise that modern-day animal stories tend to end up shelved in the speculative fiction sections as well. Alexis’s self-described apologue, a meditation on the intersections of innocence, knowledge, and happiness, differs from the works of Aesop in that it’s set in the real world, wherein talking, arguing dogs demand some kind of magical or scientific explanation.
In fact, the author has thought more deeply about what defines the character of a dog, and how a dog with human reasoning would differ from simply a human brain transplanted into a canine body. Having decided the premise, he’s logically worked out the character implications in a fairly believable way, and it’s interesting simply to spend time with the tale’s dramatis canes, as Alexis so eloquently puts it.
(Alexis is not the only one to write dogs well. I’ll recommend Bradley Denton’s “Sergeant Chip” and Mary E. Lowd’s “The Best Puppy Ever”, for a start.)
Contrast this with Animal Farm, where theme always trumps narrative realism. I’m very fond of George Orwell’s allegory on Stalinism, but while thought-provoking, it’s a little bit harder to emotionally connect with a character that represents an abstract idea than it is with a fully-fledged individual.
This also means, consciously or not, Fifteen Dogs was written in two genres. Yes, it is an apologue, but it also falls firmly in the camp of speculative fiction. Because that latter genre is, of course, very much about getting the details right. It’s rather unfortunate, in fact, that the dogs are so relatable, as you can guess that most of them will not have a happy ending.
Not every modern animal tale is either exclusively or simultaneously an apologue. Sometimes stories, particularly those written for children, feature animals in the place of humans for no apparent reason. Think Redwall or The Wind in the Willows, which feature anthropomorphic animal characters in human roles without explanation or consequence. More intriguing are those tales that seek to explore something of what it is to be human but acknowledge the non-human point of view at the same time, such as The Secret of NIMH.
But my favourite modern animal tale is probably Watership Down. The decision to feature lapine protagonists in this fantasy epic is crucial in the unfolding of the story. You absolutely could not swap out the rabbits for mice, rats, or badgers and tell the same tale, and author Richard Adams cites The Private Life of the Rabbit (non-fiction) as a major influence.
The story is set in a version of our real world in which rabbits have language, social mores, and culture, but still live more or less the way we know them to live. It’s not clear if human beings, more of a faceless menace in the novel, are aware of how intelligent rabbits are, and it doesn’t really matter. Adams plays with the idea that, just as in human societies, there is a certain amount of conservatism when it comes to social roles and governing systems, discouraging individuals from indulging in “un-rabbit-like” behaviour.
Where the story diverges from being simply a year in the life of a rabbit is in the character of Fiver. Possessed with the gift of foresight but physically weak and with a poor constitution, he predicts disaster falling upon the warren, but is unable to convince the chief rabbit. A small band of believers, including his best friend and protector, Hazel, leave with him for new pastures, escaping the catastrophe, but running into one new danger after another.
Unlike the rats of NIMH, I felt like I learned something about rabbits reading this novel. They’re tougher than you think. They have a complex social structure. True, not as complex as described here, and there’s no evidence of lapine psychics, but the point is that much of what happened in the novel could have happened in real life, including the battles for leadership, the exile of Fiver and friends, and the challenges in founding a new warren.
Is this a traditional animal tale? Yes and no. I wouldn’t call it an apologue, fable, or modern myth. It’s a little bit more about the sociobiology of the animals and a little less about the moral of the tale. But coming at the mysteries of life and humanity sideways, by telling a story about a bunch of animals? That’s really what Aesop was trying to do all those centuries ago, albeit in a more simplistic, moralizing sort of way.
Animal tales have grown up, becoming more complex in plot, character, theme, and insight, and to readers’ benefit. To take another example, Robert Silverberg cogently explored the differences and similarities between us and our nearest relatives in his short story, “Pope of the Chimps,” a precursor to the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise with Andy Serkis’ brilliantly portrayed Caesar.
The story begins as the concept of death and then religion are first explained to a group of non-human primates of above average intelligence. Reading it feels like spying on a second a dawn of humanity, with the acknowledged social differences between even our closely related species again making the point that there isn’t necessarily a single way to be intelligent. Given sufficient time, there’s still no reason to assume that all roads lead to homo sapiens.
This modern, mature take on the genre, being tackled primarily by modern writers of both children’s and speculative fiction literature, surely has more insights to yield. I wonder, though, am I alone in desiring something outside of class mammalia? We need a good animal tale with cephalopod heroes. “A Cuttlefish Named Johnny.” Who wants to write it?