Growing up, I went through a brief Redwall phase, reading and enjoying the animal-only world that Brian Jacques created. Looking back on it now, I realise it's a truly bizarre universe. Mallory Ortberg in The Toast has done an excellent dissection of the many ways in which it is strange, which I strongly recommend reading as it is hilarious. Something that also bothered me were the animals' accents:
1. Why do the moles all speak with West Country accents? Are they genuinely from a different geographic location that means they have this accent?
2. Why do all the hares speak in a posh 1920s manner? Are they genuinely all from the landed gentry class? Are they all from the home counties?
3. If the first two points are true (and I believe they are, as in the book Salamandastron, Thrugg the otter travels north and all the birds speak in Scottish accents), is Redwall some kind of London-esque melting pot? The land of immigrants, where all the different animal species live in harmony?
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The misuse of animals in fantasy
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Oh except of course, not all the animal species live in harmony. I think the point at which the series lost me was when I re-read Redwall, the book in which the mice of the Abbey take in Chickenhound the fox and are kind to him - yet he betrays them and kills Methuselah the wise old mouse. I realised that the book was saying to me the equivalent of that ridiculous story in which an old lady nurses an injured snake back to health, and then he kills her in return. "Lady, you knew I was a snake when you brought me in." You are what you are, and you can't change that. This is not true, and it irritates me when different species are given different personality traits that seem to be ingrained in their DNA, something I mostly blame on Tolkien and his arrogant, wise elves and evil orcs.
Because in the Redwall series, pretty much ALL the animals are vermin according to normal human standards. Yet in the books the rats, weasels and foxes are always evil but the mice and badgers are good? Essentialism isn't a good thing and it's rife throughout Redwall, and it crops up in other uses of animals too.
It's a sticking point for me in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, which I find a shame, as I love the books and we recommend them in this issue's Bookshelf. I don't have anything against the idea of daemons – create whatever fantasy world you like – but what bothers me is the part in the first book, where Pullman explains that servants at Oxford mostly have different species of dogs as their daemons. Because dogs are loyal and obedient with training, one presumes. It also bothers me that people's daemons are in a state of flux until puberty, at which point they take just one form. If they are a representation of one's spirit, or soul, then why does it crystalise at that age? If you didn't know that you wanted to be a butler or a chambermaid or work in customer service, would you feel compelled to if at 13, your daemon morphed into a collie, never to change again? I just wish Pullman hadn't included this aspect of it - have animal spirit shapes, sure! Go wild! But don't imply that there are personality traits embedded in them.
It's a bit like the sorting hat in Harry Potter, or indeed the Patronus animal shapes of that world. Are children, on the brink of puberty, really that easy to read? I'm just not sure there are only four types of people in the world. And as this excellent spoken word poem by Rachel Rostad points out - it can be a bit racist too. Of course Cho Chang is in Ravenclaw. I'm surprised her patronus isn't a mystical dragon.
My gripe with Redwall, with that aspect of the daemons in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and with any kind of essentialist categorisation of people is that it is reductive. Why is there a need to divide people up? I think as well as blaming Tolkien and his different fantasy species and different characteristics, it's the fault of astrology too. I'm a Leo. I'm a water dog in the Chinese system. Sometimes I'm brave, sometimes I'm loyal, but certainly not because of those things. Sometimes I'm cowardly and sometimes I'm traitorous. Because people are!
Yet there's something attractive about the idea that you're so individual that you can be represented by a cool animal. Hands up everyone who's done an Internet quiz. What's Your Spirit Animal? What Would Your Daemon Be? What Would Your Patronus Be? I got elephant, which I'm both pleased and disappointed with. Elephants are intelligent and long-lived. Yet huge (are you calling me fat?), probably smelly and I'd have to have a giant house. I definitely can't afford a giant house on my wages.
Everyone secretly hopes that their spirit animal, their daemon, their Patronus would be a stag, or a puma, or a golden eagle, despite how impractical that would be. But what if you got a jellyfish as a daemon? You'd have to live in a beach hut. And what would it say about your personality? And what if you got a mouse? Sorry, Brian Jacques, but I'm not sure if there's any difference in how I feel about mice or rats, badgers or weasels. Give me the random animal familiars of Lauren Beukes' Zoo City any day. You get stuck with a sloth or butterfly - nothing to do with who you are or what your personality is like. You just have an animal buddy to hang out with, which is what I want. No reductionism, no essentialism, just people (or abbey dwelling animals) living their lives, being complex, developing, evolving beings.