Wednesday, October 3, 2012

ROUND TABLE: Animals in Fantasy (Part II)

Hello and welcome back for the second part of a fascinating discussion of animals in fantasy. 

Valjeanne Jeffers: The Newest Nonhumans on the Block.

My decision to write about shape shifters and animalsespecially werewolves was first met with me. When I was growing up, and until say the last ten or so years, the cast of animals in science fiction/fantasy was pretty limited. You had your choice of evil and doomed or tragic and doomed. Either way somebody, usually your animal, was doomed. Remember the “salt monster” from the original Star Trek series? It was a beast with no other desire than to assume the shapes of the crewlike a deadly chameleon. All the better to suck the salt from your body until you're dead. That was pretty much the fare of traditional SF films and books.

Whenever I sat down to watch a werewolf film, I already knew the beginning and the end. I already knew the skinny. It definitely wasn't cheerful. Some poor man or woman got bitten or scratched and went through a period of: “I can't believe this is happening to me!” Then eventually, like The American Werewolf In London, they all turned into hairy, psycho killers and proceeded to murder anyone unlucky enough to get in their way—including their own family members. That was the traditional SF nonhuman. That was his or her fate.

So why would I chose such a tragic protagonist? Now the plot, as they say, thickens. There is a nontraditional SF animal, oftentimes also a shape shifter, that has made his/her way into the SF/fantasy genre. These new animals or shape shifters can be loosely grouped into two categories: a thinking being that thwarts the heroine or hero, or one that helps them on their journey.

In The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, a science fiction/horror odyssey, there is a whole host of supernatural creatures: werewolves, were-goats,  lizards... some good, some malevolent, but all with human intellecta sharp break from the traditional werewolf formula. In fact, “Wolf,” a gentle, werewolf is pivotal to the hero's success. When Wolf runs with the moon, he too becomes a killing machine, losing his human ability to think and reason. Yet Wolf's humanity, unlike that of his literary forefathers, conquers this brutal calling.

But animals such as the talking familiars of A. Jarrell's Detecting Magic With Dick Hunter, and the magical crow of Balogun Ojetade's Once Upon a Time in Afrika showcase animals that completely belong to a new breed of SF/Fantasy animals. 

In Detecting Magic... the animals guide and assist the hero in his questthey in fact are essential to his success.

In Once Upon a Time... a magical bird, or a creature that look s like a bird, the “Crow,” gives the hero and heroine direction. In both cases these are thinking creatures. Gone is the mindless beast controlled by his or her transition into an animal.

Which brings me back to my original question: why would I choose to write about werewolves? Frankly, as I discovered, they fascinate mealways havealong with other shape shifting folk, like vampires. And because historically, in films and books, they've always been the underdogs: the unfortunate man or woman who was infected, suffered, killed and came to a horrible end. The underdog, the oppressed, the abused, the victim, who by the power of their spirit rises to become a heroine, has always been near and dear to my heart.

Another one of my motivations, is that in animals we glimpse one of the most glorious aspects of life. They will fight to death to protect those they love. They never kill for pleasure or greed. And the wolf is among the most noble, and beautiful creatures to walk the earth. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from these “cousins?”

The shape shifters, Karla, Joseph and others, that I've brought to life in my Immortal series, in the alternate world of “Tundra,” are definitely nontraditional. They are humans, whose birthright forces them to become more. Not because they were bitten or scratched, but because they are Immortal Other, entrusted with the survival of their world.

They challenge the power structure of their planet imposed by a sorcerer, who also happens to be a megalomaniac. Not fearlessly (For who among us is fearless?) but with great courage, drawing upon their bestial natures to fight and protect their planet. There is eroticism. What is life without love? Violence, for the Others are nothing if not revolutionary. And growth. If you live you evolve. Or you stagnant and die. There is whole cast of preternatural humans and daemons in the Immortal seriessome good, some eviland all with their own agenda (whether working for themselves or some other entity) for who will rule Tundra.

Indeed, the world of science fiction animals is no longer a realm of star crossed creatures. No longer are werewolves and other meta-humans ruled by harsh literary plots, their bloody death predetermined by their nature. This new world is rich and multi-layered. Shape shifters are free to think, live and loveboth as humans and animalsto chose their own path, whether benevolent or evil. 
And this brave new world is where I've found my writing home.

Valjeanne Jeffers is an artist, poet and the author of The Immortal and The Switch series. She has been published in numerous anthologies including: The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, 31 Days of Steamy Mocha, Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology, Griots II: Sisters of the Spear (in press) and Steamfunk!Anthology (in press). Valjeanne's novels can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Nubian Bookstore, Morrow GA, and Eljay's Bookstore, Pittsburgh PA.
Preview her novels at:
(Cover Art by Quinton Veal.)

