What is the bite of animal stories? They are a good place to go to understand humans: the place where our anxieties and hopes, our hungers and terrors, leak out most vividly. For thousands of years we have offered them to children, to convey our ideals under cover of animal faces.
The story of how the panda got her markings, for example, is told to children in both China and Tibet. It explains how long ago a shepherdess, guarding her sheep, was joined every day by a panda cub. Back in those early days, all pandas were snow white, and possibly the cub believed the sheep were pandas. One day, as the panda cub was gambolling clumsily with the lambs, a leopard attacked it. The shepherdess threw herself in front of the panda, and was killed. The panda cub and his family came in sombre gratitude to the shepherdess’s funeral, and out of respect they covered their arms with black ashes, as was the custom. As the funeral went on, they wept, wiping their eyes with their paws and staining them black. As their weeping grew louder, they covered their ears, so that they would not have to hear their own sobs. The ash never washed off, and therefore they are forever marked with signs of their love and grief, their ongoing fealty to bravery.
Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a children’s book that terrifies and delights, is a very different kind of animal story. The novel celebrates its 50th anniversary this year; it was at first rejected by the major British publishers, until in 1972, it was accepted by a one-man publishing house run by Rex Collings. Collings wrote to a friend: “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” In some ways he was – the book was heralded, at the time, as both bold and wildly strange. It tells the story of wandering rabbits who come across the warren of Efrafa, where the despotic General Woundwort runs a lapine police state, controlled by enforcers called the Owslafa. It is a text alive with possibility; people have read into it metaphors for liberation from oppressive regimes, from materialism, from the cold war.
Some have seen Watership Down as following in the tradition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Glory, NoViolet Bulawayo’s grimly witty satire of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, is another novel that takes inspiration from Orwell’s political fable, first published in 1945. In Glory, shortlisted for this year’s Booker prize, the Old Horse is ousted in a coup after 40 years of despotic rule, along with his wife, the donkey Marvellous: but soon the new ruling horse, Tuvius Delight Shasha, becomes as brutal as the Old Horse ever was. Bulawayo comments in her author’s note that she began writing nonfiction about Mugabe, but it was through fictional animals that she found the freedom to be bold and angry, and write the truth about violence and tyranny.
Another type of animal story, in which we seize on animals as a living symbol into which to pour tales of fear and mistrust, goes much further back. Many hundreds of years ago we chose the wolf to play the villain. Each week throughout the 17th century, a document was drawn up to record the causes of death in London, called the bill of mortality. The causes listed are vivid: “affrighted”, “blasted”, “teeth”, “dead in street”, “eaten of lice”. In one 1650 account, eight cases read: “Wolf”. It’s tempting to imagine a fanged shadow prowling the beer halls of Drury Lane, but in fact “wolf” was the name given to a far deadlier killer. In 1615, a clergyman wrote of “disease in the breast, call’d the Cancer, vulgarly the wolf”. In 1710, a translation of the writings of the French surgeon Pierre Dionis read: “’Tis a Disease which attacks not only the Breast, but several other Parts, on which it is not less outrageous. It sometimes assumes different names; when it comes on the Legs, ’tis called the Wolf, because if left to itself, ’twill not quit them ’till it has devoured them.”
The link between wolves and cancer became so entrenched in the popular imagination that in 1714, the physician Daniel Turner wrote of “a famous Cancer Doctor” who claimed to have cured a woman’s cancerous ulcer: “Such an [tall tale] I was not long since inform’d of, by a Woman who vowed that … when they held a Piece of raw Flesh at a Distance from the Sore, the Wolf peeps out, discovering his Head, and gaping to receive it.” The image – of an actual wolf peeking out from a woman’s flesh like a fairground whack-a-mole – shows, for all its lunacy, the potency of our metaphors: we start to believe them. In 1599, The Boock of Physicke suggested that a cure for cancer was eating dried and powdered “wolves-tunge”; our figurative language has a fairytale power over us, possessing us as we conjure with it.
The very first transformation scene in the work of the Roman poet Ovid is also the grisliest, and one of the earliest fictional accounts of a human transforming into a wolf. King Lycaon murders a hostage, then cooks his limbs, “still warm with life, boiling some and roasting others over the fire”, and serves him to Zeus. On discovering what he has been given, Zeus strikes Lycaon’s palace with lightning and banishes him into the wilderness. “There he uttered howling noises, and his attempts to speak were in vain. His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs, and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws.”
Transformation, for Ovid, is a kind of truth-telling, and the truth of the wolf was its hunger and underhanded savagery. The story was wildly popular and, through this and others like it – Red Riding Hood, Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf – we made the wolf into something darker and crueler and stronger than it is, and continued to hunt them long after they were a threat to us. The black wolf was hunted to global extinction in 1908; Gregory’s wolf, a tawny, slender creature, died out in 1980. In fact, wolves are shy, cautious animals: they make atrocious guard dogs because, faced with strangers, their first impulse is to run and hide. A wolf can eat 10kg of meat in a single sitting, but their preferred food is deer, not human, as well as melons, figs, berries and grains. So they are formidably hungry, yes, just not for us. Our fears are dangerous, to the great parliament of the non-human, just as our hungers and our loves are dangerous to them.
The aye-aye lemur has similarly suffered from the stories attached to it. Although much Madagascan folklore militates passionately against the killing of lemurs, the aye-aye is an exception. They are thought in some areas to be able to prophesy death; they have vast eyes, large, sensitive ears, and a middle finger that’s twice as long as their other digits; when the aye-aye points its middle finger at a person, they are taken to be cursed. Another story tells that it once used the long finger to puncture a human heart. As a result they’re unloved, and humans hunted them so relentlessly that they were thought to be extinct until being rediscovered in the 60s. Our stories are living things; they have a force not to be underestimated.
It was not long after that that Watership Down changed the way a generation of children would look at rabbits. This is the power of animal metaphors and tales – they are unwieldy, and rarely remain purely stories. They take on a force and life of their own; the fiction feeds our understanding of the real living thing, their wildness and unknowability feeds the fiction, and the stories prowl on.
The Golden Mole and Other Living Treasure by Katherine Rundell is published by Faber. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply