Loretta Barnard

If it drives like a duck: Why anthropomorphism is an enduring part of stories we tell

Anthropomorphism is a long standing part of fiction. From the hare and the tortoise to Disney’s Zootopia, giving human thoughts and feelings to animals is a time-honoured tradition, in spite of its critics. Long may it reign.

 

 

It can hardly have escaped anyone’s notice that animals in children’s fiction not only speak, but wear clothes, live in houses, usually walk upright, drink things like camomile tea and, like Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad, enjoy driving about in motor cars and going ballooning. Mrs Beaver in CS Lewis’s Narnia series is often to be found at her sewing machine. Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat is big on parties and pretty good at cleaning up afterwards. Charlotte the spider from EB White’s Charlotte’s Web is an excellent speller, certainly better than Owl in the Winnie-the-Pooh books. In Alice in Wonderland, there’s a hookah-smoking caterpillar, frogs who are footmen, a march hare who hosts a tea-party and of course, the White Rabbit, never seen without a waistcoat and his pocket watch.

Anthropomorphism is also rife on television and film. Thank goodness for Skippy because the Rangers would never have solved any mysteries without the bush kangaroo’s incredible detective skills. Same goes for Flipper. And what about all the crims nailed by Lassie or Inspector Rex? Good doggies. What about Danger Mouse, Mighty Mouse, Biker Mice from Mars? And the crime fighting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a giant rat who’s a martial arts master.

There’s Mr Ed, Tom and Jerry, Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Daffy Duck and the inimitable Bugs Bunny. In fact, there are few animals not represented in the world of children’s entertainment. There’s pretty much a whole zoo in the Madagascar films.

So why are talking human-type animals so popular? What exactly is the deal with all this anthropomorphism?

First off, the concept goes back to ancient Greece. Aesop’s Fables were recorded back in the fifth century BCE – the ant and the grasshopper, the hare and the tortoise, the fox and the grapes and so on. Aesop’s animals retain their animal attributes, yet are given human characteristics and ways of thinking. The stories are short, humorous and instructive, which is why they’ve been passed down the centuries and still read to kids today.

 

The concept goes back to ancient Greece. Aesop’s Fables were recorded back in the fifth century BCE – the ant and the grasshopper, the hare and the tortoise, the fox and the grapes and so on. Aesop’s animals retain their animal attributes, yet are given human characteristics and ways of thinking..

 

Obviously Aesop was onto something. Using animals to tell stories is very effective. Animals are cute and cuddly (well, maybe not the Big Bad Wolf, but the pigs are adorable), so it’s easy for kids to engage with the story. Even though they have human-style personalities, the characters aren’t actually human, so age, race, gender, abilities take a back seat. They’re inclusive characters.

Consider Peter Rabbit – it doesn’t matter that Peter is a boy rabbit, the main thing is he’s a rabbit, not a boy. Race is non-existent because the colour of the rabbit is irrelevant: Peter’s a rabbit, just like any other rabbit (although other rabbits may not possess such a fetching little blue jacket). His adventurous nature is compared with the more obedient behaviour of his siblings, something most of us can relate to whether we were the “good” sibling or one who was always in trouble.

Some people think the whole “animals as human” thing is a bit fraught and has the potential to confuse kids giving them a distorted view of nature: that kids will grow up believing that real bears are easily huggable, that wolves can actually blow down houses (well flimsy ones anyway), and once you’ve walked past the coats in the wardrobe, that lions can protect you from bad things.

I think they’re missing the point. It’s fiction. Fairy tales, fables and fantasy are not substitutes for factual learning about animals, but they can and do present problems or dilemmas and ways of thinking through them. It seems to me that those who think anthropomorphism is potentially dangerous simply don’t credit kids with having any intelligence. Children are perfectly capable of identifying with an animal character but also recognising that character as fictitious. The dog in Old Mother Hubbard smokes a pipe, feeds the cat, dances a jig, plays the flute and so on. Kids know their household pet can do none of those things, but they can revel in the sheer joyous nonsense of it all. Blue-bonneted Jemima Puddle-Duck might meet a charming well-dressed gentlemanly wolf, but kids know that wolves aren’t usually concerned with sartorial elegance and that instead of doing ducks any favours, they’d prefer to eat them. Kids also realise that Jemima has a well-meaning, kind disposition, but she isn’t very smart.

If you want to teach your children the truth about ducks and wolves or any other animal for that matter, clearly you’re going to expose them to a wider range of reading material than the Beatrix Potter books and then talk about the differences between fact and fiction. But there is a real advantage in cultivating imagination in young minds. Early childhood educators have identified a link between imagination and cognitive skills, communication skills and creativity. You only have to think of the new vocabulary children learn each time they read a new book.

Books are a great way to nurture imagination, and along the way valuable life lessons can be absorbed, such as learning from your mistakes like Peter Rabbit; empathy for people and their predicaments, such as when Babar the elephant has to fend for himself after his mother was shot by hunters; understanding, as Koala Lou did in Mem Fox’s tale, that even if you don’t win a big race and even if she’s run off her feet, your mum will always love you.

What’s that Skip? You say kids should be allowed to enjoy their fantasy books and that it won’t interfere with them understanding the truth about wild and domestic animals? That the more widely read our kids are, the more they’ll get out of life and the more they’ll give back?

Thanks Skip, for a kangaroo you sure have a lot of insight.

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of a wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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