Anthropomorphism gets a bad rap. When I started submitting my stories to publishers, as a seventeen-year-old in the eighties, I was told there were no publishers accepting anthropomorphic stories at that time, the publishers said no one was interested in reading stories about ‘talking animals or animals dressed as humans’.
In fact, our fascination with fantasies about talking animals predate the usually given source, of the deformed Phrygian slave, Aesop, in c.620- 560 BC. These tales have been found on Eyptian papyri dating 1000 years earlier and probably have their origins in prehistory. In particular, the writers of medieval times had a penchant for using animals as “spokespeople”. In the 1800’s, American writer, Joel Chandler, re-popularized the animal stories, in his fascinating tales of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit.
When is a character anthropomorphic? As my friend, Joe Bunting, said over on The Write Practice: “Anthropomorphism is when an animal or object is given human traits. These can range from the oft-cited “whispering wind” to the talking toys in the Toy Story trilogy. Classical mythology and folktales utilize anthropomorphism frequently.”
What stories do you remember the most from your childhood? If you’re a writer or a creative person, you’ll love that question. It was award-winning New Zealand author, Kate de Goldi, who asked us this juicy question in one of her writing workshops of 2005.
I replied, ‘One of the first series that really gripped me as an early reader was the Moomintroll series by Tove Jansson.’ On Jansson’s website, it quotes Tove as saying the war had depressed her and she ‘wanted to write something naive and innocent’. She achieved that feat, quite remarkably in the Moomin series. As a young, impressionable reader, these sweet, funny books with their anthropomorphic characters made a big impression; I connected with Moomintroll and his friends in a big way.
When has anthropomorphism ever gone out of fashion?
“Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865, and afterward a flood of anthropomorphic creatures followed. There was Pinnochio in 1883, the walking, talking puppet. Then, in 1894, Kipling wrote The Jungle Book, including a story about an orphan boy who is befriended by a light-hearted bear named Baloo, a protective black panther named Bagheera, and is nearly killed by a malicious tiger called Shere Kahn.”
In recent times, there has been renewed interest in anthropomorphism with the release of hit movies with book tie-ins like, Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Cars, Planes, Madagascar, The Little Mermaid, Shrek, Monsters Inc which have all been blockbusters and bestselling books, proving that the anthropomorphic story is still very much a “live” sub-genre of fantasy.
To my mind, there has always been a demonstrable market for this sort of animal fantasy adventure, yet there continues to be some stigma around the genre.
“It’s odd that unashamed fantasy still trails clouds of disapproval,” Terry Pratchett once said and I’ve often wondered the same thing. The sub-genre of anthropomorphism seems to further divide people. One man’s meat is another man’s poison so they say. When I showed the original version of ‘The Or’in of Tane Mahuta’ to an assessor, she said, “The story’s great, but lose the insects!” which reminded me of the quote, “Rulers are suspicious of new worlds where their writ does not run.”
I took heart however from my tutor and all-round heroine, Kate de Goldi’s words, when I shared with her my interest in animal fantasy. She said, “Don’t think about getting published. Write whatever your compulsion in your soul is to write. If you want to write about insects, there must be a reason for that.”
She reminded me yet again, that it is to ourselves as writers that we must be true. Even if that means going against the prevailing conventions. Creating anthropomorphic fiction may hit the big time or it may crash and fail, but if that’s where the muse calls then so be it. What about you, have you ever tried writing these characters? Which of the famous anthropomorphic characters do you like? I admire Kung Fu Panda, how genius is a panda who is also a martial arts expert? What is there not to love?
See ya’ in the funny papers,
Yvette K. Carol
Michael Moorcock, in reference to Watership Down: “if the bulk of American SF could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits, for rabbits.”