A few days ago someone asked me if The Swan Harp and my other novel ideas contained talking animals. I said no, but I was surprised at the strength of my own negative inner response to that. What, after all, is wrong with writing about talking animals? More to the point, why was I so strongly put off by the idea?
So I analysed my own response, and here’s what I came up with. When people say “talking animals”, what they seem to mean is “animals who speak human and talk and think like us”. This puts me off, as my mother used to say, in great shapeless hunks.
There are some excellent “talking animal” books out there. Wind in the Willows and Bambi (the original by Felix Salten, not the Disney version) come to mind. In these books, the animals retain their animal character. “Bambi” is a remarkably unsentimental book. The deer and other animals speak to each other, but not to people. There is no “Thumper” – the hare (I believe it’s a hare, not a rabbit) is called Hare. The animals in “the Wind in the Willows” are more anthropomorphic, but also speak only to each other, and not to people. Mole has an overwhelming emotional response to returning to his home – the whole idea of home and territory is a very clear concept to animals.
These books are the exception. In the vast majority of “talking animal” books, the assumption is that the animals will not only talk human, they’ll think human, too. In reality, if you could have a conversation with a cougar, chances are it would be very brief and end with the cougar eating you anyway.
My other enormous problem with talking animal books is this – animals do talk. They just speak cat, or dog, or tortoise, or whatever, and we don’t listen! I’ve seen so many people completely misinterpret what the animal is feeling or thinking, or say “well, he should know…” or “why would she do that?” when the animal has clearly signalled his or her intentions. Any observant dog owner can tell when the dog is eager to play, or fearful, or happy, or anxious, even if the dog doesn’t make a sound.
In my own life, I call this “hearing the animal think”. I usually know how the animals I live with are feeling and what they’re likely to do. It’s because I’ve internalized their physical and vocal cues to the point that I understand their language in a very basic, simple way. For me, animals do talk. They don’t need human words.
In The Swan Harp I’ve made some effort to give the swanfolk a different view on life, one based on their ability to live as swans. I know it’s not a complete understanding of how swans think and behave, but, then, my characters aren’t completely swans, either. For one example, humans have a concept of diplomacy and hospitality. We actually take in, protect, feed and entertain someone who actively wishes us harm, such as an ambassador from a hostile nation. Swans, however, have no such ideas. An interloper is killed or driven out. So my swanfolk have some trouble comprehending the ideas of diplomacy, alliance and hospitality.
Talking animals? Well, I guess. But the trick is this – to create a talking animal who is not just a person in fur or feather.