Animals in Literature

We need animals not only as mirrors in order to see ourselves clearly but so that our minds may become more beautiful by the sight of them. It’s a paradox. We need our animal kin so that our spirits and imaginations can be most fully human.
Christie Dickason

I’m going to offer a broad outline of animals in literature here and will be focusing on animals in children’s literature in my next post.  Inevitably there will be cross overs but animals feature so heavily in books for children that I feel it needs its own space and exploration.

We talk to them, for them and about them so it is inevitable that animals will find themselves in our stories as well.

Animals feature in literature over and over and in many shapes and forms.  They are found in starring roles in Aesop’s fables from around 500BC through to modern day novels as well as in poetry and fairy tales and plays and many other guises.  They can feature in stories which are comic, or mysterious, or tragic or surreal or political…  Instead of filling line after line with examples of animals in literature, I want to look at how they feature and why they feature in our literature.

Retrospectively, literature can tell us about changing trends, relationships and interactions that humans have with animals.  We have writing that communicates the experience of animals and their suffering, writing that creates a more intimate relationship with animals and writing that unpicks the complex feelings we have about animals and the relationships we form with them.  At different points in time, we would write differently about these things and thus language and writing evolve as we do.

We know from Claude Levi-Strauss that animals are good to think with, but why is this so?  In some sense it is probably because they have always surrounded us and so our thinking, our view of the world and our way of speaking has been informed by them.  They act as comparisons to humans in a world where it is hard to find anything close to our species; drawing similarities and differences as a way of defining ourselves and mirroring our traits.


Our language is so filled with animal metaphors that we often don’t even see them.  “She’s got herself in a flap”, you might comment, without a single thought of the bird and her wings.

Metaphors are highly effective linguistic tools which we associate with verbal or written language but they can also be found in gesture and imagery.  They allow the user to convey something in a more image-centric way, they are used as short hand and as codes. They convey information rapidly and can be used to manipulate thinking.  For example, we know that if a character is described as being built like an ox they are strong and bulky and solid.  But further to this, we might start to speculate about their nonphysical nature, perhaps this character is reliable and dependable and grounded or headstrong.

To use metaphor cuts out a lot of descriptive language, but more than that, research has shown that metaphors spark the emotional part of our brains in a way that other language doesn’t.  The talk I watched about metaphors gave the example of someone coming home from work and saying she had a bad day vs she had a rough day.  Now rough day is very entrenched in our language, it’s normal and we don’t think her day was actually rough, and what would that mean unless she worked on a boat?  But the version with rough day, the metaphorical version, showed more brain activity in the person listening than bad day.  And as a writer, isn’t evoking emotion exactly what we want to do?

A metaphor triggers indirect evaluation and invites inferences, both tactics used in persuasion and hence the strong use of metaphors in advertising.  Because metaphors are not explained explicitly, their use also creates shared knowledge – in BSL the sign for metaphor is apparently actually “exchanging your minds”.  This brings the speakers, or reader and writer, closer.  You have this moment where you are both understanding something without speaking directly of it and this bonds you.

As well as using animal metaphors to describe non animal entities in literature, we can also see animals themselves starring in writing as the metaphor themselves.  For example, in little red riding hood, the wolf is not just a wolf, it is a metaphor for all that the wolf stands for.  To tell the same story in a culture where wolves are symbolic of different traits and a metaphor for something else entirely would to be to change the story itself.  Metaphors, being culturally specific, are apparently one of the hardest parts of a language to learn.  They do not translate literally. For example, it’s a dog’s life has a literal equivalent in Romanian but instead of meaning it’s easy, it means it’s full of hardship and deprivation.

Before I look at non-metaphorical animals, I just wanted to share some animal similes which are apparently used mostly in Yorkshire:

  • As happy as a pig in muck
  • As drunk as a newt
  • As gormless as a sucking duck
  • As quick as an eel
  • As sick as a Cleethorpes donkey

You can also get a sense of the huge scope for animals as metaphors in my animal spirit posts – each card contains an image of one animal and yet the breadth of interpretation is vast.

Anthropomorphism scale

Other than as metaphors, a key use of animals in literature is as characters. And these characters sit somewhere along what I am calling the anthropomorphism scale.  At one end, we have animals as they actually are, doing animal things and not subject to projection from us.  At the other end, we have animals which are essentially human. They are off to work in their suit and tie and driving their car and getting married and having babies.  The latter are used a lot in children’s literature, although not exclusively, so I shall consider them mostly in a later post.  For now, I just want to echo Rowland’s observation and add that writing anthropomorphically about animals in human roles allows us to discuss human issues with more distance.

“Writing about animals – certainly, when they are used as metaphors or representations – is simply writing about humans that is carried out by other means”
– Mark Rowlands

For the animals which tend to be portrayed more as themselves we find an array of species and roles.  There can be pets which are used to tell us about a character through how they treat the pet.  We have reams of poems which are about nature and hence include the animals around us, the swallows and the squirrels we find in our parks through to the tiger from Blake’s famous verse.

There are also stories told from the animal’s perspective but which are still mostly animal like.  For example, Tarka the Otter which I’m going to consider in a separate post.  When writing about animals as themselves, authors get to play around with the range of noises and sounds that they make and this in turn can add atmosphere to writing and tell us about the character without making the character speak.  There are also biographies of animals and stories in which animals are alongside the main characters but still pay a key part.

Including animals in literature gives authors more characters to play with and more imaginative fodder.  There is also great scope for illustrations which can be more playful and more interesting than human focused images.  I don’t know if there is any evidence, but it feels like we would remember characters differently if they were non human.  Think back to your childhood reading, how many characters can you recall?  How many of those are animals?

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