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I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the older sister who directed most of my childhood games was a future novelist. A special incantation transported us to Fairyland, where the rooms of our house became the chambers of a mighty castle, the backyard bristled with the whispers of elves and fairies, and a walk in the woods offered half-glimpsed insights into the deepest mysteries. Fairyland was a world of make-believe: I made myself believe that all these things were real. My five senses told me I was still in the same old house and that all the characters in Fairyland bore a striking resemblance to my sister. But my sister helped me along: borrowing the rhetoric she’d picked up in church, she informed me that if I couldn’t see these worlds—if the elven forest looked like my backyard—that was the fault of my own lack of faith. My feelings of guilt were excruciating. I still remember the day that my sister—grown a bit older and less patient with these childish games—informed me that Fairyland didn’t really exist. I might be projecting a little, but I think that was the day I stopped believing in God.

But maybe belief doesn’t enter into it at all: I was playing at Fairyland, not investigating its veracity. Belief fits into a world where some things are true and others are false, and where the aim is to buy into all of the true ones and none of the false ones, while complying dutifully with the laws of logic. Disregarding these laws, I ran around in both my backyard and the courtyard of a fairy castle at the same time. For play demands acceptance, not belief: I didn’t have to suspend my disbelief to accept the truth of Fairyland any more than athletes have to suspend their disbelief when they accept that a bunch of chalk lines drawn on the ground place certain restrictions on their movements. Children accept that Santa Claus delivers gifts on Christmas Eve and the Easter Bunny deposits chocolate eggs in the garden because that’s part of the game. Only later does it occur to them to ask whether Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny is “real.”

Most stories written for children between the age of learning to speak and the age of doubting Santa Claus—it varies from child to child, but roughly between the ages of two and eight—seem to feature animals that talk, wear clothes, and inhabit human-like family and social structures. Why?

One answer would be that children are passive consumers of whatever stories adults shovel their way, and that adults impose zoocentrism on children. But children are hardly passive recipients: they beg to be told favorite stories again and again, and refuse to sit through stories that bore them. If you’re the kind of person who won’t believe anything social-scientific studies don’t tell you, trust me, the studies have been done and kids show a strong preference for stories with talking animals. Parents who tell their children only realistic stories won’t condition their children to respond positively to realism. They’ll just bore their children.

Anyway, children’s stories aren’t the only tales that swarm with talking animals. We find a similar anthropomorphic menagerie in myths. In fact, myths and children’s stories share a lot more than just talking animals. The central conflicts lean heavily on binary oppositions like good/evil, security/fear, life/ death and so on. The storytelling has a strong rhythmic component, employs vivid imagery and delights in the fantastic. Ancient myths also evince what we find in oral cultures today: nonliterate people, like children, outstrip literate adults in their fluency with metaphor. Studies show that three- and four-year-olds can generate a wider range of appropriate metaphors than college students can.

As far as we can tell, myths also elicit the same spirit of make-believe as children’s fantasies. The Haida tell the story of Raven releasing the first people from a clamshell on Rose Spit beach on the northeastern tip of Graham Island, but in telling this story they’re neither reporting a supposedly factual occurrence nor weaving fiction. Their attitude toward their myths—or at least their attitude before contact with Europeans—was no more true-or-false than my childhood attitude toward Santa Claus.

A strict distinction between fiction and reality, where it makes sense to talk about belief as endorsing some things as true and rejecting other things as false, goes hand in hand with literacy. The mid-century classicist Eric A. Havelock describes the massive cognitive shifts that take place when we start to relate to language as something written and not just spoken. For nonliterate people, speaking is a kind of acting that takes its place alongside other kinds of action. Literacy sets the reader apart from the world of action, says Havelock, and that distance makes more room for relating to the world in terms of knowledge and belief rather than action alone. In a world where stories are heard and not read, they become a part of that world. When we encounter them in books, stories have a separate existence, which makes it more natural to compare them with the world and sort them into fact and fiction.

Where acting in the world means being a part of it, contemplating the world means being apart from it. At least it does for us: nonliterate societies and preliterate children do their contemplating in the middle of things, as one part of a living, breathing world. Making sense of things involves embodying them, feeling what it would feel like to be a tree, a bird or a rock. (Bear in mind that it isn’t just animals that myths and children’s stories anthropomorphize: Thomas the Tank Engine is as much a person as Winnie the Pooh). Everything in the world is given the benefit of the doubt: it’s as much like us as our imagination can allow.

