Living Among: The Restorative Function of Talking Beasts

Being a lover of wild creatures in the hidden nooks of the woods, my favorite movie as a young child was Disney’s Bambi. The antics of Bambi and Thumper, combined with the stirring beauty of the visual art and music proved to be incredibly satisfying for me, and a certain part of me needed to hear the animals speak in all their animalness. I saw truth in the fear of man in the eyes of the deer, and the dangers of heedless human intrusion into the animal space. Bambi presented these truths in a form that resonated with my longing to know the animal mind. Though my parents would let me watch Bambi over and over, they were also a little uneasy with the greater concept of giving animals a voice. Perhaps they wondered if talking animals undermined the unique place given to humans in Scripture, placing human and animal on equal footing through speech. What if we are? Scripture seems to suggest that the animals are always speaking forth, but we must work to translate their language, an act we accomplish by imagination and observation, working toward the end of creating animal poetry and stories in which the beasts retain their animal nature.

Humankind as Spokesperson

Perhaps part of my parents’ concern was that Bambi frowned on humanity’s mastery over beasts, although such a view is not wholly consistent with the creation account. Theologian Ellen F. Davis in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, asserts that domination over creation was never the goal, but that humans were instead to have “mastery among” the fellow creatures. 1 Since the rise of Industry, we have tended to view land and animals as resources and machines to suit the “end” of progress; these actions were justified by using language of “dominion.” Davis responds to such a view via St. Basil, who saw human actions as a cruelty to the earth that inhibits “‘the voice of the earth.’” 2 If the earth has a voice to inhibit, there may be a way to amplify it. Davis argues that amplification occurs in a “mastery among” scenario. Her translation to “among” rather than “over,” suggests commonality between human and beast through their status as creatures, but elevates humans in some aspect with a “unique power.” 3

The unique power given to humanity is a voice. God speaks to Adam and Eve for the rest of creation. The Genesis 1 “poem” focuses on a chain of command, according to Davis. 4 She presents a portion of the creation poem, focusing on the plant life that is “for you [man and woman …] and for all.” 5 Here God specifically includes all creation, from humans to those things which creep, and each member has an equal standing and an equal right to the food supply. What seems to separate the role of the humans is the use of the pronoun “you.” Only Adam and Eve are told of the gift. Adam and Eve, all humanity, are to function as masters because they have the power of information and the capacity to communicate with the Creator. The structure of this passage implies humans as spokespersons from God to the earth, but also from the earth to God. The prophets, described by Davis as “poets,” present the “mourn[ing]” and “languish” of the land and also of the “wild beasts” (Hosea 4:3). 6 We will return to the poets themselves shortly, but important here is the idea that the earth and the animals mourn, they communicate.

The human place was never considered something separate from the animals, and even the idea of total superiority is not wholly supported by scripture. In speaking to Job, God asks him to consider the animal world, culminating in the mighty “behemoth” which God “made along with [humans]” as something separate but not beneath; the behemoth is called “the foremost of God’s works” (Job 40:15, 19a HCSB). The term “foremost” in the Hebrew is “re’shiyth,” often used in terms of the first of the first fruit offerings and carries connotations of the “best” or “choice portion.” 7 The concept of another creature, aside from humans, is troubling to those who view the earth as made solely for humankind. Wendell Berry, however, sees such a view as faulty. He argues that human dominance is not “tyrannical,” but is a gift. 8 Elsewhere, Berry puts forth a concept similar to Davis, pointing out the smallness of humanity in ancient human art, describing the famous Lascaux cave paintings as being filled with “exquisitely shaped, shaded, and colored bodies of animals,” while man is a “childish stick figure.” 9 Chinese landscape paintings also depict an expansive earth in which humans are always present as realistically proportioned figures amid the vast expanse, suggesting “a world in which humans belong, but which does not belong to humans in any tidy economic sense.” 10 Berry, Davis, and the author of Job present a vision of the world in which humans have been given the role of steward and spokesperson, as opposed to overlord.

If humans are to serve as a steward of creation, they have an implied responsibility to its non-human inhabitants. Andrew Linzey points out that the church has spent too much time finding what’s unique about humans, to separate them from their fellow creatures. 11 All we perhaps need to do is see ourselves as priests who offer up the suffering of the earth to God for him to redeem, a perspective harmonious with Davis. 12 Linzey argues that this responsibility has been ignored in Christian thought largely due to Aquinas. 13 For Aquinas, love and charity for animals was not a concern; such a love was for God and the neighbor, not for “irrational creatures.” 14 What Aquinas may not have considered is the innate sense that animals must, at the very least, be attempting communication.

