Wednesday, September 26, 2012

ROUND TABLE: Animals in Fantasy (Part I)

Pegasus by Odilon Redon
Here we are, back with another Amazing Traveling Round Table, and what a great topic! Animals and fantasy just seem to go together for many of us, whether we love fantastical creatures or wish we could talk to our beloved pets, whether we dream of worlds only horses (or dragons) can take us to or the places we dare not venture without our trusty animal companions.

To get the ball rolling on this topic, I'd like to point out some general aspects of the use of animals in fantasy. The first is simply their presence. Many fantasy tales take place in low-technology worlds (with the recent exception of urban and other contemporary fantasy subgenres). This generally means that animals will fulfill the same functions as they have historically been used for, such as transportation (horses, mules, donkeys, oxen, reindeer...), food, clothing (cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits, pigs...), hunting/protection (dogs, cheetahs), and so forth. The exceptions (exotic animals or using an animal for an unusual purpose) can be lots of fun, but it's important to do the research and understand the proper handling and temperaments of whatever species is being portrayed. The ridiculously romanticized and unrealistic portrayals of horses in fantasy are notable, and what's sad is that there is a wealth of accurate information available, such as Judith Tarr's excellent Writing Horses .

A second role for animals in fantasy involves changing the nature of existing species,
such as making them telepathic or giving them magical abilities. I suspect that much of the allure of these animals is our own desire to communicate, but in our own terms. If a dolphin or a dog or an eagle speaks to us mind-to-mind, it is in human thoughts, from a primate perspective. Once we step outside the paradigm of projecting our own thought patterns and emotional responses on to another creature, however, we open the door to true encounters with the "other," which may not only be our equal but our superior, beings who can teach and inspire instead of be tools that obey us. Is there anything more magical than seeing the world through the eyes of someone -- no less a person -- with radically different senses, desires, thought processes, and knowledge?

A third, and perhaps the most challenging, way animals appear is as fantastical beings in themselves - dragons, phoenixes, unicorns, and the like. Every culture has such beings, so there is a wealth of material from which to draw. They can resemble ordinary animals (the kelpie appearing as a black horse, often to the peril of anyone who accepts a ride) or be chimeras, combinations of different animals, or be ordinary animals modified in some way (winged cats). Or they may be essentially different from animals we know, transcending the limitations of terrestrial biology.

A fourth category, perhaps a subset of the third, involves human/animal combinations -- hybrids, if you like. Certainly werewolves (and were-other-animals) fall into this category, as do centaurs and mermaids. One might argue that vampires do, as well. Whether they are essentially humans with the added physical (and magical) attributes of animals, or have a very different consciousness, culture, and personal goals, they offer a chance to explore what it is to be human, to be a person, to be kin to both people and animals. And that sort of exploration is, after all, one of the most profound gifts fantasy has to offer.


Theresa Crater: Getting inside the perspective of an animal is one of the pleasures of fantasy. Kate Forsyth’s dragons, horses and the witches who talk to them have always stuck with me. Kate Forsyth is an Australian fantasy writer of two well-known series, The Witches of Eileanan and Rhiannon’s Ride. Kate’s dragons are the most noble of all I’ve read—and they’re damned scary. When people come into their presence, they realize quite quickly how puny humans are. Their bowels always threaten to turn to liquid and their brains are beat upon by intelligence vaster and more powerful than they can comprehend.

One variety of psychics talks to animals, and there is one who is at pains to argue for animal rights. This young woman represents animals in human councils. One horse in her book reminds me of Malcolm X. He is proud and refuses to allow himself to be ridden. He sees horses are somewhat superior to humans, who have treated his kind like brutes. But when the fate of the world and his new human friend rests on him alone, he decides to allow one person on his back—without a saddle or bridle of course. If the human cannot trust him, she cannot ride. She accepts his terms and the day is won.

