It’s commonplace these days to regard animals more as amateur video makers rather than writers. Cats, dogs and pigs have posted so many videos of themselves online, that no doubt a child’s first experience of one of these animals is more likely to be with their film work than the creatures themselves. And in our haste to acclaim accomplished auteurs like Keyboard Cat or Dancing Pig, not to mention old school legends like Talking Dog, why do we so dismiss their literature out of hand?
Recent cultural references demonstrate my point. In Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, there is only a fleeting reference to how cats kill birds because of their “songs”, and in ITV period hit Downton Abbey, there was a scene where a footman tried to kill a dog because he detested his poetry. In general though, animal literature is something human critics tend to dismiss as freakish or insubstantial, a bit like a performing seal in a zoo, or no more worthy of our attention than the crowd pleasing tricks of Uggie in The Artist. And it’s always been that way. Here’s Johnson, in effect setting the tone for our reaction to anything written by animals for centuries hence:
“There is no greatness to be found in the animal who writes. They prefer the pithy verse to the long narrative, grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. “ (On Animals and Words, 1772)
Of course, he has a point. A lot of animal writing – by its very nature – is absurdly short for our tastes, and likely to be discarded as ephemera. But I’m not talking about the short story your dog wrote and thrust into your hand when you got back from a long trip, or that poem you once found hidden under the cat basket – worthwhile and creative exercises for your pet though I’m sure they were – I’m talking about a literary heritage which goes right back to ancient civilisations.
There can be few people who haven’t learnt in school about the Egyptian cat poet, Amenhemcat (below) and the great works such as “Story of A Mouse” and that mainstay of nursery wallpaper – “Tomorrow We Shall Sleep”.
Tomorrow We Shall Sleep (Fragment, ca 1800 BC)
Tomorrow I shall sleep in the sun
For this is how I live my life
Revered as a god
It would be wrong
Not to rest all day long.
But we learn about him as a curio, an incidental to the main bulwark of Egyptian literature studies which still to this day form the bedrock of an English education. Closer to home, the very existence of writing animals can even be held in doubt, never mind contempt. The “Did Shakespeare’s dog write his plays?” debate is well rehearsed elsewhere (I recommend Stanley Wells’ Dogs and Monsters for the authoritative overview on this subject). For the record, I’m very much in the “He probably wrote some of the sonnets but not the plays camp”. What is less well known or discussed is that Shakespeare’s Dog (below) was a well respected Elizabethan playwright who had at least once piece we know of staged at an animal playhouse in Southwark while his master was alive. Here’s a fragment of “A Dogge With Two Tayles” (1593?) – which in fact shows that his master wasn’t the only writer to leave a quotable legacy.
“A Dogge With Two Tayles”
Act III.i Parice [sic] Outside the City Walles.
Enter Fidocio, a Dog of the Town, without his master.
Now my master is abroade so this dog shall have his daye
Fast! Here comes that hound Sir Rover, I know his scente.
They say his bark is bigger than his bite
I would fain to discover this on my own accord; I’ll retire.
Enter Sir Rover, with his Pack.
It’s probably fair to say that as human written culture has expanded exponentially, with the advent of paperbacks, blogs and e-books, animals have had to fight for attention in an increasingly overcrowded market place. (And until the European Union overturns its ridiculous ban on animals having their own broadband connection, that seems likely to be the case for the immediate future.) Because Shakespeare’s Dog didn’t exactly open the door to a flood of great animal tomes, far from it. Cromwell, of course, strictly forbade “any beast, fishe or fowle… to put wordes and thoughtes in ink for human eye, lest they have the Devil in their soules and we not knowe it.” In fact, it is very hard to find much trace of animal literature in this country until the Enlightenment, and the stirring words left to us in fragments on the bottom of his cage by the Parrot of Porlock Inn- the nearest thing you will find to a romantic poet in AL.
“I Gazed Upon A Crowded Inn” (1806)
All of Human life roams loud about my Cage
Teeming, tremulous and bold
I thought I saw – in their Eye and in their Dress
Their Paper, Books and Wheels and Coins
Some greater power, some noble force;
A distant Light, a thing I knew not before -
The power of Man – absolute, sublime.
Then, with the unintended consequences of the 1835 Animals and Libraries Act, which forbade – amongst other things, the bringing of livestock, chickens, mice and exotic birds into public libraries, the bestial pen fell silent once more, although it is still hotly disputed in some quarters as to whether Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was actually written by him or in fact, a very large old Turtle. But it’s not until after the first World War that AL begins to impact on human consciousness again, and how – in the gritty, dogged novels of Fitzrovia life from a Drunk Weasel.
from We All Got Drunk And Fell in the Canal
“If only he’d listened to her.. but of course he hadn’t, no that wasn’t his way, was it – he always had to plough on and follow his own path, much good as it ever did him. He trotted on through the alleyway, not even noticing the large puddles of stale beer oozing out from the kegs stacked up against the side of the pub. Christ! His head, flaming and ringing all at once. How much whisky had he drunk last night? A whole teacup or more. This was no good, this was no good at all.
A door swung open, and he ducked behind a metal bin. “George?” said a loud woman’s voice from high above. “George? Is that you? You coming in for your tea? It won’t keep, not in this weather.”
He slunk on, oblivious. Into the high street now, weaving between all the feet, all the boots and heels, click clacking, the ring of the omnibus, the shouts of the paper boy, all of them yelling and making so much noise, and none of them caring where they put their great big feet, none of them caring or even seeing. What was he, after all? Only a rodent with nasty yellow teeth and whiskers, that was what Mr McBelter had said.
Only a rodent. And didn’t he know it.”
Drunk Weasel wrote an astonishing eight novels, the most prodigious output of any animal to date, until his tragic early death from alcohol related causes in 1947 (a drunk sailor fell over and crushed him to death.) And since then, of course, there’s been no shortage of animal writers leaving no genre unexplored – from the peace songs of the White Mice in the Sixties to the regular comic strip in the Guardian in the 1980′s written by two Old Hens. But when was the last really good novel you read written by an animal? I reckon it’s time to take them seriously again. So next time your dog gives you a short story to read, don’t dismiss it out of hand – you might be looking at a crucial and vital part of our shared literary future.