Literacy permits a degree of detachment from the world, and that also means a degree of distance from other animals. Like us, dogs breathe, move, make noises, have desires and lusts and emotions, and they even think; but dogs aren’t particularly prone to detached contemplation. If you aren’t either, you have less reason to think of yourself as essentially different from a dog. From totem to Tigger, the oral imagination seems a lot more inclined to identify powerfully with animals. Before we can think of ourselves as having dominion over the beasts, we live among them.

It might sound like I’m recapitulating all those awful colonial stereotypes of the savages as children who need to be civilized by the benevolent adult hand of European reason. Is this comparison between mythic cultures and preliterate children horribly condescending? They say all stereotypes have at least a grain of truth to them, and the truth here is that non-literate adults and preliterate children do share some things that literate adults lack (there are also—obviously—many, many differences). If this sounds condescending, to my mind that reflects a condescension toward children that’s far more pervasive and taken for granted than any condescension toward nonliterate societies. Children aren’t incomplete, unformed adults: they’re complete, fully formed children, and the transition from childhood to adulthood isn’t simply one of progressive improvement any more than the transition from oral society to post-industrial civilization is. Both involve trade-offs and compromises—and imagination is one of the main casualties.

If we drop the assumption that childhood is simply an imperfect version of our literate, rational adulthood, we start to see children as distinctive and peculiar creatures in their own right, creatures whose powerful identifi-ation with talking animals should come as no surprise. One talking animal from adult literature—the ape Red Peter in Kafka’s “Report to an Academy”—gives some hints as to why. Kafka has Red Peter address a learned society, recounting the story of his astonishing journey from an African jungle to “the average education of a European man.” Peter takes his name from a red scar on his cheek, left by the first of two shots that incapacitated him and landed him in a cage on a steamship bound for Europe. Peter quickly recognized that the only way out of his awful confinement was to learn to imitate his human captors and win their acceptance. So begins the arduous, painful task of suppressing his animal impulses and learning human language and manners, which culminates in his finding “a special way out for me, the way of humanity.”

In The Lives of Animals,[1] J. M. Coetzee’s protagonist Elizabeth Costello tells her audience that she feels like Red Peter, and she says she doesn’t mean this ironically. Costello sees Red Peter not as a scholar addressing his peers, but as “a branded, marked, wounded animal presenting himself as speaking testimony to a gathering of scholars.” Red Peter’s wound is that first shot by which his animal self was confined and which forced him to seek a “way out” by becoming human. He exhibits this wound not just in the literal sense that he bears it on his face, but also because his ability to address the Academy in the first place is a consequence of that wound: learning to speak like an educated European was the only alternative to confinement and abuse. A novelist uncomfortable in an academic setting, Costello feels herself similarly wounded in the forced acquisition of scholarly decorum. She contrasts the rigorous cogitation of the Academy with “fullness, embodiedness, the sensation of being,” and suggests that, in suppressing this fullness, we also suppress our feeling of kinship with other animals. Costello sees Kafka and Red Peter, and, by extension, herself, as “monstrous thinking devices mounted inexplicably on suffering animal bodies.”

She never says as much herself, but Costello’s characterization applies, I think, to all of us, or at least to all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time. Red Peter tells his audience that he has only the dimmest recollection of his life before he awoke in a cage on the steamship, and similarly my own memories vanish into a haze as I reach back deeper into the training that, among other things, taught me to string written words together like this. Writing about my life as a child is curiously different from writing about my life as a college student: it’s not just that it’s farther in the past, it’s also that, in a very real sense, I was someone else back then. We are born hairless apes with certain aptitudes for imitation, language acquisition, play and so on, and our elders gradually train us into humanity. This process of domestication is inevitably violent, even if this violence isn’t necessarily wrong: acculturation requires rigorous discipline, and as many sticks as carrots.