Animals have always played an important part in indigenous mythology. In Native American stories, animals are the siblings of humans, all children of Mother Earth and Father Sun. The animals are older than we are, since humans didn’t exist until the Hopi Third World, so we are to look to them for wisdom and guidance. Salmons are the masters of poetry in Celtic myth. Atlantis mythology tells that when they began to fall, they experimented on animals. In more recent history, science turned animals into mechanisms that didn’t feel pain and vivisection became the way to experiment. Factory farms aren’t much better. Western culture is beginning to recover from this, but I just read a paper from a student who worked taking down offensive content from a large internet provider. I hope that animals will be treated more humanely and enjoyed Forsyth’s animals. 

Theresa Crater has published two contemporary fantasies, Beneath the Hallowed Hill & Under the Stone Paw and several short stories, most recently “White Moon” in Riding the Moon and “Bringing the Waters” in The Aether Age:  Helios. She’s also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver. Born in North Carolina, she now lives in Colorado with her Egyptologist partner and their two cats. Visit her website at  


Andrea K Höst: When I consider my shelves full of fantasy novels and think about animals, with a few rare exceptions the first thing which springs to mind is: "Where are they?"

Diana Wynne Jones, in her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, points out the common absence of most animals:

Animals.  See ENEMY SPIES, FOOD and TRANSPORT.  Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purposes (and this includes HARES and RABBITS), there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland.  Any other animal you meet will be the result either of a WIZARD'S BREEDING PROGRAMME or of SHAPESHIFTING.  You may on the other hand hear things, such as roaring, trampling and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound-effects only, laid on by the Management when it feels the need for a little local colour.

Even animals which function as food or transport usually only make an appearance just as they're about to serve their purpose.  The cows appear almost as if the dragon summons them for dinner.  Horses are absent until one gets on them.  Even when the characters are hiding/dossing down in stables, there's a remarkable absence of equine.

While the inhabitants of a fantasy world are certainly going to be primarily concerned with animals they ride, animals they eat, and particularly animals which eat them, there should occasionally be an acknowledgement of a few other categories:

- Animals which eat the food you were going to eat.  Weevils!  Locusts.  Foxes.  Mice.  Bears.

- Animals which lay booby-traps.  Rabbits and other burrowers make your gallop across the field a lot trickier.  And you don't want termites to meet that old, abandoned wooden bridge.  Not to mention the bat guano on that narrow cavern pathway.

- Animals you employ.  Draft horses and oxen are the heavy lifters, but don't forget the practical purposes of cats and dogs (guard, alarm, food and livestock protection).  Domestic fowl can be used to weed (and fertilise) fields in preparation for sowing crops.  Everything from hawks to otters can assist in hunting and fishing.  Spiders, lizards and birds play a critical pest control role.  And the smallest to the largest can be involved in garbage disposal.

- Scavengers, vandals and freeloaders.  Your best knife is now pride of place in a pack rat's den.  The clothes you set out to dry are scattered down the street by a migrating herd.  Your house, your bed, your body, all seethe with miniscule scroungers.

All this, of course, can fall into the 'assumed knowledge' of the world.  Readers will picture your world as a vague duplicate of our own and fill in the blanks until you mention something which contradicts assumptions.  It is simply the process of storytelling to mention what is relevant, and leave the reader to sketch in the rest because describing every minute detail of the whole world is likely to kill any semblance of pace.

But a functioning ecology is all of these things.  And a world where the only interactions your character has with animals are "where's my ride?" and "where's my lunch?" is a bare and arid one.

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue. See:


Chris Howard: It’s raining cats in fantasy but apparently very few dogs.

Why is that?  It seems that there are many more stories with cats in fantasy literature than there are stories with dogs, and I’m talking about house cats and dogs, domesticated animals typically considered as pets.  Not tigers and wolves.  Dogs—purebred to mutt—seem like the underdogs.  But are they?  For cats, you’re easily into the hundreds of books and characters with the Catfantastic anthos, Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song, The Wild Road, Tanya Huff's Keeper's Chronicles, Warriors series, Catopolis, Book of Night with Moon and others by Diane Duane, The Catswold Portal, Crookshanks, and the more than fifty books that show up on Amazon just with the tag “cat fantasy”.

