Alice Dolling, 2015

Alice Dolling, 2015

Reading Animals

by Peter Ellis


We’ve all thought about what sort of animal we are at one time or another; ‘spirit animals’, we sometimes call them. Mine is probably a duck, if I’m honest: ducks talk too much, and they waddle about in this funny sort of clumsy way, especially when they run. All this resonates well with my character. Ducks are easy to rile up, too, but they’re utterly comical instead of intimidating, and they’re completely unaware of that fact. They waddle at you as fast as they can in this clumsy charge, bent down, beak agape. I think that my friends like to get me riled up sometimes so that they can see something similar.

 Alice Dolling, 2015

Alice Dolling, 2015

The business of reading this much into ducks is limited, really: they don’t actually have character in the way that I choose to think of them. They have opaque duck-personalities that render my human insight into the reality of their character worthless. Yet there is a fascinating human tradition of narrative creation that takes hold when we choose to impose our understanding of personality upon animals, either in ignorance or with fully-disclosed choice. When we observe our pets, for example, we embark on an act of creation in discerning their personality. This act of creation is a narrative act. I asked a friend of mine what her spirit animal is, and she told me that she had quite a genuine resonance with donkeys: “I like the melancholy associated with donkeys, and their loyalty, their strange kind of strength. They have expressive faces, beautiful eyes that seem sad, long eyelashes, also quite feminine.” She elaborated that it is easier to relate to animals that are feminine, as she is quite feminine (as I’m sure she won’t mind my saying.) As she reflected upon this further she said: “I suppose it reflects my emphasis on aestheticism... Hopefully a donkey seems less tied in with being vain,” as opposed to cats, which we both agreed are most certainly considered vain. She elaborated further upon donkeys, thinking quite introspectively: 

So donkeys are funny, and sweet, and strange. When I see donkeys I just think they are so glum and wonderful, and you know, sometimes you make eye contact with an animal and you feel a well of sadness or some strange connection. I don’t know. BUT I do know I have always made my parents stop whatever we were doing to look at cows (similar sadness/eye focus) and donkeys.

What is happening when my friend ponders the personality of a donkey is a consideration of humanity through an act of creation. These are human characteristics that she is reflecting upon and evaluating as genuine qualities of both herself and the animal. In this context, animals are being used as a sort of moralising tool to reflect upon the human qualities that she values. While she appreciates cats, she is hesitant to recognise a common ground with them due to their perceived vanity, which is not something with which she aligns herself. Conversely, the perceived sincerity and soulful melancholy that she associates with donkeys are what constitute her bond with them. I asked her if she felt that donkeys like her in return: “Hah yeah, I suppose that’s a big part of it. I’m probably projecting that they do.” She quickly followed that up with a further insight: “Also, donkeys/cats/etc… have always been in books/films/tv, so it’s really easy to interpret their behaviour as human.” This, conveniently, is a prime segue.

What does it really mean to say that the lion is proud, or that the owl is wise? Are lambs truly timid? Here’s one you won’t like: are dogs truly loyal? They protect us, they help us hunt, they do what we tell them, sure, but those are qualities of utility that can be chalked up to evolution—what of genuine loyalty? This is not a pleasant notion to entertain, because it is also quite clear that dogs derive sincere pleasure from their interactions with humans, as do many other animals. They clearly form bonds with people, and they defend those people as they would members of their own pack…but that’s just it; dogs are pack animals, and defending their pack is an evolutionary trait. Look, I’m not knocking dogs, or any other animal for that matter. I can feel a close friend of mine seething with rage at the suggestion that his dog is not truly loyal—“More loyal than you, Ellis!” he’s saying. 

 Alice Dolling, 2015

Alice Dolling, 2015

I agree that dogs are loyal, and most of us would agree that someone who did not feel an emotional, spiritual connection with a kind and loving dog would be a cold human. The fact remains, though, that these qualities are human interpretations, and they can only be accurately understood and reflected upon by humans. The way that we perceive animals is a combination of their narrated history (the notion that owls are wise) and then further our own uniquely personal narrations of their personalities (my friend’s quite personal connection with donkeys). It’s not like dogs are running about accusing porcupines of looking like squirrels that are having really bad hair days… Except for ‘Chance’ in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. No lion is acting out on fratricidal tendencies in order to take over the established power hierarchy of animals in the Serengeti, asserting himself as the One True Lion King in a way that elegantly mirrors the plot of Hamlet …except for ‘Scar’ in The Lion King. The human tradition of understanding animals is always expressed through the language of human character. We are creatures of narrative: we create narratives in our minds as vehicles through which we understand the world. The act of anthropomorphising animals in this way is natural, and it makes sense: as humans we read behaviour not just from each other, but from animals. So our dogs should be thought of as loyal, kind, and loving, because that is how we, as humans, understand and appreciate the value of such behaviour. We do this with completely non-sentient elements of nature too—the ocean is capricious, the beach is inviting, the desert is unrelenting, the forest is mysterious. But I digress…

