Animals as Symbols

Status
Not open for further replies.

Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Joined
Jun 20, 2015
Location
Cornwall, UK
I've just finished reading a crime novel by John Hart. The Last Child is a grim tale of child abduction, paedophilia and murder; the sexual abuse is skated over, but the violence isn't. Last year, I enjoyed the author's Redemption Road which was very dark, so I knew his style.

Incidentally, The Last Child is now being touted as the first in a series featuring protagonist 13-year-old Johnnie Merrimon, who rather hijacked the story, making the lead detective look like a plodding irrelevance. My British copy doesn't mention that it's the first in a series, so I'm guessing that reader feedback prompted this move, for Johnnie Merrimon is a believable and charismatic character. Any writer of MG or YA would do well to read about his search for his abducted twin sister and missing father—even if they don't normally read crime novels.

The cover shows two menacing crows, which initially made me groan, as it seems as if every other crime novel has a cover with crows wheeling around the sky, even if they don't feature in the story. John Hart does include crows as a symbol of dread and death, as well as a false clue in how an antagonist mispronounces the word 'crow'.

As a creature, crows have appeared in myth, legend and literature countless times. For one thing, like other members of the corvid family, they're eerily intelligent birds, able to remember people's faces and how they were treated by them.

I previously posted a thread on animals in your books, but reading The Last Child made me contemplate how to handle the animals who appear in my WIP for their roles as symbols. For a start, my protagonist detective shares his life with a feral silver tabby, a cat he rescued from a crime scene. Bastet has similar characteristics to his host—something that cat owners might appreciate more than the detective does at the moment.

I've also been using seagulls as symbols, for the story is set in the art colony of Saint Ives, which has a notorious colony of thieving gulls:

Sandwich thievery from the seagulls at St Ives, Nature's Boldest Thieves - BBC One

The antagonist is a murdering art gallery owner, who's haunted by one gull in particular, which nests on the roof of his property and appears to be following him around, as he sees it all over town. Sinisterly, its yellow beak has a huge blotch of scarlet, instead of the usual small spot, as if the gull has been dipping it into blood. Sailors have long held the belief that seagulls and seals are the reincarnated souls of drowned sailors.

her3s.jpg


It always surprises me when authors don't include any animals at all in their stories, especially if it takes place where there'd be flocks of birds and herds of wild and domestic mammals. Some writers frequently mention wildlife, such as Henning Mankell in his Swedish Detective Wallander series, in which his hero often sees hares around the town of Ystad, sometimes hitting one in his car. The behaviour of the hares reflects the detective's state of mind.

Have you used animals as symbols in your stories?

Are there any books you've read which use creatures well?

 
I'm right off crows at the mo. One of my breeding sheep got on her back and the blessed crows pecked both her eyes out before she was rescued. Poor thing bumps into fences trying to get down from the field, and is going to have to be put to the chop. Crows are not known as battlefield predators for nothing. They earn the reputation.
 
Have you used animals as symbols in your stories?

Yes. It doesn't make sense not to.

Are there any books you've read which use creatures well?

Yes.
 
There were three corbies in a tree, and they were black as black could be,
The one unto the other did say, where shall we gang and dine this day?
Down behind yon old turf dyke, I'll wot there lies a new slain knight.
nobody knows that he lies there, but his hawk and his hound and his lady fair.
You sit on his white breast bone, I'll pluck out his bonny blue eye,
And with a lock of his yellow hair, we'll thick our nest when it grows bare.
(auld Scottish ballad)

Now there's a story... a new lover, probably, and a stab in the back for the old, from his lady fair.

Animals and birds play a big part in folk ballads. Usually as symbols.
Crows for prophecy and death, cockerels send ghosts back to the grave by crowing too soon, a parrot tells tales on illicit lovers with tragic consequences, a deer who picks up a dead knight and carries him to his grave, King Henry's grisly ghost eats his dogs and his horse (then turns into a fair lady, for him to marry), the hawk on the wing, the birds in the bushes, the hare in the corn (that one is often euphemistic), the blackbirds and thrushes, the lark in the morn, the shepherd with his sheep, the spotted cow, the old sow.

older tales are littered with animals, but modern works feature mainly domesticated cats and dogs - or dragons.
That is indicative of changing lifestyles over the last hundred years or so, is it not?
 
