Both on and off the page, animals have always represented more than just themselves. To the ancient Egyptians they were gods. In hieroglyphic script they were the written word itself.
What was appropriate for the gods was good enough also for the people. Since at least the seventh century BCE, storytellers have scoured the animal world for human surrogates. In the imaginations of fabulists such as the Greek slave Aesop or the mysterious Indian Vishnu Sharma, dumb creatures were raised up on their hind legs and given human voices, vices, and virtues. Gradually, as yarn followed yarn, people began to believe that living animals really did share the characteristics of the humans they depicted. Foxes were cunning, owls wise, lions brave, wolves cruel, asses stupid, monkeys mischievous. These attributes seeped from the fables into our very language. A man might be proud as a peacock, his wife stubborn as a mule, their neighbor greedy as a pig. No one would ever have a good word to say about the unlucky weasel, hyena, rat, or wolf, or a bad one to say about the horse or dog.
Not even Aristotle in his The History of Animals, written in the fourth century BCE, could separate fact from fiction. He copied, or ‘aped,’ the fabulists in attributing craftiness to the fox. The ox, he observed, was slow and even tempered, the boar ferocious and impossible to teach. Snake and wolf were given to treachery, and the dog to fawning. Stupidest of all was the sheep.
All this filtered down through the centuries and re-emerged in the medieval Bestiaries, which catalogued every known fact about every known creature on earth. They taught, for example, that the best way to catch a unicorn was to send a virgin into a wood. Soon enough, the animal would reveal itself and settle tamely in her lap. In 1551 the Swiss physician Conrad Gessner published his vast compendium Historiae Animalium, more than 4,000 pages long, which described and illustrated more living things than even Aristotle had imagined or foreseen. Though many of these, like the unicorn, dragon, basilisk, and sea-monsters swallowing ships, were familiar to educated readers, there were many others so outlandish that no one could ever have suspected their existence. Who could have imagined anything like the porcupine, the sloth, or the walrus, a mermaid cursed by the Devil? The earth indeed was a world of unearthly wonders.
But not everyone welcomed this excursion into objective realities. There were facts, and there was truth. Many priests and philosophers still taught that the ancient Bestiaries and Fables contained more of the latter than the Historiae animalium. Why did God create the beasts? Simple, they said. It was to teach us the difference between right and wrong, sacred and profane, beautiful and ugly. Through their very natures, animals taught us how to look and think and feel. And what followed from this was sentimentality, a channel through which the mythologies of Aesop passed virtually unaltered into our consciousness.
This did not mean that whimsy would always trump reality. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published in 1851, was wholly truthful in its depiction of the whaling industry, and was in no sense a book for children (or even for adults short of staying power). In 1877 came Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which was unrealistic only in the fact of being narrated by a horse. Otherwise it was a thoroughly realistic depiction of the ill treatment of working animals in the 19th century. It struck a chord that resounded deep into the 20th century, long after the treatment of working horses was a serious issue. The book was translated into French, German, Spanish, and Italian, and sold by the million in America.
Though Black Beauty was undoubtedly anthropomorphic and unashamedly sentimental, its accuracy and support for protectionism spared it the criticisms directed at other books written about animals for children. One of the fiercest critics was the US President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, a passionate slayer of African wildlife, who in 1907 led the charge in what became known as the "nature-fakers controversy." This was all about the way animals were portrayed in contemporary literature. Alongside Roosevelt stood John Burroughs, venerable American conservationist, nature writer, and strict Darwinian who despised the mysticism, sentimentality, and scientific ignorance of the Romantics. Even more abhorrent to him than outright fictions were the anthropomorphic distortions of a new generation of nature writers such as the Reverend William J. Long, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Ernest Thompson Seton, whose fantasies, Burroughs believed, were corrupting the minds of the young. Protesting the truth of their eyewitness accounts, these "new naturalists" claimed to have seen, for example, a fox luring hounds into the path of a train, an eagle swooping to catch a chick that had tumbled from the nest, and a woodcock setting its own broken leg in a cast of mud. Roosevelt, too, was outraged that such books were being used to mislead children in American schools. The glorious irony, of course, is that this fierce proponent of "the stern, manly qualities" of the hunter should now be remembered as the inspiration for that unsurpassable icon of anthropomorphic cuddliness, the teddy bear.
Despite all this, few people could see much harm in the Brer Rabbit of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, first published in 1880, or in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories of 1902, with their wildly fantastical accounts of How the Camel Got His Hump, How the Leopard Got his Spots, and How the Whale Got His Throat. These were charming diversions which not even the stupidest child could mistake for natural history.
Animals continued to dominate children’s fiction. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit was first published commercially in 1902, introducing generations of children to the daring exploits of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows followed in 1908 with its four protagonists, Mole, Rat (actually a water vole), Mr. Toad, and Mr. Badger defending their waterside idyll against the incursions of weasel, stoat, and ferret. Whereas Potter’s Peter is rabbit through and through, Grahame’s characters are anthropomorphic representations of Edwardian society which, as critics saw it, reflected the author’s own anxieties about a changing world in which women and machines were threatening the social order. Then in 1920 came Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle, which was uncompromisingly on the side of the animals. Dolittle kept mice in his piano, rabbits in his pantry, a squirrel in the airing cupboard. He learned to speak with animals, rescued sick monkeys in Africa and brought back the fabulous pushmi-pullyu, a vaguely gazelle-like creature with a head at each end of its body. It is not a book that requires much decoding: Dolittle’s message was simple. Animals are not to be persecuted or locked up in zoos. They are to be marvelled at, cherished, and understood.
The Teddy Bear reclaimed the limelight in 1926 when A. A. Milne transformed his son Christopher Robin’s stuffed toys into Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Tigger, and Eeyore. Three years earlier a very different kind of creature had stepped out into the woods. The Austro-Hungarian author Felix Salten’s Bambi: A Forest Life placed a fawn into a peaceful forest suddenly plunged into blood and disorder by men with guns. This became hugely controversial when Walt Disney laid hands on it in 1942. Typically of the cartoon genre, it spooned large helpings of syrup over Salten’s thoroughly grown-up novel and added a generous topping of whimsy. But the one thing that remained unchanged was the villain: the upright creature with the fatal third arm. As the heirs of Theodore Roosevelt saw it, this was nature fakery at its most dangerous, the repudiation of man’s natural and noble instinct to hunt to the death.
A year after Bambi, in 1927, came Tarka the Otter. Henry Williamson’s still unsurpassed classic combined poetic imagination with close observation of a wild animal in its natural surroundings. While naturalistic fictions like these have done much to correct the myths of the fabulists, the ancient stereotypes—cunning fox, wise owl, and all the rest—still distort our perceptions not only of other species but also of ourselves and our place in the world. To properly redress the balance we should perhaps turn to the heirs of Aristotle rather than the heirs of Aesop. In Mama’s Last Hug the world’s leading primatologist, Frans de Waal, delivers a coup de grace to the notion of human exceptionalism. In holding up a mirror to the chimpanzee, he shows us a clear reflection of our own emotional selves. Whether in fact or in fiction, one can ask no more of a book than that.