The Historians on Talking Beasts

The idea that non-human life is capable of speaking with us has captured the human imagination far into the past. Mythology is replete with talking beasts. The biblical account of the Fall speaks of communication with the non-human taking a devastating turn. Balaam and his donkey portrays a man whose treatment of his animal, a beast to whom the supernatural is revealed, is so contrary to God’s intention, that the animal is given the power of human speech. God “opens,” (pathach, lets loose, frees) the mouth of the donkey (Num. 22:28 HCSB). 15 The author implies a capacity for reason in the animal as it entreats Balaam using past experience and suggests that the animal would always speak if something were not binding her. These stories quicken the imagination and prime the longing for them to be true in more positive contexts. Josephus, for example, claims that in the pre-Fall Eden, “all the living creatures had one language.” 16 To claim veracity in Josephus’ account would hinder the idea of humanity as the chosen spokesperson only somewhat, but debating the nature of the original state of creation is not important. What can be taken from the historian is the concept of a lost time of communion and a current polylingual condition. Josephus enables us to imagine an ideal world in which thoughts flowed from the mind of God to the ear of humans, from the mouths and hands of humans through action and speech to the lives of animals and the earth; and in which the actions of animals expressed truth to humanity, which is offered back to the mind of God through praise and prayer.

Animal language has rooted itself into the ancient scientific mind as well as the religious. Historians and naturalists such as Pliny and Aelian attested to the ability of certain elephants to not only comprehend human speech, but to write and speak in it as well. 17 Authors of the sixteenth century remarked that the elephant Hanno, presented as a gift to Pope Leo X, would bow to those in authority and cry out to its master. 18 Pliny’s earlier account is rooted not only in the hearsay of far off eyewitnesses, but is joined to detailed descriptions of elephant behavior potentially derived from his own experiences observing the pachyderms kept in Rome. 19

Current scientific observation echoes Pliny in the area of animal intelligence and selfhood. The historian praised the elephant for its virtues and social code, and modern scientists likewise marvel at elephantine memory and care for others. 20 An article in Scientific American places elephants among the most intelligent species on earth, attributing to them “strong social bonds” with “awe-inspiring cooperation between family members.” 21 The family life of the elephants is “tight-knit” and communication appears highly complex:

Elephant clan members talk to one another with a combination of gentle chirps,thunderous trumpets and low-frequency rumbles undetectable to humans, as well as nudges, kicks and visual signals such as a tilt of the head or flap of the ear. They deliberate among themselves, make group decisions and applaud their achievements. 22

Additionally, elephants, as well as many other species, appear to exhibit grief over the loss of loved ones, a behavior also attested to by Pliny. 23 These findings lend support to the idea of a world constantly speaking. It only takes a little “openness of imagination,” a term used by Cummings to describe Pliny’s approach to the world, to see the animal world containing its own cultures and languages which we ourselves cannot understand. 24 Pliny seems to see the “rational” nature of animals as a non-issue, but at no cost to his shrewdness. 25 Italo Calvino, according to Cummings, views Pliny as a man of great imagination and love for nature, and this love, combined with his imagination, opens up an ability to give the animals voice, to interpret their actions in an attempt to understand their language, as one merely of another culture. 26

His imagination may well be rooted in desire, the desire to communicate with the other, expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien in On Fairy Stories. Tolkien states that one of humanity’s primordial desires is to “hold communion with other livings things,” particularly animals. 27 Tolkien does not merely describe a passing fancy, but a “primal” desire, something harkening back to the beginning of being human, back to humankind’s responsibility as spokesperson in the chain of communion. The use of the word “communion” holds far more gravity than even “communicate”; it implies intimacy. Until the world is redeemed, Tolkien seems to indicate that we are instead to tell Fairy Stories, to imagine what that intimacy may have been like, and to give the “other life” voice and human language.

Creating Ennobling Animal Voices

Creating poetry and stories that give animals a voice should work to dignify the animals and lift their concerns toward God. Returning to Scripture, the prophets share in giving voice to the earth through poetry. We have already seen Hosea’s language of the land expressed as fulfilling humanity’s ordained role. Historically, Pliny’s imaginative writing dignifies the beasts by presenting them as “a culture […] worthy of respect and understanding.” 28 Pliny does not anthropomorphize the elephants; indeed, he makes humans more animal like. The way of the elephants is purely elephantine, but it is honored. A properly dignifying work would fall either under Tolkien’s fairy story, which keeps intact the beast and translates its voice more than forcing the human voice onto the “Other,” or under Lawrence Buell’s “environmental text,” which has among its requirements the non-human depicted as a presence (we may even say “persona”), and an understanding that the human interests is not “the only legitimate interest.” 29 Other creatures have desires and longings to which the text gives voice, story, and a sense of character.

