Sentience   6 comments

Do pets (or other animals) play an important part in your books? Tell us about them.

Joy from Daermad Cycle

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A Storied History

Growing up, I loved books where animals played a key role. Apparently, the Pokey Little Puppy was my favorite book as toddler. The second book I ever read for myself was My Friend Flicka, which features a horse. By the end of that year, I’d read the entire series which focuses on horses, set on a Wyoming ranch. I spent a lot of evenings with my children reading the Chronicles of Narnia and Watership Down (which my husband and I are now watching on film). In Animal Farm, George Orwell used animals to symbolize well-known humans who were responsible for the tragedy that was the USSR at the time, and gave us a timeless tale of what happens when we overthrow flawed but functional systems without considering the consequences.

Animals play a historic role in literature and in my books.

Meet Joy, Sabre and Hawk

In Daermad Cycle (a high fantasy), psychically gifted people can bond with sentient animals. Padraig bonded to Joy, a beautiful sorrel mare, who has a great sense of humor and frequently challenges her Companion to be better as a sentient being. She provides Padraig with transportation, but she backs him up in battles and has adventures of her own. She can talk to ordinary animals and sometimes gathers intelligence for her human who is tasked with finding the One’s True King.

Joy’s not alone as a sentient animal. Sabre bonded to Ryanna, a half-elven sorceress. Sabre is a dog and, as with Joy, I try to fashion his persona as a dog might think. In the third book, which I am currently writing, Sabre and Ryanna are separated and I’m working on showing the mourning of a dog when its human leaves it.

Other characters in the series have similar bondings and these animals play critical roles in the narrative. And, the Big Bad in the series is a Celtic goddess who has some sort of psychic connection with a raven.

Meet Rocket, Mocha, Glister & Bell

In Transformation Project (day-after-tomorrow apocalyptic), ordinary pets also play important roles in the story. They’re companions, partners, sources of stress relief, occasionally the sacrificial hero. They don’t have the gifts of Companions in the other series, but they are loyal and loving and their humans rely on their fulfilling their part of the partnership. Rocket is one of several horses and the only one I’ve, so far, given a personality. I modeled her after a Mustang that a friend had that was a wild one. Mocha is a chocolate Lab who keeps the Lufgren Farm herds safe. Glister, a yellow Lab (and Mocha’s littermate) lives the life of a pet, but is often companion to members of the Delaney family. Bell the cat appears to fur Shane’s pillow and keep the rodent population down.

Although farm animals generally aren’t given names in the series (in keeping with the farm practices of Midwest American farmers), their existence is often credited with families surviving the winter.

Animals Highlight Our Humanity

The representation of animals in literature has a long and venerable history. Animal characters play defining roles in fables, which are among the oldest narrative genres. Western poetry is replete with animal metaphors and imagery. Even realistic fiction relies on animals to achieve a wide range of rhetorical effects. Disney films, particularly when Walt still influenced the studio, focused largely on anthropomorphized animals. In most cases, animals in western literature reflect human characteristics designed to teach some moral lesson or principles.

Humans struggle to see ourselves reflected in the mirror. It’s hard to see ourselves as we are. More, we struggle to see our heroes and enemies as who they really are. If Orwell had written Animal Farm with human characters, it might well have been ill-received. He understood that there were forces within his own culture who had very skewed views of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin. He’d have been shouted down for warning against the men the Fabian socialists in charge of his government viewed as heroes. So he allegorized the Russian Revolution where the tsarist autocracy was pushed out and the Bolsheviks came into power, followed by the slow betrayal of the revolution by its supporters under Joseph Stalin. Orwell told a farmyard story, casting revolutionary leaders Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin as pigs who rebel against the tsar-like farmer Mr. Jones. The animals form a cooperative and the pigs exploit them anew, for the pigs’ benefit, not unlike Mr. Jones. When Orwell wrote the book at the end of World War 2, the USSR was being hailed by Allied forces (especially the British) for its decisive victories over Nazi Germany in Stalingrad and Kursk. Orwell’s story seemed insulting of an ally, so publishing houses rejected it. And, yet is was a runaway success when it was finally released and helped lead to the dissolution of wartime alliances that were allowing Stalin to further abuse both the peoples of the USSR and eastern Europe. It is not unlike how the elites of our day try to control public sentiment by what information they sanction and what they allow into the public square, but when information gets past the censors, the public is able to discern truth from fiction.

Despite the characters being animals, Animal Farm reflects humanity in all our messiness, hyperbole, and abusiveness. But the story would never have made it past the publication houses if Orwell had written a more realistic tale.

Similarly, CS Lewis used the animals of Narnia to teach Christian principles to a public that thought (and still thinks) itself to sophisticated to accept the gospel message straight up.

Not Orwell or Lewis

I’m not Orwell or Lewis. I do, however, seek to convey messages within my stories in similar ways. I can admire these writers without trying to emulate them. I’m not a hugely symbolic writer. I’ve never been a fan of literary analysis where people who didn’t write the book try to tell us what archetypes the characters fulfill. I applauded when both Heinlein and Bradbury came out and said the literary analysts had it all wrong about their stories. Does anyone really think the character of Jode (a violent manslaughterer) in Grapes of Wrath was written as an allegory of Jesus Christ? Yeah, we were all taught that in high school lit class, but if you are familiar with Jesus Christ from the Bible, it’s a hard metaphor to swallow. While Steinbeck may have written Jode to fulfill that role, the metaphor hits so far of the model that the analysis ruins reading an otherwise well-written tale.

I avoid symbolic writing for that reason. It’s too easily manipulated by later analysis of people who see everything as archetypes. That doesn’t mean I don’t have messages within my stories. I just prefer to be plain about it. So when I sat down to write Daermad Cycle, knowing that Joy would be a pivotal character, I decided she wouldn’t be symbolic. She’s a real horse and, while I do anthropomorphize her a bit because who really knows what horses think, I chose to make her a character rather than a metaphor.

Animals play critical roles in all of our lives, so of course they should appear in our writing as important characters. While Joy and the sentient animals of Daermad can “speak” to their Companions, ordinary animals in a less speculative setting can still be important family members who enrich a story with their presence.

6 responses to “Sentience

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  1. My Drogan’s actions are based in part on the attitude of the times in which the novels are set. “This animal is dangerous, it defends itself when attacked.” Yet once it’s life is understood, it reveals a far more interesting story than you might guess.

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    • I suspect that’s true of almost all human-animal interactions. In the Lower 48, they hunted wolves almost to extinction because, rightfully, farmers and ranchers thought wolves were hunting their livestock. There’s ways to prevent that, but they didn’t know that until much later.

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  2. there’s a lot we can learn from animals if we first learn to listen to them.

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    • Yes! We’ve been blessed with some very cool animals in our lives. Even Friday, who was a very naughty husky, taught us a lot, though we frequently considered leaving her in the wilderness after many of her lessons.

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  3. I have one apocalyptic novel in which a dog, mouse, plays a very big part as she is the male leads partner.

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  4. You never know, you may yet achieve the lofty heights of Orwell or Lewis. Animals highlight our humanity, that was actually the exact wording I was searching for when I wrote my own post. Very true words.

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