Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Why Animal People?



Comments on a recent post got me thinking about anthropomorphised animals. Why is it that as children we are told stories about rabbits, frogs, badgers and bears, and why do we carry this through into grown-up fantasy literature and RPG bestiaries? Why do so many of Aesop's fables feature talking animals? Why are non-humans the protagonists of so many myths and folkloric tales from around the world?

There is a reasonably large literature on this, it seems - I found a sizeable number of journal articles on it when searching earlier today. Approaches to the question vary. On the one hand, this article has a purely pragmatic perspective: we anthropomorphise animals in fiction because it is easy for children to identify with them, because we like flights of fancy and escapism, because an animal character has a ready-made personality (wily fox, lazy sloth, cheeky monkey, etc.) without any need for elucidation, and because of the potential for humour.

On the other, there are more self-consciously academic pieces which locate anthropomorphism of animals in a broader discussion of the functions of literature, reading and education.

I think the practical observations do have some bite, but this somewhat throwaway observation in the second piece I linked to seems to get closest to the mark:

When the risks and rewards are high, when the signs are ambiguous, when we are up against powerful forces, we envision human intents and actions cloaked in the shapes of objects and animals, and we act accordingly. Intuitively then, we begin to see faces in the clouds, a man in the moon, assign people’s names to life-threatening storms, and watch our investments in bull and bear markets.

This is an important observation, but it only gets us so far, Undoubtedly in situations of emotional urgency we tend to imbue both animals and inanimate objects with feelings (who hasn't hissed "Stupid thing!" at some recalcitrant tool or fiddly object that seems to be deliberately and malignantly refusing to cooperate in whatever task you want to carry out?). And we do sometimes create stories about objects too - Thomas the Tank Engine, Boris the Digger, Gwen the Carrot, or whatever. But it doesn't tell us why, and nor does it explain why children are in particular drawn to stories about animals over objects, and both over stories about other people. The authors of the piece in question suggest that anthropomorphism helps create emotional distance, allowing us to deal playfully and safely with difficult themes - for example, I suppose, by thinking of an economic downturn as a bear, or an oncoming deadly storm as Katrina. I don't think that's quite right. We want to think of a storm being Katrina or a bear market because we want someone to struggle against, to hate - not because we want to think of them in a light-hearted way.

I'm inclined to think that our tendency to anthropomorphise animals comes about because animals have a vibrancy, a certain "thinginess", to them; they are real in a way that other things are not. Partly this is because, as I've said before, we have a deep interest in, and connection with, animals that can surely only be explained by their importance to us in our evolutionary past. (Or, if you prefer, by the fact that they are created beings just like we are.) But mostly I think it is because to watch an animal go about the business of living is to watch something truly putting its all into the task in front of it. Animals never engage in half-measures - everything they do, they do for real, whether it's looking for food, mating, sleeping or playing. Their doings spark our curiosity and engage our emotions because they are vested with so much more vigour and determination than our own. This is why children respond to stories about them. And it is also why when we want to think of something monstrous, something vivid, something exciting, the minds of DMs so often instinctively go towards animal people.

12 comments:

  1. I agree, plus I think that anthropomorphising animals just isn't that big a mental jump. Being animals ourselves, we, like them, have emotions and wants and needs, versus inanimate objects, which don't have any of those things unless we apply them to them. We can see a cat or dog get angry or scared, so it doesn't take as much to apply human motivations there, whereas I can't think of ever having seen an angry rock or a scared stapler.

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    1. True, but I suppose an alien might wonder why we do that at all and not just have stories about humans,

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  2. I think its a lot more mundane than that. Id suspect your along the right line when you spoke of animals having automatically applied attributes that are easy to understand and allow for interesting events to take place (birds and flight, say). I guess one could call them 'anthropic affordances' as they are aspects that allow for wondrous events to take place (often at your aforementioned emotional distance) that are still within the scope of understanding of children (or adults haha). Id suspect its the same reason that mammals are generally over-represented when it comes to animal characters, both in protagonist and absolute terms, because they are the most 'human' of the animals out there.

    Food for thought regardless, good topic.

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    1. I think that gets you half way, for sure, but then you have to ask the question: what about the stories about non-wondrous events? There are lots of animal stories about animals going to school, shopping, etc.

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  3. A bit off topic but the single best D&D houserule I've ever used came about when one of a group of kids I was DMing for ask me if they could take snake as a language instead of orc. I said yes of course and allowing people to take animal languages really helps give a great low key fairy tale magic feeling to a D&D world.

    Helps animals be a useful part of the setting instead of just window dressing and opens the door to so many useful PC plots: "OK, I spread the corn all of the group and calls for crows in their language and say that there's a lot more where that came from if..."

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  4. Most mythic or legendary monsters that aren't simply outsized animals or combinations of animals are people with animal features. Take Humbaba from the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example:

    "he had the paws of a lion and a body covered in thorny scales; his feet had the claws of a vulture, and on his head were the horns of a wild bull; his tail and phallus each ended in a snake's head"

    There's a good reason for that: predatory animals were an immense preoccupation for early humans - so much so that the first gods appear to have been deified carnivores.

    Anthropomorphised animals - or humans with animal features - combine the two worst threats that humans have faced for most of their history: wild animals and other people.

    It's also hard to describe a monster without alluding to animals. Even HP Lovecraft's creatures are generally animal-animal or animal-human hybrids: it's just that the animals are often invertebrates.

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    1. Yep - I am sure I have posted about that last point somewhere before, but can't find it now.

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  5. I have no idea what it is, but I've always been fond of anthropomorphized animals in fantasy and fiction. Rocket Raccoon was one of my favorite comics as a child (and hell, I must have seen that Disney version of Robin Hood with animals at least a dozen times). It makes me a little sad that the last decade or two has seen the concept associated with adult fetish/kink outside of children's literature...but I'm a grumpy old man.

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    1. Yeah, I agree entirely. I loved Redwall as a kid. Now you are scared to admit it in case people start looking at you like you've just confessed to being a sex pest.

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  6. I think it's mostly because people, especially children, just find animals cute, or at least the mammals like Mufn said. They eventually come to find baby humans cute as well, but that's more common when they're older and have or know people with kids.

    Also, using animals is a convenient way for children's media to avoid the issue of race/representation that you sometimes see brought up when human characters are involved.

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    1. That latter observation is getting more important it seems.

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