Animals have always been a favourite of authors – whether they’re used as pets, as symbols, or as the walking, talking main characters. Tabitha Barda takes a look at some of the book world’s most famous literary critters
Ten famous literary critters.
Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Fans of the 2012 hit movie will have already been puzzled by Richard Parker, wondering exactly where the real animal ‘actor’ ends and the frighteningly realistic CGI tiger begins. But those who haven’t seen the film version of the story of Pi – a young boy who survives a shipwreck, only to find himself stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger – will know Martel’s tale throws up some very different questions. Depicted as a real animal that acts in ways true to his species, Parker’s ferocity forces Pi to stay alert and ironically helps keep him alive. But he also symbolises Pi’s most animal instincts – in his desperate situation, Pi must do things he’d have found unthinkable in his normal life. Or is Parker just a guise for Pi himself, invented to make the brutality of his time at sea easier to stomach? The question haunts the book, as does this eerie fact: Martel chose the name Richard Parker after the uncannily high number of reallife sailors with the same moniker who are recorded as coming to a sticky end at sea. As Martel says, “So many victimised Richard Parkers has to mean something”.
Roger the dog inMy family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
This autobiographical work by Gerald Durrell is full of descriptions of the many cute animals the 10-year-old budding naturalist collects during his childhood on Corfu, but none of them is as lovable as his canine best friend, Roger. Just as chaotic and eccentric as the rest of the Durrells, Roger makes a spectacle of himself from the moment they land on the Greek island, instigating a canine riot from the cab by barking at the local street dogs. But it’s Gerald’s lasting bond with the pooch that’s the most touching: “He was the perfect companion... affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent... and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.”
Baloo the bear in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Unlike the fun-loving, Bear Necessities-singing cartoon bear of the Disney film version, the Baloo of Kipling’s original book is a serious, sleepy old soul, who helps to save little man-cub Mowgli from Shere Khan the tiger and teaches him the Law of the Jungle. Baloo is a strict master whose voice rumbles “like thunder on a hot night” when he scolds Mowgli. The two have a tempestuous relationship, with Baloo’s bad-cop routine prompting a grumpy Mowgli to openly favour the more lenient Bagheera, the black panther, over “fat old Baloo”. The bear’s feeling are hurt by Mowgli’s churlishness but, as with any parent-child dynamic, he’s willing to put up with more than a few bruises while looking after his ward. And, as he tells Mowgli in the quaint language of the 1894 text, “One day thou wilt remember me”.
Cheshire cat in Alice in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The smiling Cheshire cat is one of the most enduring images from Carroll’s topsy-turvy nonsense world, and the feline is both a source of solace and a puckish cause of mischief for Alice. A curious outsider figure, the cat appears and disappears at will, intermittently teasing or vexing Alice with baffling philosophical questions and riddles. His unsettling habit of fading away into nothing but a grin has made him one of the literary world’s most iconic creatures.
Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame
Without the jolly, rambunctious and impulsive Mr Toad, the action of The Wind in the Willows would never have progressed beyond Mole and Ratty sharing a few picnics on the riverbank. The incorrigible amphibian convinces his woodland friends to join him on all sorts of reckless adventures, until his obsession with cars eventually leads to his imprisonment for dangerous driving. Toad’s dramatic escape from jail and the recapture of his mansion from the weasels constitute the climax of the novel. Vain, narcissistic, but with a heart in the right place, Toad is the epitome of a lovable rogue and the most charismatic character of this classic children’s book.
Black Beauty in Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
There aren’t many autobiographies penned by a fictional horse, and this is without a doubt the most famous. It begins recounting Black Beauty’s life as a colt, describing how the bit feels and getting his first horseshoes, and goes on to delineate his treatment at the hands of various owners. Written by animal-lover Anna Sewell in the late 1800s – a time when horses were used in industry and often mistreated – it was intended to induce “sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”. Her vivid depiction of the painful bearing rein, which used to elevate a carriage horse’s head, led to it being abolished in Victorian England and, with numerous film adaptations and 50 million copies sold, the novel is one of the bestselling books of all time.
Nana in Peter Pan by JM Barrie
If you thought the canine nanny in the cartoon version of Peter Pan was artistic licence on behalf of Disney, you certainly aren’t alone. But the pooch employee is in both Barrie’s original 1904 play and the 1911 novel – a Newfoundland hired as a nursemaid by Mr and Mrs Darling so that they can keep up with the Joneses, while also saving a bit of cash. Nana sleeps in her kennel in the nursery withWendy, John and
Michael, and although she doesn’t talk or do anything beyond the capabilities of a dog, she acts with apparent understanding of her duties. It’s fiercely protective Nana who catches Peter Pan’s shadow when he flies into the nursery, which is the first step on the children’s journey to Neverland.
Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
While the slow and silly Pooh might seem the obvious animal to choose from Milne’s books, Eeyore the old grey donkey is a delightfully offbeat character for children’s fiction. An outsider figure, he writes poetry, his pinned-on tale is always falling off, and his generally cynical attitude is an amusing contrast to the hyperpositivity of the other characters. Living in an area of the Hundred AcreWood that’s labelled as “Eeyore’s Gloomy Place: Rather Boggy and Sad”, he might be mopey, but he’s also kind, and lovable, in a prickly sort of way.
The whale in Moby Dick by Herman Melville
This 1851 masterpiece is classed as one of the Great American Novels, and tells the story of a sensitive sailor, Ishmael, who embarks on a whale-ship voyage commanded by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab. The Captain is obsessed with the idea of killing Moby Dick, a legendary giant white sperm whale that injured him on a previous voyage, and whose fatal attacks on other ships over the years have been seen by many to be conscious acts of violence. Although we have no access to the whale’s thoughts or feelings, he symbolises many things to different characters, revealing hidden aspects of their personalities. At the end of the novel the whale kills everyone except for Ishmael, and readers are left to make up their own mind as to what the enigmatic creature represents; vast and unknowable, all-pervasive and invincible, he’s seen by some to be an allegorical representation of nature, fate or even the universe itself.
The cat in The Cat in the Hat book series by Dr Seuss
The eponymous cat of the Dr Seuss rhymed children’s books is another mischievous fictional feline. Created by Dr Seuss – aka Theodor Geisel – as a response to a US periodical’s 1954 article complaining about the limited illustrations in student reading books, it uses repetition, rhyme and vivid pictures to help expand children’s vocabulary. The cheeky, chaos-causing cat in his iconic striped hat has since captured the hearts and minds of children everywhere, and was even quoted in the US Senate when a politician compared an immigration bill with the mess created by none other than the cat in the hat himself.
Although he doesn’t talk, Richard Parker, the tiger in Life
of Pi, is a complex character