One of the charms of the book Watership Down, published all those years ago and still much-loved, is that the rabbits sounded like rabbits. Or so we thought. Of course, we don’t really know what rabbits sound like when they communicate with each other – if indeed they use any sound at all. However, one can’t write a novel about a society of rabbits without endowing them with the abilility to converse. So what author Richard Adams did was to create a language with just enough words in it to scatter through the basic English spoken by his various rabbit characters.
Now consider another much-loved book about animals in the English countryside – The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Graham’s creatures spoke just like humans; the “nice” animals such as Rat and Mole spoke plain English, Toad spoke with the sort of upper class twittishness made popular by P.G. Wodehouse and the Wild Wooders spoke like lower class yobs. In anthropomorphic works by other authors – for example Br’er Rabbit – the animals speak in the vernacular of their place and period.
When we write from the perspective of a non-human creature, we too often take a condescending tone or make the animal sound too cutesy. I still shudder when I remember a weekly newspaper column written from the perspective of a dachsund dog which featured typically twee comments such as: “I took my master for his usual walk and we stopped at his favorite tree…”. Even when writing for children there is no need to insult their intelligence with this sort of twaddle!
To my mind the best “animal” authors are those creative enough to invent a language that immediately, in the reader’s mind, distinguishes their creatures from human beings. In order for them to be interesting to us it is, of course, necessary to endow the fictional animals with human traits and to express these mostly in human language – but if this is enlivened by a few invented words that somehow express “rabbitnesss” or “horseness” then it will all seem that much more believable. A fine example of this can be found in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book where Kaa the Python speaks with a wonderfully sly and slithery voice.
So if we are writing a blog – or a novel for that matter – in which the narrator takes a different perspective, such as that of a dog or a hamster, then I think we need to use our imaginations and give our talking (or writing!) pet some distinctive words and expressions.
All this has got me thinking about using language to distinguish more than one perspective when writing about humans – see my next post!