Brief ponderings on nature and lush environments in creative writing: From natural history to talking animals.
I have often thought about natural history and talking animals (or telepathic animals), in creative writing. More importantly in fantastical literature which is my preferred subject of persistent and reflective enquiry. I have these little inward discussions about certain writing processes and usage of real or primary-world vehicles to deliver the story, and enrich my own worlds/setting.
Is natural history, that is, our environment, primary or secondary? It is inherent to our ‘real’ or primary-world, so is it not the same for our secondary-world?
I am writing a comprehensive world-history for my Realm of the Gnomes saga, and that world will also be used for many other of my stories including Skerry and a short novella Hestur, but it doesn’t stop there. I need to understand my world and what is in it—what makes it, what needs to be different from our reality, or why have it—because if I can’t understand or believe my world, neither will my readers?
Looking back at early fiction, especially the l9th century, there is plenty of evidence of fantasy writers either consciously or subconsciously focusing on natural history in their world-building process. After all, from the lush and scenic settings of The Shire to the anthropomorphic animals in Animal Farm, isn’t it simply all part of creative storytelling? Where would stories be without the fauna and flora, and their complex involvement? However, even barren worlds with no ‘life’ at all can be rich and exciting … can’t they?
Some writers have obtained influences of the fauna and flora simply for their love and affinity to the outdoor world, a prime example being Beatrix Potter (Leah and Rebanks, 2016). Having a rich country-side setting with talking animals is what makes Peter Rabbit, is it not? Or could Peter Rabbit have been written in a concrete-filled New York with no other animals? I’d like to think that there is a story in whatever parameters you are given, so anything is possible.
For whatever reasons, others have felt a need to incorporate large biodiversites in the name of adding a realistic substance and believability to their works. Visually, James Cameron’s Avatar would deliver a poor experience to viewers if the world and language of Pandora wasn’t present. In Literature, what would the 1908 classic Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame be without the sumptuous habitat and animals, and where would George Orwell’s dystopian Animal Farm be without its farm animals. More importantly, where would Middle-Earth’s legendarium be without the glorious fauna and flora and Shelob, the spider that lives high in the Ephel Dúath Mountains that borders Mordor?
So what makes natural history so important to the fantasy or imaginative worlds from world-building (or secondary world) to anthropomorphism? That’s a difficult question. What are these influences in creative works? Is it purely creation, or a mixture of cultural unconsciousness as a result of our own biological living—living in the primary world? These are questions I often ask myself, and continue to ponder on.
Fantasy literature incorporates “creature staples” and a narrative similitude that transpires across the genre. For centuries dragons and mythical creatures have been used in both early and modern fantasy; and with the fantastical being the predominant genre for the incorporation of mythologies and folk-lore usage. Were these simply created to relay morals or instill societal rules?
As far back as the Greek fabulist Aesop right up to The Völsungasaga, animals have been used in many different ways. They have been incorporated into writing as purely to set a scene or setting, to use in trying to deliver morals to younger audiences. In many of Aesop’s tales animals speak and have human characteristics.
Anthropomorphism and personification have ancient roots as storytelling and artistic devices. The fable of The Hawk and the Nightingale is one of the earliest recorded in Greek and there have been many variations on the story since the Classical period*. The story began as a reflection on the arbitrary use of power and eventually shifted to being a lesson in the wise use of resources. Aesop’s tales used to be told in a way that appealed to children and in a way that these morals could be relayed, and more importantly in a way that satirised human society through a different or secondary world.
Children were therefore the ideal vehicle to relay the fantastical purely as they were open-minded. They had the innocence or receptiveness towards a truly bizarre and unbelievable situation or world, whereas through various time-periods adults where prone not to believe anything that wasn’t true to real life. A true Peter Pan syndrome. Adults often shunted the preposterous assumption that animals could speak, let alone teach them any lessons about life. It was also hard to believe that flowers and animals appeared on an alien planet, often with absurd characteristics—again, they were unbelievable—they weren’t real. Although, today that seems to be shifting and evolving further visually in light of technological advances. Dragons and sub-species no appear as real as us, but we know that it isn’t true, even though “a picture is worth a thousand words,” or so the old English language-idiom tell us.
We are aware of the great influence of the Animalia in Victorian literature (Blount,1974; Cunnigham, 1995; Knoepflmacher, 1983; Ritvo, 1987), but the explosion of Darwinism in 1859 eventually changed the way of thinking towards life on earth. It would be really interesting to explore and examine fantasy stories pre and post the Darwinian explosion. I hazard an unfounded guess, an assumption, that there wouldn’t be a significant difference in usage, but maybe a shift in the way fauna and flora is used in the creative process. Our own creativeness is also evolving! Isn’t that interesting?
Is it simply then, because such fauna are not real that it simply creates a vehicle for a story? Or is it because making the unreal appear real is what makes a narrative truly “fantastic-al” and/or “other-worldly”? How and why do we create the unbelievable whilst making it believable, and what’s the real purpose?
For whatever reason, we have to praise the usage of nature and creatures in creative works as a whole. For me, it is both important and paramount to my storytelling. Without my world, I wouldn’t know how to develop my characters, their appearance, what they wear or use to help them along their journey, or plot delivery. I wouldn’t be able to craft a fantastical narrative.
For now, I’ll return to my mutations and sub-created species … alas, I’ll save that for another discourse.
Amélie (2001) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet [Film]. France and Germany. Momentum Pictures.
Briggs, K. M. (1976) An Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures). New York: Pantheon Books.
Lear, L., and Rebanks, J. (2016) Beatrix Potter: A life in Nature. St. Martin’s Griffin; 2 Reprint edition.
* The original version is numbered 4 in the Perry Index and the later Aesop version, sometimes going under the title The Hawk, the Nightingale and the Birdcatcher, is numbered 567.
Auden, W, H. (1968) Secondary Worlds (a book of four essays).
Wolf, M. J. P. (2012) Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation.