“There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good-will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us.” -David Hume
Literature is always about the human condition. It uses creative plot devices and literary techniques to build on our conception of the world, as we know it, and attempts to seek answers to the perplexing philosophical questions of our transitory existence. But it is always left unrealized and easily ignored that no matter what we construe from everything around us, it can only ever be completely human since the entirety of experiences in our lives is nothing but that of humans. The arising limit on our intellect tends to skew our perception of how everyone else perceives the world too because as we anticipate and speculate the reactions and motivations of various creatures that live alongside us, we cannot help but project our humanity onto them in an attempt to fathom their idea of things. This intrinsic tendency of human psychology can roughly sum up the idea of anthropomorphism, which is, by definition, the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities (the term derives from the Greek word “anthropos” and “morphe” meaning “human” and “form”)
Xenophanes (6th Century B.C) was the first to use the term anthropomorphism when describing how gods and other supernatural agents tended to bear a striking physical resemblance to their believers. This technique includes attributing humanlike physical features to nonhumans (like a face, hands) and/or attributing a humanlike mind to nonhumans (like intentions, conscious awareness, secondary emotions such as shame or joy).
Anthropomorphism, when it comes to animals specifically, is particularly interesting to observe. It is quite strange how people have universally come to believe that dogs are simple, loving creatures that love their owners more than anything else, while cats are selfish and sneaky ones that are always plotting to get what they want. Foxes are wily, hyenas are hysterical, lions are royalty and wolves are loners. Without any form of direct, coherent communication, we have come to believe so many things about the personalities of animals, simply through romanticizing what is overtly observable about them.
Literature has contributed in the promulgation of a number of these popular beliefs and character tropes through its evolving interpretations and representations of animals in different roles. The assumption of a human-like mind in a non-human entity has certain important implications: the considered creature must presumably have the capability of observing, judging and evaluating things, the intentions to perform specific, premeditated actions and the awareness and expression of a sense of morality.
To humanize is to complicate and to study the complex, projected psychology of these fictional animals is a fascinating journey.
The trends of anthropomorphic depictions of animals have changed drastically with time. The initial writings that included “human animals” were traditional fables that intended to impart wisdom through fictional tales that were meant to be perceived simply as harmless fictions, unlike the stories of powerful deities and theological monsters, which were often taken literally back in the day. Interestingly, by telling stories that everyone believed to be false, the truth was subtly revealed to the unsuspecting readers without their conscious knowledge. Here, anthropomorphism served as a convenient plot device because the simple allegories with animals in the stories didn’t immediately strike the readers as stories that were about them. Thus, they victoriously conveyed deep, meaningful morals without inciting personal offence among the people.
The proud lion that befriended a mouse, the hare that lost a race to a tortoise, the mutually jealous city mouse and country mouse- all of these characters represent intensely human traits that converge into profound conclusions in a surreal, uncomplicated land. The Aesop’s fables, the Jataka Tales and Panchtantra are a few classic examples of old fables that are still quite prevalent.
Similarly, in Fairy Tales, anthropomorphic motifs were used in elaborate, mythological contexts and fantastical environments to represent human grievances, like in the stories of Brothers Grimm and Hans Anderson, to add elements of fantasy, magical realism and absurdity. The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots and the Ugly Duckling are a few famous examples of this.
From ancient times, it is evident that literature has always had a special place for animals. Primitive storytellers used animals as antagonists to dramatize man’s ceaseless struggle against the forces of nature. In medieval literature, they were portrayed as questing beasts and dreamland dragons, faithful comrades and dastardly obstacles, all embodying unique quirks and basic tropes.
During the Renaissance, however, the spirit of humanism, which emphasized on the beauty of humanity, led to the unfortunate fading of interest in animals and animal stories for a long period.
In contemporary times, it was revived with the classic book, Black Beauty, written by Anna Sewell. If we are to believe popular presumptions, anthropomorphism became more vivid and complex with Darwin’s theory of Evolution, which allowed man to understand his unity with nature and made him feel more comfortable being represented through wild creatures. In post Darwinian stories, animals could have needs and wishes of their own. This was a dramatic change from the trends of the past.
There are two different types of stories where anthropomorphism is pronounced. The first type, in which animals dress and act like people, is especially common in children’s literature, since anthropomorphism helps young readers identify with animals better. If stripped of their clothes and personalities, animals may not be familiar to a child, but if they are assigned an ornamental humanity, he/she can learn and understand them easily. Anthropomorphism also contributes in terms of variety. An author can develop a variety of characters in a small book with a few words if an animal is used to express attributes commonly assumed to represent the creature. The impropriety of a monkey protagonist would not require an exhaustive description since monkeys are known to be mischievous creatures in the first place. For the same reasons, antagonizing crocodiles, wolves and snakes comes easily too. The element of humor also becomes prominent because animals that are caricatures of certain types of individuals can be comic to children and adults alike.
Beatrix Potter’s Tales of Peter Rabbit has gained massive popularity because it successfully appealed to children while the Cheshire cat and the White Rabbit from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland have become very important characters in all of classic literature. Enid Blyton’s books brim with a delightful amount of gentlemanly animals. Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, The Witches and other Roald Dahl books are famous for their charming animal characters. Hobbes, in Calvin and Hobbes by Will Watterson, is another humanoid animal well known in the world of comic strips, along with Peanuts. On a more mature, more satirical side, Animal Farm by George Orwell is one of the most invigorating political allegories of all time. In all of these examples, anthropomorphism has been used brilliantly.
The second type of anthropomorphic literature includes stories where animals talk or think elaborately, but otherwise remain the same. A number of wildly creative and articulate literary works have been executed with themes of anthropomorphism of this type. Here, animals are generally not used to represent elements of humanity explicitly, but rather the psychological circumstances of animals themselves are intricately imagined and explored to better understand life in the wild, the struggles of a primeval beast, alternative perspective to realistic events, the dark realities of nature and other such themes relating to the rawness of a creature’s experience in the world.
Animal figureheads also provide a firm base for character constancy. The unbiased, honest and raw perspective of a simple beast and not an overthinking, rationalizing man can make stories a lot more real and direct. An exceptional example of this would be The Call of the Wild by Jack London, a story that chronicles the journey of Buck, a huge, four-year-old half-Bernard and half Scottish shepherd dog, that goes from being a pampered, content pet at a Judge’s manor to the alpha male of a wolf pack in the heart of the wild. Another would be The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, a book that deals beautifully with the conflict of Nature versus Nurture and introduces us to iconic characters like Bagira, Baloo, Raksha, King Louie and Sher Khan. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis, although set in a magical realm, also shows a plethora of quirky creatures, all in their natural environments, serving as faithful allies.
These precious literary works are classics for their own individualistic employment of the same literary technique and that makes them all the more intriguing.
Anthropomorphism has survived the test of time and still stands beside writers as a strong comrade in the endless quest for writing quality fiction. It is the most honest and direct extension of humanity onto creatures and things that can only be understood with the aid of a healthy imagination in a world where communication is so frustratingly finite. Nature has a disturbing allure of its own and man will always be drawn to it, whether in real life or simply in the things he reads. Hence, literature with animals has a perceivable future ahead of it, full of novel interpretations and stranger personalities as time goes on and circumstances change.
But if one day we were to develop technology that facilitates talk with animals, how right would we have been all this time?