Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad!

An analysis of our four-legged friends in children's literature.

Animals have been a prominent part of children’s literature for as long as we can remember, educating pragmatically and entertaining outlandishly. Aesop combined both these ideas of education and entertainment in his Fables, creating stories such as ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ with salient moral principles to teach children how irresponsible actions can always have undesirable consequences. Other books like ‘Watership Down’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’ present fantastical characters that children can relate to. These characters live amongst the pages of the sort of idiosyncratic reality that parallels the one in their readers’ minds. In particular, the type of readers who have not been on this planet for long enough to scoff at such merriment.

Although of course I enjoyed reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ all those years ago, I do find myself questioning how important and relevant animals can be in stories. An intriguing example to consider would be George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. Written as a satire of the Russian Revolution, the main animal characters parody the dominant figures of the Revolution, while Mr Jones, the unsuspecting yet oppressive farmer, portrays the last Russian emperor, Tsar Nicholas II.

Led by desperation and the want of a better life, the animals eventually drive Mr Jones away, only to have the socialist utopia they thought they had achieved sink perniciously into a state of totalitarianism, where “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” And in this way, the Animal Farm comes to represent a sort of broken utopia, where the strongest power is claimed by the most manipulative of the animals at the expense of the weak. The novel becomes an allegory for human nature and our inability to truly be equal. This novel seems to speak eloquently to the human experience.  

Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ attests that animals are simply key in literature. I, for one, know that if Orwell had used human characters based on the figures of the Russian Revolution instead of his animals, I would have probably put the book down after the first page and that would have been that. The sheer absurdity (and slightly disturbing images) of imagining pigs sleeping in beds and drinking whisky is precisely what makes the novel so engaging.

There are so many more novels that use animals to teach their young readers whilst providing entertainment. Wilbur and Charlotte from E. B. White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’ display a kind of magical relationship despite their inherent differences in species, ability and size, as well as imperturbably tackling topics of life and death, and of human corruption and human triumph. Beatrix Potter’s Tales such as ‘Peter Rabbit’ are similar to Aesop’s Fables, and the Tales can be seen somewhat as a more recent approach to the morals advocated in the Fables.

To sum it all up, what did your animal buddies in your childhood books teach you? A lot, actually. And you probably didn’t even realise it…

Neha VI