Our history of anthropomorphising and mythologising animals comprises possibly the oldest form of human narrative expression. From the religious/philosophical storytelling traditions of Indigenous Australian cultures to…well, actually, I can’t think of, or find, any cultures that have not narrated animals in order to communicate an understanding of themselves and the environment. There are three ways of narrating animals in particular that I’d now like to think about. The first is when we literally supplant human characters with animal characters; the second is when we treat animals as spiritual representatives/teachers to humans regarding non-human ‘nature’; and the third is when we do away with the human/animal binary, and instead consider everything equally under the umbrella of the natural world. These three methods of animal representation form a spectrum from human, through semi-human, to non-human, and each point on the spectrum is used for a different reason. There is, of course, a multitude of ways of considering the narration of animals, of which my little spectrum is just one. In establishing this spectrum I want to have a look at Disney’s The Lion King, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Cormac McCarthy’s brutally violent and morally apathetic novel Blood Meridian…(guess the odd one out in that list).

 Alice Dolling, 2015

Alice Dolling, 2015

Disney’s 1995 masterpiece The Lion King is crafted from the Shakespearean drama Hamlet, and it explores concepts of ambition and revenge. The Lion King shows how easy it is to attribute human characteristics to animals in remarkably complex ways, not only in successfully using them to depict Shakespeare’s work, but also in sparking critical commentary regarding humans. It may be hard to believe, but some people fiercely dislike The Lion King for the reason that it allegedly represents a morally bad conception of the human race. It is this criticism that Lauren and Alan Dundes explore in their excellent article ‘Young hero Simba defeats old villain Scar: Oedipus wrecks the Lyin’ King’:

Several authors also decry a society in which a social position disadvantageous to the masses is unquestioningly accepted. Excepting the villains, the characters convey that the privilege of the relatively few elite lions is necessary, natural and desirable. There is no sense of injustice surrounding the hyenas’ exclusion from the Pride Lands (compared by one author to Jewish ghettoes in Nazi-occupied Poland, apartheid in South Africa, “Jim Crow” laws in the South, and impoverished Native Americans on reservations.) Instead, the hyenas’ marginalization is warranted, as they are undeserving and destructive encroachers in the kingdom that lions alone should control.

I love the fact that people are getting paid to critique xenophobic classism among the animals of the Serengeti. While some may not agree with this way of reading The Lion King, the interpretation is there and it is a legitimate reading of the power structure presented within the film. The reason that political morality can be applied to the film is because it really isn’t about animals: like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, it’s about human minds in animal bodies, adapting and recreating both implicit human identities and explicit animal identities through narrative. Children’s texts are wildly populated by these sorts of narratives.

Another method of establishing a narrative link with animals is through the depiction of them as gatekeepers of the natural world that is not immediately available to us. A good example of this is the ‘Patronus’ found in the Harry Potter series. Harry’s ‘Patronus Charm’ is described here by the fictive author ‘Miranda Goshawk’:

This ancient and mysterious charm conjures a magical guardian, a projection of all your most positive feelings. The Patronus Charm is difficult, and many witches and wizards are unable to produce a full, corporeal Patronus, a guardian which generally takes the shape of the animal with whom they share the deepest affinity. You may suspect, but you will never truly know what form your Patronus will take until you succeed in conjuring it.

 Tom Hunt, 2015

Tom Hunt, 2015

This Patronus is, essentially, the manifestation of a spirit animal. Each of the magically-inclined protagonists has one of these Patronuses, and in each case they reflect something fundamental about their nature that is understood through animals. Harry’s Patronus is a stag. His affinity with this animal represents Harry’s continued link to his father, but it also unites Harry with the forest. Deer have a place in narrated anthropomorphic tradition, particularly in Celtic and Norse mythology, as the ‘soul’ of the forest, and are frequently narrated as the innocent lifeblood of the teeming natural world. For Harry, who is quite literally the lifeblood of the narrative and plot, this is particularly apt given his connection with the Forbidden Forest. The Forbidden Forest is a mysterious, foreboding and morally neutral place filled with life, and thus with danger. This is an excellent allegory for nature as a concept. It is in this forest that Harry first discovers his Patronus as a stag, and it is also here that Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort begins. Harry comes to the forest to die, to sacrifice himself to destroy Voldemort. Of course, Harry does not die: Voldemort ironically facilities his own destruction in attempting to kill Harry, whose sacrifice saves the world from darkness. Harry awakens safely in the forest and journeys back to Hogwarts castle, where he finally destroys his nemesis and resumes his human life. It is interesting here to note that Voldemort has no patronus: he has no spirit animal and thus no link to the natural world. He is an unnatural force of evil that threatens the natural order. While it is Hogwarts Castle (the edifice of the human world) where Voldemort is ultimately beaten, it is the forest (the bastion of the natural world) where Harry, the stag and thus the incarnate champion of the natural world, gains the knowledge and the power to defeat the force of unnatural evil. The narration of animals in this way represents them as a bridge and a guide between the human world and the natural world. This sort of storytelling conceives of an essence of life and a natural world that, in an existential sense, is separate to our human consciousness.

