I am picking the Velveteen Rabbit here because he was a toy made Real through the love his owner had for him. I remember the tears fizzling up when I first heard of the poor rabbit’s misery at being discarded and alone on a pile destined for the bonfire and then oh such joy on realising that he would be saved. I think that this one plays into that inner belief about the toys we truly love, as well as a wish for a ‘happy hunting grounds’ that they may enjoy once we are ready to move on from them. They take such a battering – they deserve something in return. I have had one particular constant companion since childhood and for him especially, he deserves a velveteen-rabbit style aftermath … but not just yet. Another excellent celebration of that tenuous borderline in the imagination between stuffed animals and the real thing is Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes and of course Winnie-ther-Pooh but somehow it is The Velveteen Rabbit that still makes me sniffly.
Similarly to the previous – as a child, I wept over Greyfriars Bobby, the good and loyal canine who mourned his master for years and returned faithfully every night to sleep by his grave. Aged nine, I sneaked out of class to read Eleanor Atkinson’s novelisation in the toilets because I just couldn’t wait to hear what happened next. To be fair, it was Year Five and my teacher was laissez-faire to put it mildly but you get the point. So it was with some disappointment that I read several years ago that the whole thing was a fraud. Photographs make it fairly clear that there were in fact two different dogs – apparently because the first one died/was a bit unfriendly and the whole legend of the shepherd owner etc was a big fat lie. It was all drummed up for Edinburgh tourism! So, basically – Greyfriars Bobby makes a great story but if you want the real thing, St Andrews is only fifty miles north and really did have a glorious cat called Hamish who ruled the town with an iron claw. Everyone likes the idea of a town-mascot-animal but Greyfriars Bobby exists in the realms of fiction.
I adored Rat – he is more of an ally in The Midnight Folk while in The Box of Delights he becomes rather unfriendly but his one-liners are brilliant. I still remember him describing how useless something was ‘except to smell when one was feeling faint’ – it made me giggle then and it still does now, the image of the distinctly-rough-around-the-edges Rat reaching for the smelling salts was just too funny. For me, he kind of speaks in my mother’s voice though since she is the one who read him to me – it’s funny how your brain processes these things.
I have already mentioned my love for Basil Stag Hare but Redwall in general had a highly complex society of animals which was far beyond the average tales of fairyland frolics. There were the Cornish moles, the argumentative shrews, the noble badgers and the ghastly foxes, ferrets, stoats, and rats. I loved it then but look back at it now and worry about the odd messages about racial stereotyping and segregation – in The Outcast, not even bringing a ferret among the good-hearted Redwall folk is enough to save him from his predestined wickedness. I guess if that kind of thing bothers me then it’s a good job I was never allowed to read Enid Blyton. Anyway, while I didn’t question how the hares, badgers and mice co-existed in harmony when I first started reading the series, by the time I reached secondary school, the issues of scale had begun to concern me and I gave up on the series with the kind of haughty disdain only a twelve year-old could possibly muster.
For almost the first three books, Scabbers scampers about and is a generally dull and dissatisfactory pet. In the grand tradition, he is the one you least suspect, we look at him and then we look away, wondering vaguely if Ron will get an owl instead one day. But. There is more to this little creature than meets the eye – even from Harry’s first meeting with him when Ron fails to turn Scabber yellow, there is something very odd about this rat. Luckily, Hermione’s cat Crookshanks is part Kneazle and can sniff out treachery …
The strangest thing about Misha is that he is based on a real-life scenario – when Ukraine was so poor that they had to sell off their zoo animals. The protagonist Viktor was sad after his girlfriend left him, so he bought himself a penguin but the two of them just ended up being sad together. Being a penguin in a human house is no picnic – the penguinologist who Viktor meets that if he were in Misha’s shoes, he would ‘do himself in’. Misha pads about, a peculiarly dignified and silent figure but in the end it is his fate rather than that of any of the human characters which lingers.
I wanted to pick Templeton the rat here but I couldn’t find any nice pictures of him – he was so helpful in finding words for Charlotte to spin about Wilbur. To be honest, I loved so many of the animals within the farm, the sweet-natured Wilbur, the graceful Charlotte – it’s a very beautiful way of imagining a farmyard.
I adore Roger – any cat who will compare himself to Daniel Craig, who can quote from Byron and who has a working knowledge of Greek ferry timetables deserves respect. Roger is the Cat Out Of Hell – doomed to wander the earth, immortal, possessing powers beyond the ken of us mere humans. His line manager is Beelzebub. He is uberkatze. With Roger, Lynne Truss takes talking animals far from children’s fiction and creates a hilarious and highly intelligent piece of comedy-horror. Roger made Cat Out Of Hell one of my favourite reads of 2014.
Iorek Byrnison is a fantastic creation – despite being a bear, I decided to include him because he is after all a world away from his teddy-bear cousins. He is the first armoured bear who Lyra meets and although he speaks, it is always obvious that he is not a human. His deadly rival Iofur Raknison has taken on human traits – Lyra has the sense that she is looking at a person when she meets him and so she can defeat him, but Iorek is not so easily fooled. Later he will see past Will Parry’s strategies to deflect attention – he sees to the truth straight away. Yet Iorek also accepts Lee Scoresby’s last gift to him and the scene where he devours his old friend is truly haunting. I picture him so clearly, I imagine his dignity, his piercing gaze – he is such a commanding character that I never question how he came to be. He has no daemon and solemnly bids farewell to Lyra when she explains that she is going to the world of the dead, since he knows he will not go there himself. Iorek Byrnison is a noble creature and one of my very favourite characters from His Dark Materials.