The contrasting position would be the “Beast Fable,” which presents the animals as nothing more than humans by proxy, thus colonizing the other and silencing the actual non-human voice. Tolkien remarks that the animal speech in the Beast Fable often abandons the desire to hold communion; the relational communion between humans and the non-human is removed. 30 By removing the human, the role of spokesperson is lost in the story. Consider an American writing a fictional tale of some far-flung island population, having no knowledge of their speech but only a desire to express life on that island. In removing her own perspective as a foreign filter, without appealing to her own imagination, she misrepresents the islanders by making her perspective theirs. Worse still is a beast fable in which “the animal form is only a mask upon a human face, a device of the satirist or the preacher.” 31 Consider, for example, Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, in which humans appear only in the periphery and have no influence, and certainly no difference from the animals who also wander about in motor cars, fire muskets, and wear modest apparel, while also being aware of birds and sheep who are the true animals and have none of these sensibilities nor speech. What Grahame presents are nothing more than whimsically caricatured humans.

In terms of true and modern fairy tales, C.S. Lewis, whose nonfiction writings suggest he believed a great deal in dignifying animals, has performed far better than most. His Narnia series perhaps performs least admirably in its earliest stages,—the Beavers with their sewing machines stand as the greatest offenders—but progresses in greater dignity to the animal as animal, and by enchanting the woods, Lewis succeeds in giving the environment a presence and persona. The Magician’s Newphew and The Last Battle best show talking animals as merely animals that talk and maintain their feral characteristics. Better still is his Space Trilogy, principally That Hideous Strength.

Though THS’s Bultitude the Bear does not speak in talking animal fashion, the passage containing his perspective presents a great deal of dignifying character. Bultitude’s mind is described as being “as furry and unhuman in shape as his body.” 32 Already Lewis removes any danger of imagining the bear as anything other than a bear. The human perspective is present as well, with Mrs. Maggs giving her own opinion as to how the bear’s mind works. The narrator further (positively) de-humanizes Bultitude by presenting him as a creature for whom I-Thou relationships do not exist. 33 Bultitude is neither hedonist nor “altruist,” yet he has longings; Lewis endows Bultitude with a sehnsucht-like desire in the following excerpt:

One met bees in the garden, but never found a bee-hive. The bees all went away, over the wall. And to follow the bees was the obvious thing to do. I think there was a sense in the bear’s mind—one could hardly call it a picture—of endless green lands beyond the wall, and hives innumerable, and bees the size of sparrows, and waiting there, or else walking, trickling, oozing to meet one, something or someone stickier, sweeter, more golden than honey itself. 34

Lewis first imbues Bultitude with bear-logic. If bees have hives, and no hive is in the garden, the hive must be elsewhere. If the bees go over the wall, then the hive, which has honey, must be over the wall as well. These steps are only slightly condensed within the text, suggesting a somewhat rational beast. Furthermore, Bultitude is led to imagine and desire, from his desire for honey, a paradise and a person greater than honey. By using “golden,” Lewis implies something rich, probably God. Therefore Bultitude has the same longing for perfection and relationship with God that drives Lewis’ argument from desire. By endowing Bultitude with this longing, Lewis, like Ransom, is participating in “man’s lost prerogative to enoble beasts.” 35 Not only do the characters in the text seek to restore communion with nature, but by writing the vaguely rational, sehnsucht-filled Bultitude, Lewis also helps restore communion.

Translating Through Observation

Another criterion for animal dignifying stories which give non-human creatures voice is observation. Pliny’s work was not solely imaginative; it involved research and probably first-hand research. He “strains to listen to elephants […] He does not claim that the elephants speak […] in the sense that humans speak. Yet in reporting what he does hear, he expands in several ways both the question of what an elephant might be thinking and what language is.” 36 The act of research and observation also comes with a responsibility to accuracy, to display the truth of the beasts, the wildness, the strange behavior. Returning to our author who wishes to write on a far off island, it would be worrisome enough to present her account without an outsider to filter our perception, but it would be far worse to present an un-researched account. Buell emphasizes the need for knowledge of the habits of wildlife in environmental nonfiction, such as Walden, but fiction and poetry are in need of such care as well. Naturalist John Burroughs, who criticized inaccurate poetry, asserted that transcendent beauty must come “through the true,” not in spite of it. 37 The author of animal stories must be careful to pay attention to facts of animal behavior to appropriately ennoble the creatures, but must also allow imagination to shape that behavior into beautiful speech or verse.

Many of Mary Oliver’s nature poems begin in observation. They describe her walking out into nature or seeing a wild animal, a bird or fox or even the presence of the wild around her. 38 Combined with these poems are others in which she interacts with her dog Percy, who will respond characteristically. In “Percy and Books (Eight),” Oliver remarks on her dog’s lack of interest in books while she praises “Ideas! The elegance of language!” The dog “says [… ,] I ate one once and it was enough. Let’s go.” 39 The speech given to Percy comes out of his previously described behavior which Oliver observes: “He puts his face over the top of [the book] and moans. / He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.” 40 Oliver translates this behavior, and combines it with previously observed actions, the eating to the book, to form speech for Percy which seems accurate and provides truth to the reader.