This way of conceiving of nature forms an interesting binary: the human and the non-human. The Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter represents the mystery and danger of nature, and as a result it is forbidden for the students to enter it: it is not the natural world of the human. As William Cronon writes in his hugely controversial paper ‘The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’:

This then is the central paradox: wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian deconstructs this binary by locating its human characters as true equals to the animals that they share the earth with. Set primarily in the US-Mexican borderlands in the 1800s, Blood Meridian follows a band of scalphunters who traverse the desert borderlands hunting Native American tribes in order to claim their bounties. Like the Forbidden Forest, the desert of Blood Meridian represents the raw, mysterious and dangerous characteristics of nature. In this world, however, the humans are just another element of nature, and their beliefs and their way of seeing the world is described in much the same way as the behaviour of other animals is described. Blood Meridian’s narrator is unscathed by the imposition of human narrative, and instead holds absolute neutrality between all objects, animate and inanimate alike:

In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence. […] …here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.

Blood Meridian’s narrator exists outside the world of history and of human understanding, and instead sits as an utterly impartial observer. Under this narrator’s gaze, the source of action and the nature of understanding is deemed irrelevant. The movement of animals and humans alike is recognised indifferently in the same breath as the landscape. What Blood Meridian does is recognise the human act of narration as an animal behaviour, in the same way that dogs acting in a pack is an animal behaviour. It shows how powerful this narrative behaviour is in humans, and how our ability to generate narratives forges cultural belief, and influences the actions of people within that narrated culture. This final way of interpreting animals is much broader, as it is human-inclusive. It articulates how our narrative acts, including our understanding of the characters of animals, are behavioural acts that we perform in order to understand the world. In this way, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian appreciates that our narrative interpretation of the world is nothing more than an immensely powerful illusion.

While it may seem like a cynical mode of understanding—to think of your interpretation of the world as an illusion—what it also does is show why it is so important to narrate your world well. It is extremely important to understand your dog as kind and loving—what a horrible illusion it would be to instead interpret it as a dumb and thoughtless beast. I wrote earlier that it’s a worthless insight to read into the character of a duck, and I take that back. I like ducks, dammit! I want to be a duck. I take pleasure in the idea that I’m essentially a harmless waddling animal, unaware of how silly I act. Similarly, I feel a great warmth in knowing that my friend has such an affinity with donkeys, because hearing and understanding her narrative gives me another way to interpret, and love, her character. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that your dog isn’t really loyal, but if you don’t think that it is loyal then you’re a bad person.

 Genevieve Dawson-Scott, 2015   

Genevieve Dawson-Scott, 2015



  1. Andreasen, Liana Vrajitoru, “Blood Meridian and the Spatial Metaphysics of the West”, from Southwestern American Literature, Vol. 36, No.3, Summer 2011, pp. 19-30.

  2. Boehrer, Bruce, Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature, University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2010.

  3. Cronon, William, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”, from Environmental History, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1996, pp. 7-28.

  4. Dundes, Lauren; Dundes, Alan, “Young hero Simba defeats old villain Scar: Oedipus wrecks the Lyin’ King”, from The Social Science Journal, Vol. 43, No. 3, 2006, pp. 479-485.

  5. Estes, Andrew Keller, Cormac McCarthy and the Writing of American Spaces, Rudopi, New York, 2013.

  6. Frye, Steven, Understanding Cormac McCarthy, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Carolina, 2009.

  7. Hilfer, Anthony Channel, “’The Nothing That is’: Representations of Nature in American Writing”, from Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 54, No. 2, 2012 Summer, pp. 217-297.

  8. Sanborn, Wallis R., III, Animals in the Fiction of Cormac McCarthy, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2006.

Peter Ellis is a writer in Adelaide, South Australia. He is a PhD candidate at Flinders University in the field of literature. His project regards the influence of violence in the narration of US television since the beginning of the 21st century.

Illustrations by South Australian artists Alice Dolling, Tom Hunt, and Genevieve Dawson-Scott. 

Editor's note: Matt Barlow (SA) responded to this piece in Animism and Beyond. Read it here.