Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Beast Fable

Three closely associated but distinct terms are used in this encyclopedia to cover some of the innumerable uses to which animals are put in fantasy. As the entry on Animal Fantasy argues, two of these terms – "beast fable" and "animal fantasy" – can overlap; the third, Talking Animals, describes the behaviour of animals in fantasy narratives whose protagonists are not themselves animals.

The beast fable features animal protagonists whose behaviour and nature can be compared with that of humans, usually in terms of Satire or Allegory; these comparisons are normally made without much attention being paid to real animal behaviour, though authors of the beast fable tend to draw on Folklore and Fairytale, and upon our conventional sense of the way various animals act (see also Colour-Coding; Estates Satire), in order to provide useful caricatures: the cunning Cat, the treacherous Serpent, the Trickster fox, the idiot-savant Ass, and so on. Beast fables can be in a Wonderland or Otherworld, but they are as often set in a fantasticated version of the real world, where their protagonists act as humans and frequently interrelate with them – as in Puss-in-Boots. The protagonist of a pure animal fantasy, by contrast, will almost certainly talk to others of its species, and to members of different species as well, but not to humans; and its home territory will be part of the dangerous real world.

The talking animals in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books (1894-1895) take on beast-fable characteristics whenever they are engaged in educating young Mowgli. Similarly, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908), set in an Arcadian Landscape whose connection to the mundane world is at times tenuous, is close to the pure beast fable, though with hints of animal fantasy when Mole or Ratty (but never Toad) are described in naturalistic terms. Other tales which share characteristics of both beast fable and animal fantasy include: Walter de La Mare's The Three Mulla-Mulgars (1910); A A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh (1926); George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945 chap); Ann Lawrence's Tom Ass, or The Second Gift (1972); Walter Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow (1978); William Horwood's Duncton Chronicles (1980-1993); Brian Jacques's Redwall sequence (1980-current); and Mary Stanton's The Heavenly Horse from the Outermost West (1988). In these texts the boundary between the central action and the real world is porous and variable. All feature protagonists who seem sometimes animal and sometimes a Parody of human foibles, and in all of them it can be difficult to recollect whether their featured animals do or do not wear clothes (animals in pure animal fantasies are, of course, never dressed).

In the pure beast fable, the real world – which may be portrayed in extremely exaggerated terms – tends to fade into a backdrop for the exemplary Fable being told stage-front; and the behaviour of the animal characters who convey the story is sometimes very remote from what would seem characteristic of their true natures. This has always been so; the Taproot sources of the beast fable date from antiquity – Mr Monkey and Other Sumerian Fables (anth 1995) adapted by Jessica Amanda Salmonson (see also Mesopotamian Epic) presents some extremely early examples – and are very extensive. Every traditional literature in the world offers examples of the beast fable; and from Aesop (see Aesopian Fantasy) through the 12th-century fox tales assembled by Pierre de Saint-Cloud as Roman de Renard (partial trans Patricia Terry as Romance of Reynard 1983; no complete trans into English) and the Monkey epic (partial trans Arthur Waley as Monkey 1942) by Wu Ch'êng-ên (1500-1582) to Jean de La Fontaine, it has served as a favourite literary device for propaganda and satire. Some examples from the literature of fantasy include: Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus (from 1881); The Cunning Little Vixen (1920) by Rudolf Tesnohlidek (1882-1928); Christopher Morley's Where the Blue Begins (1922); the education sequences in T H White's The Sword in the Stone (1938); C S Lewis's Narnia sequence (1950-1956); Almet Jenks's The Huntsman at the Gate (1952); David Garnett's The Master Cat: The True and Unexpurgated Story of Puss in Boots (1974); Günter Grass's The Flounder (1977) and The Rat (1986); David Henry Wilson's Coachman Rat (1985); Deborah Grabien's Plainsong (1990); and Beastly Tales: From Here and There (coll 1991) by Vikram Seth (1952-    ). In the field of Animated Movies there are so many beast fables that it would be pointless to try to list them. Many Pantomimes, children's plays and children's tv series are likewise beast fables.

If the animal fantasy has an inherent bent towards the real world, the beast fable moves in another direction. It hovers at the threshold of full fantasy, and sometimes crosses over. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.