Modern Family: When Animals Talk, Listen
You could call him a born-again bear! Winnie the Pooh is set to get an “origin story” 90 years since he was conceived by A.A. Milne. The author originally modelled Pooh on his son Christopher’s stuffed teddy, but a new book by Lindsay Mattick now will co-opt the inspiring story of a real bear: Finding Winnie will begin in 1914, when the Canadian vet and military man Harry Colebourn rescued a smuggled bear cub, naming it Winnie after his home town of Winnipeg.
Literature’s best-loved bear has always been my pet out of all the creatures inhabiting the Hundred Acre Wood. With his red shirt stretching only halfway down his tubby belly, Pooh joins his furry and feathered pals – Tigger, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore the donkey, Kanga and baby Roo – to give welcome nuggets of life lessons. These include: treasure differences in people; everyone needs someone; and don’t blindly trust authority.
Other bears are equally endearing: Baloo, the gentle giant of a bear in Kipling’s Jungle Book, is believably vulnerable. Laidback, even lazy, though he appears, he proves it’s possible to slowly overcome any fear. Lost in London, Paddington Bear from Peru is bumbling and fumbling, but his creator Michael Bond quickly strikes the right nurturing chord in admirers. And every kid smiles on finding out how the artists behind the Berenstain Bears series, Stan and Jan Berenstain, met as students at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. The couple often visited the local zoo to sketch pictures as part of their assignments.
Luckily, Pooh and his bear brethren aren’t alone. Several animal species have charmed generations, like those in Beatrix Potter’s cosy Peter Rabbit farm tales and Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows. They are adroit examples of anthropomorphism: assigning human traits to animals or objects.
Why does this device, seen from time immemorial in myth, fable, fairytale and fiction, work so well?
Because animals cast in human role play are whimsically reassuring. They allow emotional distance when the message is powerful or painful, in a way all-too-real human characters do not. They offer children temporary reprieve from problems and dilemmas and a safe space where kids can reflect before reacting to life choices: “What would Roly Robin do?” was the question I asked myself as a schoolgirl fan of the chirpy exploits of the Robin family, serialised in the Woman’s Weekly magazine my mother subscribed to for recipes, romances and knit patterns.
Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explains in The Uses of Enchantment: “In play, toy animals are used to embody aspects of the child’s personality which are too complex, unacceptable and contradictory for him to handle. This permits the child’s ego to gain mastery over these elements, which he cannot do when forced by circumstances to recognise these as projections of his own inner processes.”
Non-human characters are universally relatable. Older children ponder over promise and betrayal on the pages of a “four legs good” revolutionary satire like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and self-perfection and transcendence in Richard Bach’s spiritual allegory, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. They focus more on the message than on the characters’ foibles, less judgemental and more forgiving of animals than of humans portrayed under the same circumstances.
Animal characters can also conveniently break barriers of race, colour, gender and nationality. Free of such boxes, kids connect closer with them, develop a strong sense of metaphor and have fun with more vivid imagination. Editions of Richard Scarry’s Busytown books changed progressively to accommodate evolving social norms, even as the world their readers lived in struggled to keep up. First out in 1963, his Best Word Book Ever was revised in later years sans animal characters in “cowboy” or “Indian” costumes, and male animals engaged in traditionally masculine activities – like driving a steamroller – were altered to include female animals.
Everyone has a preferred animal to learn from; my family adores elephants. We’ve followed the tracks of herds of them—from Disney’s flying pachyderm Dumbo, to the brave and sly Ely, the crippled hero of Cynthia Moss and Martyn Colbeck’s Little Big Ears: The Story of Ely. My son wasn’t quite four years old when he took gallant charge on the back of an elephant: Peering down at the hospital cot the morning his sister was born he said, “Mummy looks tired; let me read you a story,” and began whispering a Babar the Elephant episode into her shell-small ears. The brainchild of Jean de Brunhoff, dressed in natty spats and determined to get ahead in the world, Babar is hard to beat for smart individuality.
And don’t forget Jungle Book’s Colonel Hathi. Apparently comic, but actually heroic, he simply galumphs his way into hearts. Ever ready to answer the call of duty, he is disciplined, respectful and responsible. Displaying uncommon dignity and courage, he shows grace under pressure and obedience to laws of the land for the larger good. Layering the fun, the cute cleverness of anthropomorphism stops his story from becoming a boring, preachy homily.
When city cinemas screened Horton Hears a Who, I was delighted to introduce Dr. Seuss’s incredibly wise elephant to my children. The childless writer told people his philosophy on kids was basic: “You have ’em, and I’ll entertain ’em.” He sure did. Large and lumbering, towering and trumpeting, Horton’s adventures heave with insightful humour. Seuss hooks his readers with Horton’s antics and frolics only to subtly convey the value of a life lived with honesty. At the end of the day, who can resist chanting his line throughout Horton Hatches the Egg: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant / an elephant’s faithful one hundred per cent!”