Do animals talk? Should animals talk?
Every time I sit down to write a new children’s book, I ask myself this very question. As a slightly animal-obsessed writer, I can’t imagine a good children’s tale that doesn’t involve beasts from the natural world. I’ve approached the question from different angles; in The Mouse in the Menagerie, the mouse Delilah is the story’s narrator, so giving her the ability to speak is essential. In Substitute Chicken, part of the comedy derives from the fact that the chicken only communicates in squawks and clucks, and somehow the children can still understand her. I am planning to incorporate at least one intelligent animal into Nicholas Dark: Boy Pirate, (a rat, I’m sure you’re surprised to hear) and perhaps more in other upcoming books and stories.
To approach this topic from a wider perspective, I have compiled a short list of animals in literature, movies and television and analyzed their use or non-use of sentient or talking animals. Yes, the list is incomplete; I haven’t consumed every animal-related media in the universe by any stretch of the imagination, but hopefully I can shed some light on the topic.
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems
Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov
How the Leopard Got His Spots, Rudyard Kipling
The Unlikely Ones, Mary Brown
Lady and the Tramp, Disney
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Dreamworks
Homeward Bound, Disney
Ren and Stimpy, Nickelodeon
Rocco’s Modern Life, Nickelodeon
Courage the Cowardly Dog, Cartoon Network
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, CBS
The first thing you’ll notice about this list is that the Television group is rather anemic when compared to Books and Movies. I discovered this when perusing my memory, the memories of a few friends and family, and the internet: television rarely features animals as main characters, and when they do, they are often stupid, smart-alecks, or all of the above. In fact, rarely are stories told about animals on the television front outside the usual National Geographic, NOVA, or Animal Planet documentary.
I want to talk about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because it highlights an interesting element of the talking animal phenomenon: the mutated/superhero/abnormal animal scenario, where the creative license to write talking animals is granted by the story itself. In this case, the average turtle or rat is granted human speech along with other human attributes (wisdom, ninja fighting, an all-consuming love of pizza) when they are transformed by Shredder’s green ooze.
This theme is taken to the extreme by Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, where the narrator, a stray dog living in Soviet Russia, is transformed by the machinations of an evil, anti-communist genius into a human. While our hero is the dog Sharik, and the story is spoken by Sharik, he does not speak in human language until the scientist performs his heinous surgery.
So here, there is an action on the part of the story that grants speech. The narrative is richer for it; the dog observes the Russian political activity from the unique perspective of a downtrodden animal. But what about those animals that are inherently given speech?
Let’s look at George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I know some of you are going to shout about how wrong it is to lump a political allegory in with Charlotte’s Web, but I’m fine with that. That is exactly the point of this conversation: what does granting an animal speech allow us, as writers, to accomplish? In the case of Animal Farm, the animals are still animals, despite the ability to speak. Without speech, the allegory would never occur at all.
Babe, the story of a pig who dreams of being a sheepdog, also uses animal speech to grant life to the story and propel the plot forward. The humans in the story are oblivious to the animal speech. It exists only to provide the animals a method of communication with one another that can easily be recorded on film. Babe has a story to tell, and this is the best way to tell it.
In the same way Lady and the Tramp, Homeward Bound, Ratatouille and Courage the Cowardly Dog give animals speech in order to facilitate interaction among non-human characters. This interaction is essential or pivotal to the story, so animal speech cannot be avoided to tell the story the way it was meant to be told. Though not all stories starring animal characters demand this creative concession.
I want to focus on a few gems in the world of animal literature and media: Charlotte’s Web, How the Leopard Got His Spots, Spirit and Beethoven.
In Charlotte’s Web, we have a mixture of both types of animal speech: speech that can be understood by humans, and speech that cannot be understood by humans. These seemingly binary interactions with people are facilitated by the spider Charlotte. She interacts with Wilbur (a pig destined for the chopping block) with non-human speech, but communicates with humans on Wilbur’s behalf by weaving written words in her spiderweb.
I almost put another E.B. White book on this list before I decided it would look a little biased on my part, but I think that bias is well-earned: E.B. White was also the author of Stuart Little, a book that has reigned as a childhood classic for years. Stuart Little makes human-and-talking-animal interaction strangely beautiful and natural in a way no other media has before. It even melds animal and human culture. There are plenty of stories where a human discovers an animal can speak, such as The Tale of Desperaux, but few where it is a given that animals can talk, and where an animal can be as much a part of our lives as any human could.
Now I don’t know about you, but the Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling were a staple of my childhood. My favorite story was always How the Leopard Got His Spots, replete with gorgeous illustrations of the Ethiopian and the Leopard hunting for game in the forest. Now, the story goes that the Ethiopian and the Leopard needed to blend in once their game fled the great plains, so the Ethiopian changed his skin to black and, using all five of his fingers, used what was leftover to make little black spots all over the Leopard’s body. Thus, the Leopard became a spotted beast.
Humans and animals can often communicate naturally in parables and fairy tales like these. In Rudyard Kipling’s universe, talking animals are in no way strange; often times, these stories couldn’t progress without this device.
There are also non-speaking methods of communication between human and animal—something we encounter every day in the real world. In Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, an animated classic by Dreamworks Pictures to rival many of Disney’s past successes, the wild stallion narrates his story but cannot speak. It’s an odd combination of characteristics, where the horse is still a horse, and the human is still a human, but we still get the tale from Spirit’s perspective. There are powerful bonds of friendship forged despite the fact Spirit cannot talk in a human’s voice, which I feel makes them even more powerful.
Most of you probably don’t have the same fond memories of growing up with the movie Beethoven that I do, but this movie goes to the next step after Spirit: Beethoven does not speak nor narrate, and yet long sequences pass where we can undoubtedly feel what the dog feels.
This is masterful storytelling. While talking animals have their place in fairy tales and political allegories, telling a character’s story without ever seeing that character’s thoughts or hearing that character’s voice requires a special kind of writing. The story must be illustrated with words, sounds, imagery and emotion.
That is not an easy thing to do, but it strikes a deep chord.