- Talking Animals in Children’s Fiction: A Critical Study by Catherine Elick
“Language is power” has become a commonplace adage, frequently used to champion both education generally and multilingualism more specifically. [End Page 427] In Catherine Elick’s lively new study, animals’ capacity for language in children’s fantasy novels is proposed as a key to agency, a means by which animal characters remove themselves from consideration as objects and become subjects. Elick considers ten fantasy novels (although the Mary Poppins and Dr. Dolittle books are studied as series) published between 1865 and 1975, moving from British authors (Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, P. L. Travers, and the British-American Hugh Lofting) to Americans (Robert Lawson, E. B. White, George Selden, and Robert C. O’Brien). Although the time parameter is never fully explained, Elick’s interest is in specifically those animal fantasies that “focus on relationships between humans and talking animals and represent wide-ranging examples of what interspecies bonds can be like” (2). The logic of this focus becomes more apparent when Elick declares her intention to examine the novels through a Bakhtinian lens; opportunities for polyphony, dialogism, and heteroglossia are enhanced, and the concepts themselves are clarified, when one begins with a premise of interspecies communication—especially when those species have traditionally existed in hegemonic relationships, with humans in control.
After a clear and concise introduction to the Bakhtinian concepts that she will be employing (adding unfinalizability, carnival, and chronotope to those already mentioned), Elick proceeds to take up her novels chronologically, beginning with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, using Bakhtinian close readings to analyze the relationships in them between human beings and animal beings. She particularly focuses on the amount of agency and the power relations that obtain between them, and on whether/how those relations change during the course of the novel. Each chapter is well grounded in existing scholarship and could easily stand alone as a provocative discussion of human/nonhuman relationships and as an illuminating exemplar of Bakhtin’s theories.
Alice in some ways is an odd beginning, being the only Secondary World fantasy in the study. Nevertheless, as is often the case, it provides a valuable touchstone for further discussion, and many times a counter-example for what comes later; for in Alice at least some animal characters appear from the first as empowered entities, clashing as they do with Alice’s class assumptions and challenging her sense of identity repeatedly, rather more than she challenges theirs. When she turns next to The Wind in the Willows, Elick acknowledges that while the novel is not dialogic in a conventional sense, the juxtaposition of three different narratives is not a flaw in its unity but instead produces a most Bakhtinian level of “openness and instability” (55).
The next chapters, on the Dr. Dolittle and Mary Poppins series, introduce convincing examples of nonhuman beings being fully treated as subjects by the humans involved, and who insist on being treated so; Elick’s discussions here are particularly nuanced and complex. She also deals directly with the insensitivity to diverse human cultures present in [End Page 428] both Travers’s and Lofting’s works, in terms of stereotypical language and caricature; although she never states this herself, it does seem ironic that the two writers in her study most appreciative of nonhumans are also the least cognizant of the worth of other human beings.
When Elick moves across the pond to America, she examines the work of four more writers, two of whom (Lawson and Selden) have not drawn a great deal of critical attention. She is careful to point out their drawbacks even while discussing the ways in which they particularly suit her purposes in terms of discerning ever-varied human and animal dynamics. After Lawson’s Ben and Me (the engaging mouse version of Franklin’s biography), however, it seems that the novels examined move farther and farther from possibilities of enriching human-animal coexistence, even as the animals develop more individual agency: Fern Arable’s fading into the background in Charlotte’s Web...