- Fantasy out of Myth and Fable:Animal Stories in Rudyard Kipling and Richard Adams
Next to human beings, animals are probably the most common protagonists in children's stories, far more common than fairies, giants, or dragons (Haas 335). Considering the interest children take in all living creatures around them, this is hardly surprising. Slightly more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that in almost all cases animals in children's stories are to a greater or lesser degree anthropomorphized. Even in "realistic" stories animals usually enter into such a close emotional relationship with human beings that they will invariably be described in metaphors suggesting human thought and behavior.
In this essay, my concern is not with borderline cases of this kind, but with some specific texts (all very popular) in which the protagonists are animals which are humanized to such a degree that they can talk and reason like human beings. In a broad sense, texts like these are obviously fantasy fiction in that they create a secondary world which is (at least in this important aspect) radically different from empirical reality, even if many features of that reality, including some observable animal behavior, are faithfully copied. (It may be noted in passing that a higher degree of anthropomorphization—as when animals wear clothes and go to school—need not necessarily create an impression of even greater "fantasy;" on the contrary, I suspect that our sense of the fantastic is soon blunted when we perceive animals merely as humans in disguise, like, for instance, Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse, and our interest then shifts to other aspects of the story.)
The books I propose to deal with are the Just So Stories and the Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling, and Watership Down by Richard Adams. They have been chosen because they are sufficiently similar to afford some insight into the specific character of this particular kind of fantasy literature, and sufficiently dissimilar to illustrate the variety of possibilities even a very narrow sub-genre can offer. All three works have been extremely successful. To a large extent, the profound impact they have on the adult as well as on the child reader results, I shall argue, from the fact that they have deep roots in myth and folklore.
In contrast to many of Kipling's texts which hover between adult and juvenile fiction, the Just So Stories were clearly intended for children. Some of them were written, and even published, several years before they appeared in book form in 1902, and we have the word of Kipling's cousin, Angela Mackail, and of his daughter Elsie, that he used to read them, with considerable histrionics, to his children and their friends (Avery 117; Carrington 283, 511; Green 169-178). One wonders if this is the reason why there has been relatively little critical comment on these stories, even though Avery, for one, has no doubt that they constitute by far the most successful of Kipling's books for children (114, 117), and Meyer considers them "perhaps the most perfect tales that Kipling ever wrote" (31).
The one feature that has most frequently been commented upon, and is indeed very prominent, is the extraordinarily intimate relationship between the narrator of these stories and his audience. Kipling continuously invites the reader to join in a game, and his success depends on the latter's willingness, and ability, to do so. The game involves a good deal of irony on the part of the narrator, which has to be perceived and accepted in the right spirit to be enjoyed. If Kipling succeeds with many (though certainly not with all) child readers as well as with adults, it is because he never talks down to the reader, whether he is introducing onomatopoetic nonsense words (like "ooshy-skooshy" 2), hyphenated set expressions ("infinite-resource-and-sagacity" 5), difficult and outlandish names and words ("cetacean," "indaba" 1, 19), childish mispronunciations ("'stute," "'scruciating" 15), or excessive repetition ("you must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved" 5), to name just a few of his most prominent rhetorical devices. All these devices are employed with a wink, which is not condescending because the narrator...