But it’s at least as true to say that we play our way into adulthood as to say that we’re trained into it (and both of these ways of putting it, I think, carry a lot more truth than saying we’re reasoned into adulthood). Childhood is a period of intense and incessant play. We fiddle with toys and exposed electrical sockets, we imitate every animate being in our environment—as well as those in the richer menagerie of our imagination—and even practical activities only make sense to us as games. A spoonful of food is more likely to land in a child’s mouth if it imitates an airplane on the journey over.

And adulthood begins as a game. The characters my sister and I played in Fairyland were usually teenagers and adults (even if sometimes elven teenagers and fairy adults) because we were drawn to these older role models in their authority, self-possession and freedom. What child hasn’t played some version of House, where the roles of father and mother, professional and wage earner, find enthusiastically inept imitation? Children play out the roles they imagine themselves one day assuming. Because my sister built many of our games around the heroes she most admired in stories, princesses were often the most dynamic protagonists. I think my parents took it pretty well when I said that when I grew up I wanted to be a princess.

In playing our way into adulthood, we play our way from nature to culture. The opposition between nature and culture is one of the commonest binary pairings that structure children’s stories. Max is banished from the culture of the dinner table and travels to the land where the Wild Things are; a wardrobe in an English country house leads Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy into the alfresco world of Narnia; Babar moves between the cultured world of the city and his original home in the jungle. The nature/culture contrast is particularly potent for children who are born as little apes and play their way into cultured humanity. As children, we know we aren’t just animals, but we also know that we don’t fully belong to the perplexing, ordered world of grown-ups. We’re a lot like clothed, talking animals, somewhere betwixt and between. No wonder Peter Rabbit made a lot of sense to me as a child.

Adults aren’t the only ones who feel nostalgia for childhood: a seven-year-old boy is more keenly aware than a grown-up of the childish things he’s left behind with his five-year-old self. Children look up to the adults they’re learning to be, but they aren’t blind to the irony that, in playing House, they’re playing at being people who play far less than they do, and have far more responsibilities. We only dimly grasp these responsibilities as children, and look upon them with understandable anxiety.

The semi-cultured animals of children’s stories often face challenges that speak to the anxieties of growing up. These animals are almost always prey, and where they aren’t, they certainly aren’t predators: bears often feature as protagonists in children’s stories, but they never eat anything more human-like than a fish. (Alex the lion in the animated film Madagascar, who struggles with his carnivorous instincts when he finds himself in the wilds of Madagascar with his herbivorous friends, is the exception that proves the rule). Consider the Three Little Pigs, pursued by the Big Bad Wolf who wants to eat them. When you reflect on the animal most known to eat pigs—at a rate of some one hundred million metric tons per year—it isn’t hard to see who the Big Bad Wolf stands in for. The house-building pigs are slowly finding their way into the world of adult humans, but this world also threatens to gobble them up.

As a child, I rooted for the Three Little Pigs as well as for Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, and I delighted in the company of Piglet. I also ate ham sandwiches for lunch. I never really thought twice about this odd tension. And not because I was unaware: there was never a moment of shock when I discovered that ham (or pork chops or bacon) was pigs. Beatrix Potter understood that children could see pigs as both people and food at the same time: in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, she summarizes and dismisses the eponymous hero’s aunts as follows: “Aunt Dorcas was a stout speckled pig who kept hens. Aunt Porcas was a large smiling black pig who took in washing. We shall not hear very much about them in this story. They led prosperous uneventful lives, and their end was bacon.” Much as I neither really believed nor disbelieved that Fairyland or Santa Claus were real, I neither really believed nor disbelieved that the delightful piggies I encountered in stories were the same animals that passed through my digestive tract.

Well into adulthood, I held on to the conflicting views that animals were my fellow creatures and that animals were my food. The delight I feel on encountering real-life pigs isn’t just a holdover of fond feelings toward the storybook pigs from my childhood. Those fond feelings themselves arose from a sense that’s dimmed as I’ve grown older: that I, too, am an animal, and that the similarities between pigs and me are more important than the differences. That grown-ups can see animals both as fellow creatures and as food reveals that we don’t entirely leave behind the childhood ability to accept incompatible beliefs. But the imaginative contradictions of childhood play are also gentler: there were no slaughterhouses in Fairyland.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Also published as Lessons Three and Four in Elizabeth Costello.
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