There’s a more sinister tale behind the animals in many popular stories

By Annabel Barker: Literature Columnist

Animal stories have played an important role in our childhood, especially the excitement of a tiger coming to tea (and eating everything). How many of us have wished to walk through a Hundred-Acre Wood with a bunch of animal companions, or join forces with a talking lion to defeat a White Witch? Aside from fantasy stories, there are some children’s books which come close to reflecting the increasing reality of exotic pet ownership.

Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks

In a story that burns bright, two tiger cubs are orphaned, snatched from the jungle, shipped to Rome and separated. One is used in the Colosseum to fight gladiators for entertainment; the other is presented to the Emperor’s daughter as her new pet. Princess Aurelia, who is initially delighted with her new companion, is appalled when she learns that the animals at her father’s disposal will eventually lose their lives in the arena.

Because tigers originate from what the ancient Romans called “a far eastern land” – a land not under Roman rule – they are valued higher than all the other animals, including lions. Though not quite the ancient Roman equivalent of Joe Exotic (the subject of the Netflix documentary Tiger King), Emperor Septimus, with the variety of animals captured for the circus at his command, could be considered to be in the running.

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The Butterfly Lion by Michael Morpurgo

To those of us who spent our childhood in Africa, alongside lions, elephants and giraffes, like Bertie Andrews, it is highly unlikely that we established personal relationships with any of them. Even so, making friends with an elephant seems safe in comparison to making friends with a lion. One day, Bertie rescues an orphaned lion cub from a pack of hyenas; from then on, he and the cub are inseparable, until Bertie is sent to boarding school in England and the cub is sold to a French circus. Years later, an adult Bertie is able to track down the circus master in France and he is reunited with his lion. Bertie, his wife and the lion live happily ever after. Incredible though Bertie’s story is, he does have only one lion as opposed to a menagerie of wild beasts.

White Fang by Jack London

Since its publication in 1906, there have been various adaptations of White Fang, including a 1991 film starring Ethan Hawke and, in 2018, a French computer-animated Netflix film. Rather than wholly wolf, Jack London’s titular protagonist is three-quarters wolf and one-quarter dog, but even so, possesses a feral quality that pet dogs could never hope to match. He is born wild, but becomes more domesticated as time goes on, as he is raised by a series of masters. Eventually, White Fang becomes part of a family when he saves the father of his third master, who is the first human to truly show him kindness.

Animal stories never fail to warm or wrench the heart, often in equal measure. Only two of these stories have happy endings. The presence of animals is used in stories to highlight the kindness of some characters and the cruelty of others, particularly of those in power.

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