Thursday, April 12, 2007

Talking with the Animals

I've just bought a DVD of the live-action film of CHARLOTTE'S WEB, one of my favorite stories. Its theme (as explicitly stressed in the voice-over of this new version) is the value of friendship. I especially like this book because of the way it portrays friendship across species lines, centering upon the marvelously improbable devotion between a pig and a spider. Eventually, all the inhabitants of the barn, even the unsavory rat Templeton, get drawn into the circle of friendship. Here's my pet theme of "intimacy across gulfs of difference" again, or as Spock would say, "infinite diversity in infinite combinations."

Tolkien says in his classic essay "On Fairy-Stories" that the other creatures of nature are like foreign countries with which humankind has broken off diplomatic relations. He suggests that one desire satisfied by fairy tales, through the motif of talking animals, is the yearning to re-establish that lost connection with the other species who share our world. A taste of dragon's blood gifts the mythic hero with the language of beasts, thus helping him in his quest. Dr. Doolittle talks to the animals and gains a fresh perspective on the human race. WATERSHIP DOWN immerses the reader in rabbit culture and language. In CHARLOTTE'S WEB, Fern is still young enough to understand the animals' conversations, although it's implied that she is poised on the cusp, soon to outgrow that connection with nature. Primate researchers conduct simple dialogues with symbol-using apes. Many people believe dolphins have true language.

Of course, we might not like what we'd hear if our pets could speak to us. Garfield thinks of Jon as "the man who cleans my litter box." Still, imagine what we could learn about our world if we could communicate with creatures (like cats, with their night vision, and dogs, with their extraordinary noses) whose senses perceive the environment so differently from ours.

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