It’s a nice theme for a children’s novel – introducing youngsters to the native wildlife of Britain that they will probably never encounter in person save for a fox rooting through their bins or a messy splat on the motorway hard shoulder. An entire menagerie of ready-made 2D characters to choose from so you can concentrate on a plot and exciting action sequences. No wonder so many authors have jumped on the woodland bandwagon.
But what are these stereotypes, and do they have any grounding in reality? Although of course I have read every single book that has ever mentioned a woodland creature, I have limited this discussion to the following British countryside-based oeuvres:
– Colin Dann’s Animals Of Farthing Wood
– the Beatrix Potter tales
– Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series (poor web coverage but previously referred to here)
– The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
– Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
Characteristics: Grumpy bachelors, but wise and steadfast. Possible gay agenda.
Reality: Fierce mustelid that is equally sociable and solitary, depending on what sort of mood it’s in.
Exception: Mr Badger in FMF does have a small family of his own (tiny compared to the Weasels’ enormous clan), possibly due to a regular dosage of that perennial social grease, booze: ‘Cider’, said Badger, ‘is especially good for Badgers. We take it as medicine – one large glass three times a day with meals, and another at bedtime.’
Characteristics: Cunning, clever, heroic. Foxes play the protagonists in both AOFW and FMF, the leaders of the gang who use their quick wits to outwit huntsmen and farmers respectively. One of the oldest animal stereotypes, (a ‘cunning fox’ is mentioned in the book of Ezekiel), the intelligence of foxes continues through French folklore (Reynard undermining authority figures) to Disney portrayals of Robin Hood.
Reality: Mostly solitary and territorial, if anything less social than badgers.
Exception: Beatrix Potter’s Mr Tod is a nasty piece of work and while clever, gets his comeuppance. Also Basil Brush is far from cunning.
Characteristics: Irritating at best (AOFW), vicious enemy at worst (LGR). Veiled portrayal in WITW as evil communists. Japanese folklore portrays weasels as bad omens that aren’t to be trusted, and English literature has pretty much the same opinion.
Reality: Weasel War Dance!
Exception: The weasels in FMF are only mentioned in passing and never encountered, hence it would be unfair to pass judgement on them. They must be decent folks or Mr Fox wouldn’t have invited them to his feast.
Characteristics: Scatter-brained, headstrong, troublesome. Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny are clearly thoughtless, greedy products of failed contraception. Hares are generally seen as even more bonkers than rabbits thanks to their March activities, but possibly also because they have never been domesticated in the same way as rabbits. In LGR Hare usually speaks before he thinks – well-intentioned but perennially boisterous. Don’t get me started on Watership Down.
Reality: Ancient fertility symbols are there for a reason, but children’s books can’t talk about sex so instead rabbits are stupid and numerous – the woodland equivalent of sheep. BONUS FACT: rabbits can’t vomit! Even if they’re pissed.
Exception: Both the eponymous Little Grey Rabbit and Peter Rabbit’s well-behaved sisters stick with traditional Victorian virtues of modesty and kindness. In fact, all the stereotypes described above seem confined to male characters*. Sadly, many female animal characters are lacking even a second dimension (e.g. Vixen’s role in AOFW seems solely to be rescued by Fox and then have his kids), their personalities are
merely summed up as “the girl one”. One in the eye for countryside feminism!
OWLS are generally portrayed in a similar fashion to badgers – grumpy loners but willing to dispense advice and/or aid for a noble cause. I plan on reading The Owl Service by Alan Garner in the very near future. Will it confirm my theory? Or am I hooting up the wrong tree?
*The television adaptation of AOFW gave many of the characters a sex-change in deference to political correctness. Somehow this made the Weasel character even more annoying.