Come on writers. Where’s man’s best friend. Where are the dogs?

I’ve been reading fantasy since the mid ’70s, but I am nowhere near the high end of the widely-read range.  I know, that’s a shame, and I can only blame it on never having enough time.  I have favorite books that I read over and over—every few years, and favorites that I haven’t read in ten or twenty. (Maybe those are more “classics” than “favorites” for me.  Lord of the Rings is one of those).   Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch is one of the former.  Okay, here’s what I’m trying to say: I could be wrong about the lack of dogs thing, and there are probably one or two painfully obvious examples of awesome dogs in fantasy books that have somehow vanished from my brain, or that never got in there in the first place.  But I’m going to go with what I know.  And I know it's not in the hundreds.

I love cats—we have both cats and dogs roaming our house—but I was thinking about the lack of canines in fantasy when I thought of a book series that contained both: Garth Nix’s Sabriel books (The Abhorsen Trilogy).  Sabriel, the first book, is about the daughter of a “good” necromancer who’s struggling to maintain order in the Old Kingdom.  Basically, Sabriel’s father—“The Abhorsen”—wanders the land trying to keep the dead where they belong: in the ground, deceased, on the other side of the nine gates, but there are a bunch of not so good necromancers who seem to have nothing better to do than raise the dead, or call forth and make madcap deals with “free magic elementals”, old gods, and other unwholesome characters from the beyond.  One of the most interesting features of Nix’s Sabriel stories is the use of bells, tones, and sound to manipulate death magic and the dead.  Another aspect I’ve always loved about the books is the companion characters, Mogget the cat (Sabriel) and the Disreputable Dog (Lirael, Abhorsen).

I have to say that Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen are some of my favorite books, although they’re in the second haven’t-read-in-a-while group with LoTR.  The character Sabriel is one of the strongest and most courageous female leads in YA fantasy.  As an aside, my daughter Chloe and I met Garth Nix at World Fantasy several years ago.  He signed Chloe’s copy of Sabriel after a panel of “Australian Fantasy Writers”, who, by the way, laughed, cried, and sang more songs than any other writer panel I have ever seen at any convention.  It was a fascinating hour of giant spiders and other weird fauna, the influence of isolation on fiction, strict rules around incorporating myths of the continent’s original inhabitants, and Waltzing Mathilda. 

In other

Back to cats and dogs.  Now, as you would expect, Mogget the cat and The Disreputable Dog are no ordinary feline and canine, but what I like is that they’re both outrageously cool characters in the bodies of a fancy house cat and a scruffy-looking medium-sized dog.  I’m not going to give much away with the plot because you really ought to read the books—if you haven’t already.  Mogget is a grouchy, scornful character who does more sleeping through the plot than helping, and when he does help it’s always in a striking and unpredictable way (all very cat like). The Disreputable Dog, on the other hand, seems wiser, agreeable, and shows off some unexpected talents to help Lirael, but she’s also a bit creepy (the book reading thing), and there are plenty of times through the story when you question whose side she’s on.

It’s clear that both Mogget and Disreputable are ancient beings with their own agendas, other battles to fight, scars that no amount of time will wear down, some of which not only drive them into conflict with Sabriel’s and Lirael’s choices and paths, but set them up as mortal enemies against the long line of the Abhorsens.  That’s also what I like about Nix’s approach to these characters.  They’re as real and deeply developed as Sabriel, but you never see them as anything but cats and dogs.  Almost.

Back to the original question about cats being the favorite in fantasy.

