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.
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 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.
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.’
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.