Easy Chair — From the July 2015 issue

Dressed to Kill

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Countless tales have been told about animals, and the animals in these tales differ from the beings we know in the world and from the hawk in Macdonald’s account. They generally have consciousnesses like our own; in many fictions they talk to one another and sometimes they talk to people. In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), the masterly taxonomy that John Clute co-edited with John Grant, Clute distinguishes among various forms of Animal Fantasy. In the Beast Fable, for instance, animals (such as those in Aesop) enact allegorical or satirical versions of human behavior. Talking Animals can also help or counsel human protagonists. (I suppose Puss in Boots is an example.) But the “pure” Animal Fantasy, he says,

is a tale which features sentient animals who almost certainly talk to one another and to other animal species, though not to humans, and who are described in terms which emphasize both their animal nature and the characteristic nature of the species to which they belong. A pure AF will almost certainly be set in the real world, and will usually teach its readers some natural history. . . . In the pure AF the initiating fantasy premise tends to dissolve into a narrative which heeds the laws of the world. Because they exist in the world and because the communities they depict are subject to the laws of nature, AFs tend to end in tragedy. To tell a pure AF is, ultimately, to depart from fantasy.

In “Tarka the Otter” (1927), a classic story by the British writer Henry Williamson, the otters and foxes and other animals don’t talk, even to their own kind. Unlike Helen Macdonald’s Mabel, Tarka is a fictional character; the story imagines its way into his consciousness and into his particular tragedy: his mate dies, his son is caught and killed, and so, too, in the end, is Tarka himself. Buck, a dog in Jack London’s Call of the Wild, thinks much like a human — in effect, he talks to himself. But though he understands many human words, he doesn’t speak to other dogs or to people, and the animals he consorts with are subject to their natures.

The animal tales for children that Thornton W. Burgess published for decades beginning in 1910 are meant to teach some natural history; his animals behave as real animals do. Reddy Fox chases Peter Rabbit; Buster Bear hibernates; Sammy Jay warns others of danger, often danger coming from Farmer Brown’s boy and his gun, or from the hound, Bowser. Though the animals talk to one another at length and never to humans, they depart from the pure Animal Fantasy in another way. Burgess never explicitly says so, but the illustrations by his friend and collaborator Harrison Cady reveal that the animals who populate the Green Meadow and the Laughing Brook and the Old Pasture are clothed: they wear an array of jackets and vests, straw hats and overalls, spats and watch chains. Some carry rolled umbrellas under their wings, or peer through spectacles.

For all the reliable natural history retailed by the Burgess stories, then, the animals remain fantastic. But Clute points out a curious rule: the animals in Burgess that belong mostly to the human world — the farmhouse chickens, Bowser the hound — are not clothed. Nor are the animals that are killed: Mr. Goshawk wears a muffler, but the dead chicken in his talons is naked (if an animal can be said to be naked). The clothed animals, on the other hand — whose names we know and whose speech we understand — are never killed or eaten. They are often at risk, but Reddy Fox never catches Peter, and Bowser never catches Reddy.

A similar state of affairs can be seen in the stories of Beatrix Potter. Potter did her own illustrations, and in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck we first see Jemima as an ordinary duck in the farmyard. When she goes off to find a place to lay and hatch her eggs by herself, however, she wears “a shawl and a poke bonnet.” She comes upon “an elegantly dressed gentleman reading a newspaper” who has “black prick ears and sandy coloured whiskers” and who nearly succeeds in cooking her. Eventually Kep the dog and two foxhound puppies — all in their skins alone — rescue her from the fox, and once she is back in the farmyard Jemima is again pictured without clothes.

The rule then is that the animals in these fantasies whose lives are described naturalistically can talk, if they talk at all, only to one another and not to people. They can die, and since they resemble us in knowing this fact, their tales can be (though they need not be) tragic. But talking animals in clothes can’t die. This is not because they are incapable of imagining death, as real animals are, but because their hats and shirts and petticoats somehow create for them an Eden in which self-awareness and speech exist but death does not. It’s an odd inversion of the Eden in the Hebrew Bible, a place defined not only by the absence of death but also by the absence of clothes, which enter the world at the same time as death and with something of the same import. It’s when God discovers that Adam is ashamed of being naked that He knows he has eaten the forbidden fruit. Who told thee that thou wast naked?

Before they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve weren’t different from the other animals: they didn’t know they would die. It wasn’t the fact of death that their rebellion brought into the world, but the consciousness of personal death: a Fall — if it was a fall — that so far as we know separates us from the rest of creation, which to that degree we can never rejoin.

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