Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Man's Best Friend

Human relationships with animals are nearly as complex as those with other people. At the most basic level, humans have slaughtered and consumed animals for tens of thousands of years. For thousands of years, we have exploited domesticated animals for their strength as beasts of burden, for transportation, for powering mills, and for such bi-products as eggs, milk, wool, and leather. Some privileged animals have been turned into quasi-partners, helping us hunt, frightening away predators, and keeping our homes mouse-free. Others have provided entertainment in one form or another, for example, dancing bears, fighting cocks and race-horses, just to name a few.

While the age of the spoiled pet with diamond-studded collars, designer grooming, and trust-funds is a relatively modern phenomenon, we know that thousands of years before Christ some animals were revered enough to be recorded in history by name. The names of the horses that won in the Olympics, for example, were recorded on monuments, and Darius, the Great King of Persia, set up a special monument to honor the stallion who helped him win his throne. Ancient Greek and Persian art depicts hunting dogs. The ancient Egyptians mummified many different animals including cats.

Thus, the relationship between humans and specific animals is one of the many constants that can make a novel set in a period different from our own come to life. The interaction between an character and an animal can greatly enrich an novel and help the reader learn about the characters -- provided the novelist is careful to keep the role of the animal consistent with the period in which the novel takes place.

Here are some examples from my own work. In the first, from The Lady in the Spitfire, a dog overcomes hostility because of shared emotions.

The Lady in the SpitfireEmily had never had pets. Her parent’s flat in Portsmouth had been too small, and her mother hated them. Didn’t they make messes and leave hair all over the furniture? And dogs barked at all hours of the day and night, too. Emily was sure she’d never be able to get a good night’s sleep with a dog in the house.

Philippa could see her dismay and begged, “Please, at least come and meet her. She’s waiting out in the car.”

Emily didn’t feel she could say no to this, but went along with mounting resistance to the idea of having an animal in the house. It was rented, after all, as were the bulk of the furnishings. What if the dog ruined something? And a bulldog, of all things! It might bite the neighbor children or attack the postman.

Philippa led her out to a run-down Austin parked in front. As they approached the car, a small, cream-colored bulldog leapt up and stood with her front paws on the car-window ledge. She pressed her squashed, dark face against the glass, and her large dark eyes devoured Philippa. Philippa opened the door, the dog jumped down, and Philippa swept the dog up into her arms. Then she turned to Emily with an appealing look on her face. “She’s wasting away before my eyes, all skin and bones. And she hasn’t said ‘wuf’ once since Barry died.

The dog gazed solemnly at Emily, breathing heavily, as if she knew her fate depended on Emily’s decision. The look went straight to Emily’s heart; they were both grieving.

In the next example, from The Olympic Charioteer, the relationship between the principle character and horses is seen from the outside. Rather than describing the relationship itself, an incident remembered by Lysandridas’ father underlines the importance of horses to him. It also informs the reader about important aspects of Spartan society.

The Olympic CharioteerTo get into town for dinner at the mess, Teleklos often rode one or the other of their horses and left it tied in front of the mess. Spartan law, however, gave any citizen the right to ride any other citizen’s horse, if he had need. A certain Akrotates, seeing Teleklos’ horse waiting for him, decided he ‘needed’ it for some reason. Teleklos couldn’t remember what his excuse had been any more, but he took the horse and started riding it through the streets with a heavy hand and flapping heels. Unfortunately, he crossed the path of Lysandridas’ agoge unit as they returned from the drill fields on the far side of the Eurotas. Lysandridas had recognized his father’s horse instantly, and in a blind rage at what he considered “maltreatment,” he leapt up and dragged the citizen off the horse.

In so doing, he’d broken the law twice over. Not only did the citizen have a right to ride the horse – anyway he pleased, but as a mere youth still in the agoge, Lysandridas owed every full citizen obedience and respect. Pulling a citizen off a moving horse, throwing him to the ground and pinning him there while the horse got clear away did not exactly fit the Spartan ideal of obedient and respectful youth. Lysandridas got soundly flogged for that and Teleklos had made a point of being there to watch, emphasizing by his presence his approval of the punishment ordered by Lysandridas’ instructor.

It had been one of the few times they’d quarreled.

In the following example from Are They Singing in Sparta? the cat is more a symbol than a character. She signals that Tyrtaios, after being an exile for many years, has finally come home – to a place he’s never been before.

Are They Singing in Sparta?After sleeping in so many different beds and chambers since leaving home, never spending two nights in the same place in all that time, the first morning at Alethea’s kleros was no less disorienting than all the others. And yet, almost at once, Tyrtaios sensed something was different. It was warm and comfortable in this bed, soft and warm and cozy. Stirring, he was astonished to discover a large calico cat curled up on the bed beside him. He reached out hesitantly. The cat lifted her head with her eyes still closed and let him pet her. He scratched her behind the ears and she started purring loudly.

In this final example, the dog is an allegory as well as a character – as readers familiar with the Leonidas Trilogy will recognize. This excerpt comes from Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge and introduces one of my favorite characters, his dog ‘Beggar.’

As was to be expected, the bitch followed him, trotting about three paces behind him. As he got closer to the city, however, she lagged more and more, and he expected she would soon give up and return to her familiar territory. Instead, just as he reached the bridge, she sat down on her haunches and howled.

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the AgogeLeonidas turned around and called to her. “Go on back to the wild, girl. This city enslaves all her inhabitants.” Then he resolutely turned his back on her and continued on his way.

The bitch let out another long, wailing howl. This time Leonidas went back and down on his heels to pat her and explain. “Out here you have your freedom, girl. If you come with me, I will expect you to serve me. I’ll get you cleaned up and get rid of those ticks and see that you have plenty to eat, but you’ll have to come and go at my bidding and share the fruits of your hunting with me. You’ll never be your own mistress again. Are you sure you want that?”

She panted happily as long as he was petting her. But as soon as he turned his back on her and started for the city again, she howled as if he’d stabbed her. This time Leonidas ignored her and kept walking. A few moments later something cold and wet touched his calf, and he looked down to see the bitch at his heels. She gazed up at him desperately. He shook his head at her. “It’s your choice, girl,” he told her and kept walking. She clung to him, almost tripping him in her determination to stay beside him and to be protected by him. Leonidas resigned himself to his fate. She had adopted him, and short of killing her, it was obvious he was not going to be rid of her.

















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