Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Talking Animals: How much is too much?

The pictures here show two animals in to well-known and beloved fantasies: (although one of them wasn't true to the book) the talking fox in the Chronicles of Narnia (the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe) and the snake in Harry Potter (The Sorcerer's Stone).
When writing fantasy, many authors have made their animals talk. Lewis had a talking animal in almost every book (counting or NOT counting Aslan), though Rowling veers from it. The snake could only speak to Parselmouths, not just anybody. My brother once said that Lewis went a bit overboard with the talking animals; Rowling has the right mix. Let's think. We have all the snakes (that can talk only to Parselmouths) Aragog, the spider, and though their are many other animals none that I can remember actually talk out loud (save the sphynx, who doesn't exactly count.) Lewis has Fledge, Bree, Hwyn, Aslan, Reepicheep (I had almost forgotten about Reepicheep, who is very hilarious. I remember a friend doing an impersonation of a squeaky little mouse whom did Reepicheep great justice.) Puzzle, Shift, and Jewel. Lewis has a great many more than Rowling. I will say that I really don't think that Lewis quite captures the true horse personality. Bree is proud, sarcastic, and a bit of a pretty boy. He thinks he knows everything, and he considers himself to be above all (or most) other beings. Horses are NOT like that, not in my book. (No pun intended.) In my book (my actual book, not the one that we refer to when we speak of our philosophy) I have three cats that are capable of human speech, a few horses (though the horses don't speak very often; and even then they speak mostly in equus language, not the human tongue.) I can't think of any other animals that speak at the moment, though every one of them I made intelligent. Tolkien, if I recall correctly, did not actual write any animal characters that could speak (though one was mentioned in history that could understand the language of men, perhaps speak it). I know that all the animals and plants could understand the language of the elves, and let's do remember the Ents, trees who could walk and talk. Trees themselves spoke to each other in the tree language. I haven't read all of Tolkien's works (don't forget Smaug, who could also speak), so there could have been other talking animals. Tolkien wrote the following:

"The beast fable has, of course, a connexion with fairy-stories. Beasts and birds and other creatures often talk like men in real fairy-stories. In some part (often small) this marvel derives from one of the primal 'desires' that lie near the heart of Faerie: the desire of men to hold communion with other living things. But speech of beasts in a beast fable, as developed into a separate branch, has little reference to that desire, and often wholly forgets it. The magical understanding by men of the proper languages of birds and beasts and trees, that is much nearer to the true purpose of Faerie."
J.R.R. Tolkien* (italics mine for emphasis)

So you see, talking animals that communicate with men is nearest to the true purpose of fantasy. This is what I think of to justify my talking beasts.I am sure I am not done yet. I am at cross-roads with these cute little horse-like creatures that I made up several months ago, and I hadn't intended to use them in this version of the story, but I am really quite attached to them. They are little horse/deer like creatures, some that I called Terris. They talk out loud, and they have very long names, although they call each other (and everybody else) by nickname. They are sort of like the irrepressible Reepicheep or Peregrin Took. Even Meriodoc Brandybuck; I still don't know what to do with them. I expect that if my book were ever made into a movie (which it never will...I don't think....:)) that most of the talking animals would be eliminated. Aluthra would not have an important part, or a part at all; I think Nebula Shinnings would probably end up moving up and taking her place.
I think it also depends on how you write the animal character. Bree really doesn't meet my expectations and standards for talking horses. The snakes in Harry Potter were definitely written well. The spider too; I feel like I am doing an alright job on my cats and horses. Here's my take:
If an author can truly capture an animal's mind, the way they think the animal would think, the way they would act, the way they truly would if they could talk, then they have all the right to fill their pages with talking animals. If they all have the same personality, all of them are proud and arrogant, then they really ought to stay out of it. That is one of the goals I have set for myself: to make my horse characters witching and perfect, the exact way that horses would talk, act, and think. Not the rugged western horse (that idea has been worn out) or just 'plain old horse, barn and manure' either. It has to be something noble, kingly, fantastic, the way Tolkien might have written his horses, the way that I would want them written. Somebody once said that if there is a book you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. I must write it, because nobody has captured the true horse personality yet, although Anna Sewell did a good job. Just not quite on the spot...anyway, I'll address this subject later. Thanks for reading!
Anna Elizabeth Hedges
* The Tolkien Reader, Tree and Leaf, On Fairy-Stories, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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