Because that's not how it used to be.  Cats usually fared badly in Medieval European legends and stories.  Cats were widely hated.  Cats spread mischief, chaos, the plague.  Witches have cats—or in reality, the old woman who wasn’t well-liked and lived by herself and knew a bit about healing and herbs had a few cats, and whatever you do don’t let that black cat cross your path.  Cats symbolize darkness, mystery, silent predators, familiars, demons with night-vision. 

Outside of old Europe cats do pretty well.  Maneki neko (the cat with a raised paw) symbolizes good fortune in Japan.  Cats have a high and ancient reputation in the Middle East and Africa, appearing prominently in ancient Egyptian art.  The goddess Bast was a feline deity who protected the home and family.  There’s the story of the prophet Muhammad being called to prayer but finding his cat asleep on the sleeve of his robe—and cutting off the sleeve rather than waking the cat. 

In European legend, and probably most other places, dogs guard the house, go into the dark forest with the hunter, bark at strangers, grow old with the family, and are sometimes buried with as much respect—sometimes more—than humans.  Dogs are safe and strong.  Dogs have been man’s best friend for tens of thousands of years, to the point where they have a better grasp of human social cues and gestures than any other animal. 

Cats just didn’t get respect through Medieval European history, and I suspect that this accounts for their predominance in fantasy stories.  Just like witches cats are the underdogs of traditional European myth, and readers of our favorite genre love few things more than an underdog to cheer on.

So, maybe it's just been a semantic problem all along and they're really undercats?

Chris Howard's a fairly creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books) and half a shelf-full of other books.  His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines, latest is "Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology" in Fantasy Magazine.  In 2007, his story "Hammers and Snails" was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner.  He writes and illustrates the comic, Saltwater Witch. His ink work and digital illos have appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages of other books, blogs, and places. Last year he painted a 9 x 12 foot Steampunk Map of New York for a cafe in Brooklyn. Find out everything at


  1. Cats are definitely winning the fantasy appearances stakes. But there's the occasional dog. Diana Wynne Jones' "Dogsbody" is a stand-out for me.

  2. Thanks, Andrea! I'm going to check out Dogsbody--can't believe I've never heard of it.

  3. Robin Mckinley's Deerskin is a fantasy book that heavily features dogs. Just regular dogs that need to be let outside to go to the bathroom and drool on your lap. It's a good one.

    I've really been enjoying reading the Round Tables while I am supposed to be working!


  4. Nice ruminations about various aspects of animals in fantasy. Having been a long-time reader of Mercedes Lackey and Judith Tarr in her various guises I have had no problem finding horse-like animals in fantasy (certainly lots of unicorns), but I guess animal familiars and spirit guides isn't really your average animal in fantasy after all.

  5. Although it isn't fantasy, I've always loved Robert Chaim Gilman's "Rhada" books -- with sentient clawed horses.

    Anyone else remember Tanith Lee's "Companions on the Road," with carnivorous sheep? Way spooky!

  6. I'm late to the party. Love the comments on cats. Our feline overlords approve. Deep irony with those carnivorous sheep--or is it?

  7. Excelent post, I love to see what other people are doing with animals in fantasy. Lately in my writers group we've been trying to help one of our members to make his horses more believable, but he's stuck on "they are cars" and doesn't care about the details beyond that. I enjoyed the multiple view points from your roundtable format. Thanks.

  8. One simple reason why animals dunt appear in fantasy unless for functional reasons is the trend in writing and publishing to Lots of Action but Not Much Else. If we had the time to write beautiful ruminative (deliberate!) landscapes where lots of animals and birds and insects hopped about all over the place for no reason but being there, it wd. be great. Except, if you were publishing NYC the editor wd. prob. cut it if your agent didn't, and if you were publishing indie or Smashwords, your readers wd. complain of your wordiness.
    Otoh, for a fuller animal world, see Robin McKinley's second Beauty and the Beast novel, Rose Daughter, where Beauty brings back the garden creatures around the castle - including toads, hedgehogs and ladybirds as well as the more usual suspects. But they are there for a purpose, narrative wise, also.