I saw the end of Hidalgo the other day. I have to say that, even though it isn’t the greatest movie ever, I really do like it. Mortensen’s character’s relationship with his horse is a thing I instinctually identify with; indeed, its something that a lot of people identify with. Domesticated animals and our relationships with them play a large role in many of our lives. They are as important, often, as our relationships with other people and, indeed, often our animals’ welfare can be seen as more important than the welfare of those humans we dislike or have no relationship with (cue Mortensen’s throaty growl: “Nobody hurts my horse.”). We think of them as our family, as our friends, and relentlessly anthropomorphize them. They are characters in our lives, and important ones, too.
It’s just a little bit odd, then, that fantasy novels so rarely depict animals as the real, well-rounded characters we know them to be. Granted, the story is often not about the hero’s horse, but rather the hero’s attempts to destroy the Evil One/rescue his lover/attain revenge, and it may seem as though incorporating their steeds as characters is a waste of valuable time. Truthfully enough, this might be the case in many situations. I’m not that certain, though, that this situation comes up as often as one might think. Perhaps you needn’t personify the horse or dog or what-have-you, but that certainly doesn’t mean you need to objectify it. It’s a living creature; it should get the same consideration any other random minor human character gets, from a shopkeeper to a barmaid to a nameless soldier.
Part of me feels like some of this objectification is a side-effect of our own modern society. Animals aren’t part of our lives on a daily basis, so we don’t always consider them as ‘alive.’ I have encountered a disturbing number of people who purchase dogs and treat them like fashion accessories, then can’t understand why the dogs are out of their minds with frustration and boredom. It’s because they’re alive! Our mechanical world is accustomed to conveyances that do whatever we say, whenever we say it and toys that turn on and off at a whim – no wonder we don’t always think that animals can be characterized. In pre-industrial societies (which includes most fantasy settings), animals and interacting with animals was a daily occurrence. They were required for a lot of the work that needed to be done in both farms and cities. Granted, these people didn’t have the overly-sentimentalized visions of pets and animals that we often do – they were as much tools as companions – but they were probably more aware that animals had attitudes and characteristics that separated them from mere objects.
Some of my favorite moments in some fantasy novels involve a character or characters’ interactions with animals. I love how hard Sam finds it to send the pony, Bill, away outside the gates of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. I love how Kvothe introduces himself to his horse in The Name of the Wind – with a mix of kindness and caution – even though he turns around and sells it shortly afterwards. One of the best is Haplo’s relationship with his dog in Weiss and Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle, which is very nuanced. It is not by accident that the dog winds up being a part of Haplo’s own soul.
Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that animals can – and should – be used as important and interesting characters in fantasy settings, and not just in the ‘my horse talks and isn’t that awesome’ sense that permeates all that young adult fantasy stuffed aimed at girls. They are living creatures that can share in the story and enhance the main character, just like anybody else. Just like our animals do in real life.