Fantasy literature is essentially characterised by its medieval imagery, its archetypal princes and princesses and castles, magic and witches and sorcerers, but what would fantasy literature really be without its lot of fantastic or mythological creatures, its extraordinary animals? Dragons, horses or orcs are part of the traditional animals associated to fantasy.
Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, an American novelist, under the pen names of Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm, has made of animals, characters in their own rights. She somehow regenerated a genre which generally only allows its heroes to have magic and super-powers.
In the Farseer Trilogy, without his animal companion, the man is not much. FitzChivalry Farseer, the main character and hero, is raised to be a royal assassin and serve his King "in the shadows". While his duty is to defend his king and kill if necessary, what gives him some humanity and sensitivity, what redeems him from being an assassin (even though a royal one), what saves him from his failures is his bond to his wolf, Nighteyes.
Nighteyes was just a wolf cub when he and Fitz met. Captured by a mean merchant and held in a small cage, he was severely mistreated and hardly given any food or water. Fitz freed the abused little wolf and the pair of them slowly began to tame and trust one another, slowly getting to love each other.
Fitz possesses the Wit, a magic also called the Old Blood, which allows the ones who have it to be sensitive to all living beings and enables them to bond with an animal. Because the Wit is misunderstood, it is despised, and Fitz and Nighteyes have to hide from prejudiced people that they have become Witpartners, including Burrich, the stableman and man at arms, who raised Fitz on behalf of Fitz’s father, the King-In-Waiting Chivalry.
The wolf is Fitz’s inseparable companion. Although based on affection and mutual respect, their bond goes beyond companionship and in many ways, the wolf is the teacher. Childish and selfish in his relationships with humans, Fitz is growing because of his relationship with his Witpartner. Courageous and good-humoured, Nighteyes is the counter-balance to Fitz’s bitterness and cowardice. Without his friend, the human character is less than himself. His Wit partner completes him, grounds him, leads him and teaches him to survive no matter what, pushes him beyond his limits. The wolf challenges Fitz.
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Fitz is a hero who does not have enough power or strength by himself to win over the villain – his uncle Regal. He is not a superhero. He survives a poisoning but is left debilitated and Nighteyes is the one who makes Fitz trust again after he is left betrayed and crippled. Nighteyes also saves Fitz after he is left for dead and buried by allowing him to leave his dying human body and join with him using the Wit. And although he only appears in the second volume of the trilogy, to me, Nighteyes is the hero.
Robin Hobb’s strength is to tell us a tale in which the hero, the saviour, is an animal.
In the stand-alone novel Cloven Hooves, published under her other pen-name Megan Lindholm, she also gives prevalence to a two-person team made of a human and an animal. In this case, a faun and Evelyn, a solitary child, who play together in the woods. Many years later, Evelyn is a married woman and a mother. Unhappy, unsatisfied by her life, she meets again her childhood friend, Pan, now an adult satyr. When her life is turned upside down by a tragedy that leaves her troubled marriage beyond repair, Evelyn follows Pan for an epic adventure in the Alaskan woods.
Once again, the companionship of the human character with the mythological creature comes to fill in a gap in the human’s life. And whether Pan is real or a creature living only in Evelyn’s mind, he allows Evelyn to reveal herself, to become what she ignored she could be or do. The satyr opens a door to another life for Evelyn. Even though Evelyn is lacking audacity, courage and self-confidence, Pan somehow leads her to take charge of herself.
Megan Lindholm’s approach to animals in her novels is that they are catalysts. For one, they are the catalyst to a magical gift, for the other, to overcome grief. Each time the human is childish or weak, it is their encounter with the animal, the wolf, the faun, the satyr that forces them to go beyond themselves and grow.
In these fantasy tales, real or mythological beasts are somehow the better part, showing sensibility when the human character is led by its emotions, revealing strength when the human is weak, and therefore saving them. The animals replace what has been lost or never existed in the human they are bonded to. They represent a link between Man and Nature and equally interact with both when the human protagonists are lacking this faculty to communicate with either.
If symbolically, the pair animal/human may mean we should be able to live by our emotions and thoughts, what I particularly liked in Robin Hobb’s novels is that the animal/human partnership conveys a positive view of partnerships in general. Such pairings show easy and honest communication and deep relationships which better both parts. They complete each other, making them stronger and able to face the challenges ahead. And this contributes to the victory of the good, the positive, making reading a fantasy novel a good positive moment.