- beast epics
- speaking animals
Animals in literature are, for the most part, humans in disguise, or anthropomorphic. As Jan M. Ziolkowski writes, “beasts override genre.” Fables and fairy tales are genres, but beast literature is not.
Fables and Beast Epics
However, although beasts override genre, speaking animals are associated first with fables, such as Æsop’s Fables and Jean de La Fontaine’s, and, second, with beast epics, such as Reynard the Fox, or Le Roman de Renart, which narrows a much broader area of knowledge. Anthropomorphic animals are humans in disguise. In the Roman de Renart, all animals have a name. In fact, Renart was so popular that foxes ceased to be called goupils in French. They became renards. Reynard the Fox is entitled Le Roman de Renart, where renard is spelled with a “t.” Renart is a trickster whose nemesis is the wolf named Ysengrin.
Le Roman de Renart, a French beast epic, is rooted in the Ysengrimus, a lengthy Latin mock-epic: 6,574 lines of elegiac couplets, written in 1148-1149 and attributed to Nivardus of Ghent. In the Isengrimus, Renart is Reinardus and will become the most famous and beloved animal in European beast literature. Renard is the fox of the “Fox and Crow” and other “fox” fables. In fact, the Roman de Renart, the first “branches” of which were written in the late twelfth century by Pierre de Saint-Cloud, is an outer fable containing inner fables (Ausserfabel and Innerfabeln), including Æsopic fables. Æsopic fables preceded the Roman de Renart by a more than a thousand years.
- “dire sans dire”
- George Orwell
The main characteristic of anthropomorphic animals is their ability to speak a human language. Animals are very useful to writers because, when all said and done, animals have not said a thing. Jean de La Fontaine’s (1621-1695) fables have been described as a “dire-sans-dire” (to say without saying). They are “enveloped” tales, writes German scholar Jürgen Grimm. Therefore, anthropomorphism is an oblique literary discourse, a fiction within a fiction.
Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (27 January 1826 – 10 May 1889) first used the word Aesopian to describe a language unclear to outsiders, thereby allowing authors to say what they please with relative impunity. In 1945, George Orwell wrote an allegorical novella entitled Animal Farm. His animals are humans in disguise, hence their saying what they will not have said. Their own tongue is a language, but it is not a human language. Babe, the protagonist, a piglet, of a 1995 Australian film directed by Chris Noonan and produced by George Miller, is an anthropomorphic animal. The film is an adaptation of Dick King-Smith‘s 1983 novel: The Sheep-Pig.
La Fontaine did make each of his animals speak, but he also emphasized the power of fiction, in which he may have further distanced his speaking animals. In the Preface to his first collection of fables, books one to six, La Fontaine notes that Jesus of Nazareth spoke in parables. Parables are stories and, as such, they empower speech. To illustrate the power of stories, La Fontaine’s wrote a fable entitled Le Pouvoir des fables (VIII.4). It contains an inner fable about a speaker the people of Athens would not listen to until he turned to fiction, a story about Cerēs, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The moral of the “Power of Fables” is that we are all Athenians. La Fontaine writes that if Donkeyskin, a fairy tale, was told to him, it would give him enormous pleasure. The world is old, writes the fabulist, yet it is like a child we must amuse.
Moreover, a story is pleasurable and is not easily forgotten.
Nous sommes tous d’Athène en ce point, et moi-même,
Au moment où je fais cette moralité,
Si Peau d’âne m’était conté,
J’y prendrais un plaisir extrême.
Le monde est vieux, dit-on, je le crois; cependant
Il faut l’amuser encor comme un enfant.
Le Pouvoir des fables (VIII.4)
We’re all from Athens in this point of view, And I myself, while moralizing too
If I the tale of the Ass-skin should hear, I’d listen to it with a well-pleased ear.
The world is old, they say; I own it-still
We must sometimes indulge its childish will.
The Power of Fables (VIII.4)
It should be noted, however, that La Fontaine believed in a “boundless universe,” where tout parle, everything speaks, which is anthropomorphism.
Car tout parle dans l’Univers;
Il n’est rien qui n’ait son langage.
For in this boundless universe
Ther’s none that talketh, simpleton or sage
More eloquent at home than in my verse.
Everything does speak. For instance, Milo Winter‘s illustrations for “The North Wind [Boreas] and the Sun” (“Phoebus and Boreas”) constitutes an example of elements, the wind and the sun, who speak as though they were humans. In short, anthropomorphism resembles a form of personification, which it is in “Phoebus and Boreas .”
Zoomorphism: les Hybrides
- composite animals or hybrid creatures
- mythological and mythical animals
- aetiological texts
- giving animal features to anything (e. g. furniture)
Zoomorphism is a more complex concept than anthropomorphism and may be the reverse of anthropomorphism. Mythologies and myths are home to zoomorphic animals that combine the features of a human and an animal or the features of many animals. The centaur of Greek mythology is part human and part beast. Centaurs have the lower body of a horse, but the upper body of a human.
The Minotaur is the offspring of Pasiphaë, the wife of Cretan king Minos and the Cretan bull. He is part human and part bull and so evil a creature that he is kept in a labyrinth built by Daedalus. He is slain by Theseus who finds his way through the labyrinth using Ariadne‘s thread. These two hybrid creatures, the centaur and the Minotaur may hold a mirror to mankind’s duality. Humans possess a mortal body and an immortal soul.