Sylvia KelsoThis is one of those grab-bag topics: shake it and a confetti of sub-topics leaps out. Just to start with, especially in high fantasy, there are the normal but mandatory animals that indicate a pre-industrial or agricultural society: cows, pigs, etc., and above all, horses, that necessity of all heroes down from the Round Table knights. 

Horses can come with varying degrees of verisimilitude, and for me at least, consequent levels of suspended disbelief for the whole story.  Sharon Shinn’s Mystic books, for ex, don’t seem aware that horses on a journey need a lot of feed, water, shelter, grooming – as when chilled through by a snowstorm – and that their likes and dislikes include both rider and equine companions.  In total contrast, Aerin’s horse Talat in Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown is a personality in his own right, but a wholly equine personality, and as present a character as Aerin herself. 

Equally essential to fantasy are the magical animals. Most often, they are speaking animals: to use a classic example, the Badgers and Reepicheep the cavalier mouse from the Narnia books. There is some discussion over what makes a beast fable as distinct from fantasy: my answer would be, in a beast fable the animals are allegorical, as in Animal Farm. The Badger and Reeepicheep stand for themselves, and are therefore fantasy. So, too, is the presence of animals as povs and purveyors of a wholly non-human society, as with Diane Duane’s felines in The  Book of  Night and Moon, and of course, Watership Down

Where horses and cows lend essential verisimilitude to a pre-industrial world, magic animals matter in an entirely different way.  Such creatures say very clearly that this is not realism but a genre of Elsewhere: Yeah, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more.

Such animals often supply the first step toward suspension of disbelief in a fantasy world. Close behind in this role come original invented animals, such as Judith Tarr’s seneldi in the Avaryan books. Riding animals, though not horses, yet differing most clearly in the horns on their heads. More memorable to me are C.J.  Cherryh’s “goblin horses.” For Goblin Mirror, they take a starring role on the cover, but inside, their strangeness stops at fiery eyes and three-toed feet. The full Monty comes with the “Night-horses” in Rider at the Gate: linked, like McCaffrey’s dragons, by telepathic rapport to one human, three-toed, omnivorous – happily consuming fish, bacon, small animals and “biscuits”– and with a bouquet of other psychic abilities. The Night-horses and their native companions produce a fascinatingly Other world, where the visible landscape is continually overlaid with a psychic view, “the ambient,” as infra-red vision overlays ordinary sight. 

Different again are some of the oldest Elsewhere creatures, the were-animals: the selkie, the lamia, and used almost to overload of late, the werewolf. Definitely of Elsewhere, though since Laurell Hamilton very much at home in contemporary fantasy as well as paranormal romance, timelessly fascinating, to storytellers and readers/hearers both. But with the invented or magic animal, beasthood is in no doubt; the were-creature is another kettle of fish. Is it primarily a beast, or primarily human? The creature, question, and arising dilemmas have been a rich source for imagination from early fairytales on down.

And before and beyond and after all these come the myths and legends: the creatures that never existed, yet which have kindled imagination from times before writing. The chimera, the Pegasus, the griffin, the manticore, the basilisk, the harpy, and the dragon, above all.

Dragons have become a modern fantasy leit-motif that has outlasted even the snowy peaks once endemic on fantasy covers. Dragons above all signal, Elsewhere, and perhaps, if the reader and writer are lucky, that elusive quality, as I’ve said so often, that we may all be seeking in fantasy. I’ll let Tolkien sum it up, here from the famous lecture “On Fairy Stories,” but as so often, with that language which underpins all of Middle-earth.

[As a child,] I had no desire to have either dreams or adventures like Alice … and Treasure Island left me cold. Red Indians were better: there were … strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and above all forests … [But] best of all was the nameless North of Sigurd of the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons … The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Otherworld. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Otherworlds, was the heart of the desire of Faerie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. (OFS 135, “Children” Sub-section).

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “At Sunset” is in Luna Station Quarterly for September 2012.

Carole McDonnell: For me, animals in a fantasy story root me in the real world. There are animals in fantasy and fantastical animals. I tend to like real animals. Oh, I don't mind the odd talking or magical animal but for me the best kind of animal in a fantasy is a horse.

Fantasies come in all kind. Some genres don't use horses at all. Urban fantasy, for instance, generally doesn't need horses. But those of us who learned to love fantasy by reading the old fashioned sword and sorcery tales understand the joy that rises to the spirit when a horse enters the page. 