Thanks, this is an interesting challenge as I rarely think about animals as symbols.

That said, I did have pigeons in the novel I’m working on. They were supposed to represent to my MC her own passivity; she thought they sat around assuming food would turn up, but if anything good arrived magpies would come and take it away from them.

It didn’t really work, though. Pigeons are not really that passive, for one thing, and it seemed a very artificial comparison, with better ways of getting the point across. So the pigeons are gone...
 
Thanks, this is an interesting challenge as I rarely think about animals as symbols.

That said, I did have pigeons in the novel I’m working on. They were supposed to represent to my MC her own passivity; she thought they sat around assuming food would turn up, but if anything good arrived magpies would come and take it away from them.

It didn’t really work, though. Pigeons are not really that passive, for one thing, and it seemed a very artificial comparison, with better ways of getting the point across. So the pigeons are gone...

There are plenty of other animals that sit around all day long waiting to be fed. :)

But yeah, I think of pigeons as scavengers. They'll peck at anything at least once.
 
There are plenty of other animals that sit around all day long waiting to be fed. :)

But yeah, I think of pigeons as scavengers. They'll peck at anything at least once.
The Mayor of London once called pigeons feathered rats. I don't think he was far wrong on that score.
 
My first protagonist had a cat because most single women I know do. Nothing symbolic. A bear figures in the first book of my new series (as yet unpublished) and represents something more than itself. I hope.

An hour ago I was sitting in my apartment (in the middle of a city) listening to coyotes howl. In broad daylight. I wondered what was going on. Now, I wonder if I can use them in a story.
 
IMO, birds make excellent symbols, and how could I have forgotten. I named a character in my first book Phoenix because she had risen from the ashes. Here is a page listing meanings, etc. Pretty Enthralling: Bird Symbolism and Their Meanings I'm not sure I agree with it. Geese mean watchful, swft, providence? Really? To me they mean watch out. Geese are ferocious if annoyed. If you google a bit, you can find lots of info on bird symbolism.
 
IMO, birds make excellent symbols, and how could I have forgotten. I named a character in my first book Phoenix because she had risen from the ashes. Here is a page listing meanings, etc. Pretty Enthralling: Bird Symbolism and Their Meanings I'm not sure I agree with it. Geese mean watchful, swft, providence? Really? To me they mean watch out. Geese are ferocious if annoyed. If you google a bit, you can find lots of info on bird symbolism.

I know how aggressive geese are, from my time working as a milkman. Apart from being attacked by guard dogs and horny housewives :rolleyes:, I had one call at a remote and dilapidated farmhouse occupied by just the retired farmer, who'd become nervous of thieves. For company, he had a clowder of cats, about thirty of them, and outside a gaggle of one dozen geese patrolled the fields. They always heard my electric milk float arrive, waiting in ambush for me in the driveway. Geese make quite a racket and have a peck powerful enough to leave a bruise, so I took to carrying an empty milk crate as a shield to fend them off!
 
Just been reading the Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Mattheew Jocker. According to their analyses, dogs are the readers' most liked animal. they actually have a list of top 10 books that include dogs.... An interesting read, thought it doesn't claim to tell you how to write a bestseller!
 
My current WIP is set on a pig farm, but I’m almost doing the other way round in that there are people being slaughtered on the farm instead of pigs. It’s a kind of modern day retelling of Sweeny Todd.

I don’t want to go too far off topic, but the subtext is that the people being slaughtered (who are illegal immigrants) are ‘worth’ less than pigs. Despite the fact it’s supposed to be a dark comedy!
 
My current WIP is set on a pig farm, but I’m almost doing the other way round in that there are people being slaughtered on the farm instead of pigs. It’s a kind of modern day retelling of Sweeny Todd.

I don’t want to go too far off topic, but the subtext is that the people being slaughtered (who are illegal immigrants) are ‘worth’ less than pigs. Despite the fact it’s supposed to be a dark comedy!

Not to influence your WIP, but are you familiar with a murder case from the 1960s in which the victim was thought to have been fed to pigs that the killers owned?

Arthur & Nizamodeen Hosein – 1969 | Criminal Encyclopedia
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Back
Top