One of the most famous passages of George Orwell’s Animal Farm reads: ‘All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.’ The novel tells the story of a group of domestic animals, led by a pig called Napoleon, who decide to take over the management of the farm from their human master. In the context of the story, the above sentence talks about the cunning and selfish nature of Napoleon, who started a revolutionary only to satisfy his own ego at the expense of his fellow animals. Probe deeper and another picture emerge. Napoleon begins to look like Stalin and the farm, Russia, and Orwell’s commentary, a criticism against the totalitarian regime. This duel meaning in fiction, especially fiction with animals as protagonists is called 'allegory' or 'fable.'
Take for example, stories from Panchatantra or Aesop’s fables. It was the ‘original fantasy,’ making animals behave like human, giving them thought and speech, and all the follies and foible of human kind. Animals of these stories create a parallel universe of their own, an animal kingdom. As children, we enjoyed them at face value. We loved the innocent deer and hated the cunning fox. As we grew up, we tried to infuse reality to these stories and found that these animals are actually human beings in disguise and all their action resemble a human pattern.
This is how George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm works.
But why animals? It’s a romantic notion that nature’s law is equal to everyone. It’s a search for utopia of equality where human world is pitted against animal world. Therefore, in Chronicles of Narnia, it is the lion Aslan who must overthrow the power of the White Witch. It’s a bunny rabbit that leads Alice into wonderful adventures in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. (But what happens when a shark gets murderous as in Peter Benchley’s Jaws?)
However the question remains whether the allegorical aspect to animal actions mars the beauty of the story, or whether all stories about animals must have a duel meaning.
Rudyard Kipling in Jungle Book achieved giving animals a separate identity without any dependency to allegory. Balu the bear, Baghira the leopard are real animals, they do not carry any human aspect in them (except probably their love for Mougly); so are the pack of wolves and their leader Akela, and the tiger Sher Khan. In Kipling’s animal kingdom, human exists, but only on the fringe. And the story starts when a human child comes to live in jungle.
Richard Adams takes animal protagonists in Watership Down to another level. A story about a few talkative rabbits in search of a new warren, in the novel, we meet Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig as rabbits on a perilous journey. Here, human exists too, but as enemies. The novel is a Lord of the Rings of the rabbits. The author describes the rabbit world with detailed authenticity, complete with rabbit talks with a ‘lapin glossary,’ and bunny myths, the myth of ‘El-ahrairah’ the Prince with Thousand Enemies. (In J R R Tolkien’s novels too eagles talk, so does the dragon in The Hobbit.)
The quest theme is a major force in animal faction. Both Black Beauty the horse of Anna Sewell’s novel and Buck the dog in Jack London’s Call of the Wild look for a perfect home which is lost to them. Black Beauty finally finds peace after much toil and suffering while Buck ultimately answers the call of the wild. He turns into a ‘noble savage.’ (Both the novels can also be read as a plea for cruelty against animals).
Animal world fascinates us, for we don’t understand it. The primitive mysticism of the jungle world leads us to a spiritual quest. In Salman Rushdie’s Grimus, Flapping Eagle must find Grimus surrounded by exotic birds if he has to learn the truth. This quest for noble savage takes us to high seas in search of a white whale called Moby Dick in Herman Melville’s novel. Captain Ahab must dies for own hatred, and only the innocence of Ishmael can survive this quest.
This innocence plays a very important role in animal fiction. Innocence is pitted against the miseries of the world, but it always wins. That is why A A Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh makes for such an endearing story.