The horse alone -- sans its rider-- is a symbol of strength, nobility, loyalty, restraint, war and the old days. Its strength, its speed, and its nobility is given to the warrior. For me, a horse is a warrior's equipment -- like a sword, like a mantle thrown casually over his shoulder and blown in the wind. A fantasy story without a horse lacks nobility and lacks the Sensawunda Once-upon-a-time age-old quality. Horses are the cavalry: Sword and sorcery is essentially about someone on a great mission who will -- in the long run-- save someone, some great land, some oppressed people. Saviors and avengers as well as villains ride on horses. Even if the horse has no magic power, when the protagonist sits upon it, the reader has confidence that something wonderful is afoot, that the Savior and the True Prince has arrived. 

In many western and eastern myths, heroes ride on horses. 

In Christianity, when Jesus returns as king, he is depicted as being on a horse.
And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. Revelations 19:11

Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildeside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower.

Warren Rochelle: Listening to the Talking Beasts of Narnia

In The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Back Bay Books, 2008) Laura Miller asserts that Human beings have longed to communicate with the universe since time immemorial—a profound, mystical longing. Tolkien described it as one of the two ‘primordial desires’ behind fairy tales (after the desire to ‘survey the depths of space and time’); we want to ‘hold communion with other living beings. (27)

But, we are separated from the universe, from the other living beings who share it with us, Miller contends, by words, by language (26-27).

Not so in Narnia. Here, human beings live side by side, and are often friends with, talking animals, “the most cherished creatures in children’s fantasy” (30). As a child, when Miller first read the Chronicles, this was one of the things she most loved about the books. She would have “given anything to join the Pevensie siblings at the round dinner table in Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s snug house, trading stories about Aslan and eating potatoes and freshly caught trout” (31). She goes on, of course, to say as an adult she appreciates animals as they are.

Well. I first read the Chronicles when I was in third grade, eight-going-on-nine, and I fell in love, and I have never quite fallen out of that love (and I don’t really want to). While not the skeptic reclaiming Narnia from an adult perspective like Miller, I find myself when I reread the series (which I do every year, along with Tolkien, and a few others, such as A Wrinkle in Time) as an old friend spending time with another beloved old friend, whose warts and flaws are visible, but I love this friend no less.

I still long for Narnia. I still wish I could talk with the animals in my life.  Here I want to briefly look at what Lewis is doing, beyond wish fulfillment. What do these Talking Beasts have to say to us when we do hold this communion, when we are no longer separated by language? According to Paul Ford in his revised and expanded Companion to Narnia (HarperCollins, 2005), each animal “acts according to its stereotype. Moles dig the apple orchard at Cair Paravel; Mr. Beaver builds Beaversdam; horses carry smaller creatures into battle with the witch. Glimfeather is a wise owl.” But Lewis goes beyond this: he ‘uses animals as hieroglyphs, or ‘pictures’ of certain human attributes; Reepicheep, for instance, is a hieroglyph of courage” (47).  Jewel, the Unicorn, is the epitome of friendship. Trufflehunter the Badger is loyal, faithful, and true.  Not all are good, of course—although they were created originally as innocents—Shift, the ape, is deceit and evil and betrayal.

The Beasts are “in many ways similar to humans; indeed they are anthropomorphized to a high degree.” Reepicheep remembers his cradle; the Beavers live in a “cozy English home and enjoy proper English meals” (420). Even so, Reepicheep is still a Mouse; the Beavers are beavers—they retain their animal-ness. In The Horse and His Boy, Bree and Hwin are fully realized characters with distinct personalities, who are Horses—who care for and love their humans, and who are the friends of their humans. And eat oats and like to roll in the grass, a habit that causes Bree distress: is this acceptable behavior for a Narnian Horse? Lewis, through his Talking Beasts who are like humans and yet distinctly not human, “reminds us that we are indeed part of the natural world, and not separate from it as modern science and technology might have us believe” (421). 

Clearly, when the Talking Beasts speak, we should listen. They tell us that we are not alone—that we are part of the natural world, and indeed, we are responsible for it. . Narnia is not a land just for men, but it is a land that is meant to be ruled by a Son of Adam or a Daughter of Eve. As Reepicheep reminds Caspian in Voyage of the Dawn Treader: you promised to be good lord to the Talking Beasts. We—humans—must care for the world, and we must pay attention to it—we must see it. The Beasts also remind us that there is more to the world than the visible. The Divine, the Mystery, is present and a part of the world we all live in. Aslan, the Great Lion, the son of the Emperor-over-Sea, is one of the Beasts—he is a lion, like other lions . . .

I could go on with this list of virtues and Beastly lessons, but I think I may have said enough for the moment. Perhaps what the Talking Beasts are reminding us the most of is what it means to be human—and that humans are animals as well.

Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections.

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