However, mythology also features composite animals. Cerberus, the vigilant dog guarding the gates to the Underworld is a three-headed dog. J. K. Rowling used Cerberus in her Harry Potter series. Her fifth book in the Harry Potter series is entitled Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Mythological animals have long inhabited the human psyche and are therefore somewhat familiar to readers. To my knowledge, no one escapes Cerberus’ attention, except Psyche. (See Cupid and Psyche, Wikipedia.) Pegasus, the winged horse, is also a well-known mythological being.
Mythologies are origin myths or aetiological. The Bible itself, the Scriptures or “the Word,” could be described as an aetiological text. It features fanciful angels who are human-like but have wings. In Greek mythology, for instance, animals have a lineage or a pedigree, as is the case with the above-mentioned Minotaur. In the growingly popular area of children’s literature, aetiological tales are called “Pourquoi” tales. The most famous example of a “Pourquoi” tale is Rudyard Kipling‘s (30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936) Just so stories.
Zoomorphic beasts may also be symbols. As mentioned above, those who mix the features of a human being may reflect the fall of mankind. Besides, an anthropomorphic serpent talked to Eve.
Mythologies and Myths
J. K. Rowling used not only Cerberus but the Phoenix, a symbol of rebirth. Symbolic beasts are mostly mythical rather than mythological, but readers and scholars tend to blur that line. The distinguishing criterion would be lineage. By and large, mythological beasts, such as the above-mentioned Minotaur and centaurs have a pedigree.
Mostly mythical animals are the phoenix, the unicorn, the dragon, the griffin and the irresistible Sirens, mermaids mostly. Mermaids have the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish. These legendary beings may make an appearance in mythologies, but they are somewhat ubiquitous and often transcultural. The phoenix has often been described as a mythological animal and he has a story as does the Unicorn, but he does not possess the Minotaur’s lineage.
The dragon is our most ubiquitous imaginary animal and may be good or bad depending on his environment. In the West he is bad, but not so in the East. Unicorns and Sirens are also transcultural. These mythical animals are zoomorphic, but, in Medieval Bestiary, they are symbols.
- The dragon‘s characteristics change from culture to culture. He is feared in the West, but not in China.
- The griffin, shown at the top of this post, a lion mostly, with the head of an eagle, is a guardian. In antiquity, he was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.
- The unicorn has one horn and plays various roles from culture to culture. In Western culture, he is emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage.
- Given that he rises from his own ashes, the phoenix is a symbol of rebirth and very popular.
The word zoomorphic is also used to describe pieces of furniture and architectural elements. For instance, the legs of wing chairs often imitate the feet of an animal. Besides wing chairs have wings. Among architectural element, the animal-like Gargoyle is a favourite. He is a waterspout with an open mouth. Bas-reliefs (shallow carvings on a flat surface, such as a wall) may also contain animal-like architectural elements. They embellish buildings. All animal-like creatures inhabiting the medieval bestiary are allegorical or symbolic.
- therianthropic beasts
Both the terms anthropomorphism and zoomorphism include morphism. Morphism suggests a metamorphosis, or a transformation in a being’s appearance, which may be a wish human beings share, just as they share the wish to fly. Roman writer Ovid (20 March 43 BCE – CE 17/18) is the author of the extremely influential Metamorphoses and Berber Latin writer Apuleius (c. 124 – c. 170 CE) wrote The Golden Ass, which contains the lovely tale of Cupid and Psyche. Lucius, the protagonist of The Golden Ass, is mistakenly transformed into an ass when attempting to be transformed into a bird.
Beast literature features therianthropic animals, who are the victims of a curse. Beast in Beauty and the Beast is a therianthropic being. Enchantment is central to fairy tales. But shapeshifting animals bring to mind the werewolf (le loup-garou), a lycanthrope, rather than fairy tales.
Animals as Types
In the Preface to his translation of Æsop’s Fables, John Fyler Townsend writes that animals are types, much like the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte.
The introduction of the animals or fictitious characters should be marked with care and attention to their natural attributes, and to the qualities attributed to them by universal popular consent. The Fox should be always cunning, the Hare timid, the Lion bold, the Wolf cruel, the Bull strong, the Horse proud, and the Ass patient. [EBook #21]
Zoomorphic animals are not types. However, there is a commonality between animals and humans, Darwinism is a subject we will not discuss. Mythical and mythological animals may be up to no good, but they are not mutating. Moreover, I consider totemism, animal ancestry, the preserve of anthropologists.
Beast literature is a huge topic. We cannot escape any of the categories mentioned in this post. Yet, anthropomorphism is its chief characteristics because of the prominence of fables and the Roman de Renart, Reynard the Fox. One could define the usefulness of anthropomorphic animals by using Gertrude Stein‘s a rose is a rose is a rose.
Well, at the end of the day, a fox is a fox is a fox, therein the wizardry of a large part of beast literature. However, we remember the story. Dear La Fontaine.
- Greek Myths and Graffiti Murals, collaboration with Resa McConagy (La Audacia de Aquiles)
- Greek Myths and Graffiti Murals, collaboration with Resa McConagy (La Audacia de Aquiles)
[I] Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750 – 1150 (The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 1.
[II] Jean Batany, Scène et coulisses du « Roman de Renart » (Paris: Cedes, 1989), p. 57.
© Micheline Walker
6 March 2017