Another of Oliver’s poems, “Straight Talk from Fox,” is written entirely from the point of view of a wild red fox, the latter half in first person. The poem opens with “Listen says fox.” 41 Like the prophets, the voice of the poem calls attention to the speakings of the non-human creation. The poem then follows the fox in natural behaviors, but adds to them an imagined perspective: “it is music to run / over the hills to lick / dew from the leaves.” 42 The final words of each of these first two lines are verbs, emphasizing the actions of the fox. The beauty of music lies in the fox’s actions and later in the fox’s predation: “It is like / music to find the vole sucking the sweet of the apple […] Death itself is a music.” 43 Oliver extends her imaginative reach to suggest that the fox finds beauty in the hunt and in the rhythms of nature; even the vole is preying upon the apple. 44 The nexus of observation and imagination provides a compelling voice that helps attune the reader’s ear to the rhythms and otherness of the natural world.

The fox then turns his voice toward humanity, saying, “Don’t think I haven’t / peeked in your windows. I see you in all your seasons […] / talking about God as if he were in idea instead of the grass / instead of the stars, the rabbit caught / in one good teeth-whacking hit and brought / home to the den.” 45 This particular portion of the fox’s speech to the human world begins with a possible scenario of a fox observing human life and how the wild, non-human mind might interpret God. His perspective adds insight by challenging discourse about God and making Him a real physical matter. The rhyming couplet in lines 24-5 is the only one in the poem, adding greater emphasis to the fox’s definition of God. We may interpret God as the brutally slain prey who is not only killed for one but for the entire den, as a Christ-like image. The poetic voice of the fox then challenges humanity to remember God as a physical Being who was slain and calls us to carry the truth and beauty of nature back to our ears for us to contemplate and then to praise God.

These literary examples demonstrate the ways in which imagination, observation, and skill in writing can provide an accurate translation of the nonhuman world and language. We see a God-given economy of exchange between humankind and animal kind. Through caring stewardship practices, humans can fulfill one end of the exchange, sending down God’s word and plans through embodied action. However, the animal world is also sending up to us knowledge of truth and beauty. By observing the actions of animals and translating them into speech, be it through fantasy, realism, or poetry, we provide a clearer means of understanding the animal message. These written works may stand alone as praise to God, or even as reminders for us to praise God. They align us with our place in His natural order, and teach us to speak as He speaks.

Notes:

  1. Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 53-9. Emphasis mine.
  2. Ibid, 54.
  3. Ibid, 55.
  4. Ibid, 57.
  5. Ibid, 58.
  6. Ibid, 125.
  7. Hebrew Lexicon: H7225 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible. Accessed 29 Apr, 2014.
  8. Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, (Berkeley: Penguin, 1981), 268-9.
  9. Wendell Berry, “The Body and the Earth,” The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, (Sierra Club Books, 1996), 97-8.
  10. Ibid, 98.
  11. Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 45-6.
  12. Ibid, 58.
  13. Ibid, 12.
  14. Ibid, 14.
  15. Hebrew Lexicon: H6605 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible. Accessed 30 Apr, 2014.
  16. Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston, vol. 2, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), 67.
  17. Brian Cummings, “Pliny’s Literate Elephant and the Idea of Animal Language in Renaissance Thought,” in Renaissance Beasts, ed. Erica Fudge (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
  18. Ibid, 168-71.
  19. Ibid, 173.
  20. Ibid, 174.
  21. Ferris Jabr, “The Science Is In: Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized,” Scientific American, February 26, 2014.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Barbara J. King, “When Animals Mourn,” Scientific American, July 3013.
  24. Cummings, “Pliny’s Literate Elephant and the Idea of Animal Language in Renaissance Thought,” in Renaissance Beasts, 182.
  25. Ibid, 174, 171.
  26. Ibid, 173.
  27. J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 328.
  28. Pliny, quoted in Cummings, “Pliny’s Literate Elephant and the Idea of Animal Language in Renaissance Thought,” in Renaissance Beasts, 173.
  29. Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Belknap Press, 1996), 7.
  30. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Tales from the Perilous Realm328.
  31. Ibid.
  32. C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996), 306.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid, 307.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Cummings, “Pliny’s Literate Elephant and the Idea of Animal Language in Renaissance Thought,”in Renaissance Beasts, 181. Emphasis added.
  37. John Burroughs quoted in Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, 89.
  38. Mary Oliver, Red Bird: Poems (Beacon Press, 2009). And Mary Oliver, White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems (San Diego: Mariner Books, 1994).
  39. Oliver, “Percy and Books (Eight),” in Red Bird, 29.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Oliver, “Straight Talk from Fox,” in Red Bird, 11.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid.
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