This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on June 9, 2017
Introducing … Theory Bites! In my last post of the semester, I promised “snippets of fun information and links to other great articles and resources over the summer months”: what I have come up with is Theory Bites. A tiny bit of theory, and some suggestions for children’s books to try it out on… enjoy!
This week’s theory bite focuses on the animal studies branch of ecocriticism, which I happen to be focusing on at the moment in my research. In the seminal introduction to ecocriticism, Ecocriticism, Greg Garrard describes allomorphism as an “avowal of the wondrous strangeness of animals” (167), an antidote to the often lamentable tendency to anthropocentrism in writing about animals. This quality is difficult to find in children’s literature especially; in an article I have returned to again and again this summer, Maria Nikolajeva writes that “Children’s literature is problematic, either oversimplifying purported non-human emotions, or ascribing human emotions to non-human beings, or both” (138). Children’s literature – especially as interpreted by the children’s film industry, tends towards depictions of animals as stereotypes – from the helpful forest creatures who keep Snow White company, to the hippogriffs who bend their wills so willingly to Harry Potter’s.
Three authors, however, are notable for their resistance to this trend; in their insistence on exploring the “wondrous strangeness” of the animals they write about, they have created stories that resonate deeply. Richard Adam’s Watership Down is a classic of children’s literature, telling the adventures of a group of rabbits as they cross the dangerous countryside in search of a new home. While there are elements of anthropocentrism in the way Adam’s creates a rabbit mythology and language modelled on primitive human creation stories, the book is nevertheless notable for the stark realism of the depiction of the relationship between rabbits and humans. The rabbits in Watership Down are not pets, not helpers, nor friends to animals. Humans are not only feared as other predators are, but they are also strange and unknown – the unseen force behind the fast-moving cars that mow them down, or who poison burrows with gas or snares, the unknown captors of a group of does in a hutch, and the companions of vicious dogs. Seen from a rabbits’-eye point of view, human-animal relationships in Watership Down are an undeniable and yet alien fact of life.
Similar to Adams’ insistence on the complexity of animal life is William Horwood’s exploration of Mole culture in his epic Duncton Woods series. Like Adams, Horwood cannot resist the urge to create a complex culture for his animal protagonists, reflecting medieval human culture. Whilst this conflation of animal sensibility with human history is problematic, Horwood excels – again like Adams – in defamiliarizing nature by presenting it from the perspective of these small, secretive, and fierce creatures. A long cry from the cute and civilized Mole of Wind in the Willows, Horwood’s moles experience predation, rape, murder, and infanticide, to name just a few of the realities of nature made explicit in these novels. Not only are these novels a thunderingly good read, but they are fascinating in the ways they explore the “otherness” or animals – and in the ways they stop short of forsaking anthropocentrism altogether.
My final example, and certainly my favorite, is Robert Westall’s Blitzcat. Set in Britain during World War II, Blitzcat tells the story of a cat called Lord Gore, who sets off across the countryside in search of a “master” who has been called to serve in the air force. Despite its acknowledgement of the undeniable bond formed between humans and their pets, this book refuses to give in to anthropocentrism: told entirely from Lord Gore’s perspective, the book reveals the cat’s indifference to human concerns, and illustrates the alien priorities, emotions, and perspectives that motivate her.
All three of these authors are perhaps less well-known in the United States than in Britain; nevertheless, for anyone interested in animal studies and the exploration of allomorphism, they are well worth exploring.
Adams, Richard. Watership Down. Scribner, 2005.
Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. Routledge, 2012.
Horwood, William. Duncton Wood. Arrow Books, 1985.
Nikolajeva, Maria. “Recent Trends in Children’s Literature Research: Return to the Body.” International Research in Children’s Literature, vol. 9, no. 2, 2016, pp. 132-145.
Westall, Robert. Blitzcat. Pan Macmillan, 2015.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.