…Five Animals in Literature
As far back as the Garden of Eden, literature has often measured its characters through their relationships with animals. From Smaug the Dragon to Winnie the Pooh, animals have featured in fiction, often as some of our most memorable characters, and even as protagonists themselves. Here, the Scottish Writers’ Centre presents five animals who help shape the stories in which they appear.
White Fang- White Fang
Jack London’s 1906 novel White Fang charts its titular wolf/dog hybrid’s journey to domestication and human companionship, navigating the dangers of both the wild and the human. Rather than its more popular companion novel, Call of the Wild, White Fang follows its protagonist through his various owners, charting his journey from a pup in the wild to a father of his own litter on a Californian estate. The novel explores the qualities necessary in the route to domestication, questioning the possibilities (and consequences) of White Fang’s successful integration into human society.
The Cat- My Cat Yugoslavia
Published originally in Finnish in 2014, Patjim Statovci’s novel My Cat Yugoslavia follows alternating narrators: Bekim, a student living a life of semi-isolation, and his mother Emine, who left Kosovo with her family following the Yugoslav War. The novel features many animals in its explorations of displacement and influence but its most memorable is the feline featured on its front cover. In a decidedly surrealist turn, Bekim meets a suit-wearing cat at a gay bar and soon falls victim to its biting, cruel remarks. Vindictive and abusive, the cat is a catalyst, aggravating Bekim’s anxieties over his estranged family, his immigration, and his sexuality, and setting My Cat Yugoslavia into motion as its two narrators struggle to find their own identities and come to terms with both the Kosovo they left behind and the Finland to which they emigrated.
Pantalaimon- His Dark Materials Trilogy
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has as many animal characters as it does human: each of its denizens has a daemon; a manifestation of a person’s inner spirit, who accompanies them in the form of an animal. As Lyra, the main character’s daemon, Pantalaimon, or Pan for short, is the most prominent daemon in Pullman’s universe. As is true of all children’s daemons, Pan can shapeshift into any animal form he wishes, mirroring the potentiality and freedom associated with youth. The level-headed foil to Lyra’s impulsiveness, Pan is a character in his own right, with his own growth and his own views. Nearly always present on the periphery, Pan is a reassuring presence throughout Pullman’s most famous series.
The Seal- Eyrbyggjasaga
Eyrbyggjasaga, or The Saga of the Ere-Dwellers, is one of the most famous Old Norse sagas. Aside from being a fascinating look at the workings of Old Icelandic society, it also contains more supernatural occurrences than any other saga from the time. From murderous hauntings to ghosts who cook, Eyrbyggjasaga’s inclusions of superstition and Icelandic folklore range from the horrifying to the hilarious. Of these, there is none more surreal or amusing than the seal in Frodis-water. During a meal, this seal emerges from the floor and looks around at the room’s inhabitants. It is also invincible: it takes several hits from a sledgehammer to drive it back into the floorboards. The seal is equal parts terrifying for the inhabitants of Frodis-water and humorous to the reader; a portent of ill omen presented as an almost comic disruption to dinner.
The Mormorach- Riverkeep
Scottish writer Martin Stewart’s young adult novel Riverkeep uses its own mythical denizens to explore the limits of freedom. The enormous, eel-like mormorach is the novel’s greatest signifier of this notion of destiny. The creature is an amalgamation of folklore and popular culture, carrying the status of mythical creature and the inescapable draw of well-known cultural antagonists like Moby Dick and Jaws. It lurks in the depths of Canna Bay, drawing all manner of whalers, hunters and glory-seeking would-be heroes into its waiting grasp, including the novel’s protagonist, Wulliam, who has heard that the mormorach’s eyes contain a medicinal substance that can cure his father. The mormorach is a marker of fairy tale and fate, the vicious endpoint in a novel about how we all seem inexplicably drawn forward by forces we can never fully understand.
Words by Alastair Millar