By Jan Ziolkowski
Denver Quarterly Volume 24, no. 3 (1990)
Introduction: Were there animals in the myths, trickster tales, and fables told by the neolithic people who painted bison and deer on cave walls? Whatever the answer, there can be no doubt that animals have appeared in literature from the ages before Aesop through the decades after Orwell – with no end in sight today or tomorrow. Of the many ways in which this beast literature can be classified, one helpful distinction can be drawn between, on the one hand, those writing in which animals are anthropomorphized so much that they speak and, on the other, those in which the animals are not so thoroughly humanized.
Writings of both sorts exist from many periods: for instance, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the animals of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books could be contrasted to those of Ernest Thompson Seton and Jack London, in the late Middle Ages the animals of the Renard the Fox cycle to those of the bestiaries. Two Latin poems composed during the reign of Charlemagne are especially important because, although closely related to each other, they already embody these same extremes in the literary depiction of animals.
One of the two Carolingian poems was written by Alcuin, the scholar and churchman from northern England who was persuaded by Charlemagne to superintend the educational revival in his realm. Alcuin’s poem (31 dactylic hexameters) relates a story that anticipates the events of Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale: a cock, after being caught by a wolf, escapes through the ruse of convincing the wolf to sing for it.