Saturday, December 1, 2012

Where are the Dogs in Fantasy?


I haven't encountered many dogs in fantasy novels, and to be honest, I'm not sure why.

The dog (Canis familiaris) is thought to be the first animal to be fully domesticated by humans. The earliest remains discovered so far that are unequivocally domestic dogs are about 14,000 years old, though some estimates place the divergence between domestic dogs and wolves to have occurred 40,000 or more years ago (Serpell, 1995; Wikipedia). Although the relationship between humans and domestic animals have changed over time, there is evidence that humans living in ancient civilizations were often very attached to their canine companions.

Most dogs in industrialized countries are kept as pets or companions, though they still fill a variety of other roles. In the US alone, there are 78 million pet dogs, and approximately 40% of US households have at least one dog (aspca.org). In less industrialized parts of the world, feral or semi-feral populations of "village" or "pariah" dogs are widespread, and may outnumber actual pets. Some anthropologists (Coppinger and Coppinger, 2001) think this semi-feral state may resemble that of the earliest domestic dogs and that Canis Familiaris was essentially "self domesticated."

In spite of their popularity and important role in history, dogs seem to be strangely underrepresented in fantasy fiction when compared with horses, cats, birds of various kinds, and even their wild cousins the wolf.

One of the main characters in my novel has a dog, and it has been used to move the plot forward in a couple of places and to provide a little comic relief from time to time. Most of my test readers like Arrow (the dog's name) and want to see her playing a more prominent role in the story. But as a writer, I've found that slotting her in some places has been challenging. Arrow is not a trained war dog (she's more similar to a border collie), and although smart by canine standards, she is not a human in a fur suit. Her ability to understand the "big picture" of what is going on or to behave appropriately in novel and unexpected situations is no better than a "real" dog's would be. My experiences with my own dogs (who are probably better trained and socialized than the average pet out there) remind me that having an ordinary canine tagging along on a quest or getting underfoot during combat would be at best distracting and would likely end badly (for the dog).

Perhaps this logistical issue is the reason why dogs haven't figured as prominently in fantasy as some other animals. Horses are required for transportation in your typical pre-industrial fantasy setting. Cats (unless they are being portrayed as beings with human intelligence) are expected to go their own way and to disappear when punches start flying, so the logistics of writing your character's pet cat into a combat scene rarely figures in. Wolves, are either presented as adversaries or allies in fantasy, and intelligent wolves and wolf-like beings are a common trope. Perhaps the prevalence of wolves as a fantasy trope is one reason bona fide dogs are seen less often. Dogs are seen as being sort of mundane and ordinary, so a writer who wants to include a canine in the story will slot a wolf in.

Conversely, dogs are also seen by most as being heroic, so if they are included in a story, readers might expect them to play some pivotal role (aka, saving the protagonist's life at some point). Readers rarely ask the author why a character's pet couldn't drive the plot more or come in and save the day, but many expect this from dogs. This raises the issue, which I am struggling with in my own book, of how to satisfy my reader's requests to see more of Arrow and have her do something important during the novel's resolution without either turning her into a canine Mary Sue (aka Lassie) or having her lay down her life. Tearjerking isn't always bad, but the death of an animal character is something that needs to be handled carefully, as it has the potential for eliciting stronger emotions in readers than almost anything else. If "old shep" lays down his life for your hero, some readers may resent it or accuse you of milking their emotions. And to be honest, if I killed the mutt off, my own tears would probably short out my keyboard.

Below is a very short list of fantasy titles I've read or run across where dogs play a significant role in the story. If anyone can think of any others, they could be added.

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Dogsbody by  Diana Wynne Jones

Dog Days by John Levitt

Prince of Dogs by Kate Elliot

The Dog Days of Arthur Cane by Ernesto Bethancourt

The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne (thanks, Beth for letting me know about this one)

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (okay, this is sci fi, not fantasy, but dogs are underrepresented in Sci Fi too, and it's a really good read. It also has a cat in it).

There are a number of books for children, and even some for adults, where an animal (occasionally a dog) is the point of view character and is presented as being more intelligent that a dog "really" is, though still, in essence, a dog. One could argue for the inclusion of these in the category of low fantasy, but I am limiting my list to titles that employ at least some of the more traditional fantasy tropes (aka alternate worlds, magic, the paranormal or supernatural).

References

Coppinger, R. and L. Coppinger. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner, New York.

Serpell, J (ed). 1995. The Domestic Dog, its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

http://www.aspca.org/about-us/faq/pet-statistics.aspx
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogs_in_warfare

3 comments:

  1. The only one that jumped to mind immediately was the dog from the Death Gate cycle by Weiss and Hickman, who was a plot-critical character.

    The Dark Tower saga isn't by King isn't a traditional fantasy (or sci-fi, or horror for that matter) and Oy is not a biological dog, but he fills the role and is important to the story.

    I'll see if I can think of a few others.

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  2. Thanks! Have to check those out.

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  3. My novel has a dog!!!! She's a main character! :)

    And the Iron Druid is very good. Love those books.

    I enjoy your blog. Keep writing!

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