Animals are adorable. People love to talk about and read about animals. Animals make great stories except. . . . Yeah, animals don’t talk. Without the ability to speak, an animal contributes no dialogue to the story. A few great authors have written wonderful animal stories, but it is difficult to bring out the animal’s personality when the animal is mute. On the other hand, Dr. Doolittle talking to the animals has already been done. People simply do not talk with animals in our world.
Kipling did it in his The Jungle Book. Mowgli, communicates with all the jungle animals by both nonverbal and verbal means. Of course he has to communicate with the animals. Not only does he have to live with them, but he grows to become a leader of the jungle community. Kipling has a gimmick that he uses so smoothly that we all simply agree with his premises that a child raised by wolves would naturally learn to talk with wolves and other animals. Not only does this premise give Mowgli the ability to communicate, but it explains why I can not simply walk into the mountains and say, “Como esta, Lobo?” or “How are you, Wolf?” I was raised by humans.
In my previous post, I discussed how I happened to start writing stories about two of our dogs, Rocky and Bullwinkle. Since dogs and kids go together, I decided to write children’s stories about kids. The problem, of course, is how will these dogs interact with children? Sure dogs can bark, wag their tails, do tricks and lick people’s faces, but how can an author bring out the real animal using only those expressions?
One way or another, I had to enable Rocky and Bullwinkle to express themselves. I needed a gimmick.
I do not pretend to be as good as Kipling, but I decided to give Bullwinkle a gift. I gave Bullwinkle the ability to talk with young children, and he is teaching the skill to Rocky. This opens me to the risk of falling into the Dr. Doolittle pattern. Can Bullwinkle talk with a 5 year old? Certainly. What about a 10 year old? That would be stretching it. If he can talk with a 5 year old or a 10 year old, he should be able to talk with a 67 year old man who is young at heart. If I say yes, the gimmick is no longer believable. I had to make a firm boundary.
The dogs can talk with preschool children, but half way through first grade something happens to the children. Suddenly they only hear the dogs bark. That’s right, somewhere between late Kindergarten and second grade, children learn to read. Sorry older children and adults, but you miss out on a rich dialogue with Rocky and Bullwinkle. I even miss out.
As wonderful as it is for dogs and children to communicate, communication with adults is a problem. The dogs can understand adults, but how do they respond to the adult? They are limited to “dogy” tricks like trying to lead the adult somewhere. When the two dogs find a hurt child, how can they get help? They have no way of giving directions to their owners. The owners only think the dogs are barking. If they try to lead the adults by simply running in front of them, the dogs risk being reprimanded for misbehavior.
What languages do the dogs speak? Bullwinkle was born in Massachusetts so he speaks only English. Rocky and the rest of the domesticated local animals were born in New Mexico. Thus they are bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish. Wild animals in New Mexico only speak Spanish. Thus the Bullwinkle, who can talk with children, can not communicate with a wolf, nor can the wolf understand Bullwinkle. I had fun writing a short story in which Bullwinkle and Rocky meet a pair of wolves. Rocky has to translate for Bullwinkle. Rocky politely addresses the wolves as Senior Lobo and Senora Lobo The wolves want to chase the dogs off because they think Rocky and Bullwinkle are poaching on their hunting ground.
The stories are Rocky’s, written from his point of view. I am only the ghost writer. Since Rocky can not talk with me (I know how to read), I needed an explanation of how Rocky tells me about his adventures. I invented an illiterate hermit who lives out on the desert. Because the hermit never learned to read, nothing inhibits him from talking with the dogs. Rocky both visits the hermit and talks with the hermit when he comes to town for supplies. Since the hermit is also my friend, I can say I invited him in for a sandwich, and he said, “That little red dog who’s legs are too short and his body is too long has been telling me tales again.” I say, “Oh, you mean Rocky?” He replies, “That’s the little rascal. You wouldn’t believe the adventures he’s had. Why he just told me. . . .”
Next week another episode of Life on the Left Side of the Fast Lane will be posted. Probably after that I will make another posting about the shaggy dog. In the last post, I mentioned the contrast between the two dogs. In the next shaggy dog post, I will explore how I attempt to inject their personalities into a story.