Penguins in the Minefield – Fitting Animals into Stories

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“This land has learnt kill humans. Now it will be ours. Forward for the Penguin Empire!” – “135 – Cap Virgenes – Manchot de Magellan – Janvier 2010” by Martin St-Amant (S23678) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:135_-_Cap_Virgenes_-_Manchot_de_Magellan_-_Janvier_2010.JPG#/media/File:135_-_Cap_Virgenes_-_Manchot_de_Magellan_-_Janvier_2010.JPG

 

The Falklands War wasn’t good for many people, but it turned out to be excellent for the penguins.

I recently read A Damn Close Run Thing, Russell Phillips’ short history of the Falklands War. During the conflict, Argentine troops seeded minefields across the islands. Clearing mines is hard, dangerous and expensive, so most of these areas remain impassable to human beings, whose weight can trigger a devastating anti-personnel explosion.

Penguins are a lot lighter. Light enough not to trigger mines.

So now there are parts of the Falklands where people can’t go, and the penguins have reclaimed them. These undisturbed nesting grounds have proved a huge boost to the local penguin population. The Falklands War was brutal and arguably pretty dumb, but at least it had an up side.

Apart from Russ’s book, I mean. It’s a good book.

By coincidence, I’ve also been reading about medieval warhorses. I say by coincidence, but I’m freelancing for a military history website, so it’s no coincidence I’ve got a heap of books about old wars on the go.

Horses have featured in war since around 1800 BC, when some Asian nomad tied a wheeled platform to his pony and forced the poor beast to drag him into battle. They’ve featured in fantasy stories at least since Homer described another dumb, brutal conflict.

Because seriously, if you’re fighting for honour you’re probably an arsehole,* if you’re fighting for a woman then you should let her make up her own mind, and if her face is comparable with a dry dock then maybe you don’t have the best taste.

Despite featuring so regularly, horses are usually just props in fantasy stories – a way to get from A to B, or to run someone down. I’m as guilty as the next author in this – what I know about horses could fill that one article I was paid to write last week. But like the penguins, horses have their own desires, fears, longings, and quirks of personality. Acknowledging that could add some depth to stories from time to time.

After all of this thinking about animals, and how we neglect them in history and fantasy, I got to pondering something completely unrelated. Just some casual world building for a fantasy project I want to start next year. As I was mulling over how to make a nation distinctive, and how to make its economy work, I got kind of stuck. I want it to be evocative of late medieval to renaissance England, but more covered in trees. England in that era was very reliant on wool for export – could my imagined farmers keep sheep in the forests and still have a functioning economy? I had doubts.

Then it struck me. I’d done it again. I’d forgotten that animals can be treated as more than just dumb props.

If I got stuck for how to fit in the characters I wanted in a fantasy setting, I’d probably change the rules of the world. Why not for animals? If my fantasy can have alchemists, wizards and heroic arseholes** then why not add a fantastical animal too? Something that’s wool bearing and lives in the woods. Or provides some other product to fix this broken forest economy.

There is a point to all this. Aside from how amazing penguins are – you knew that already, right? That point is not to forget the poor animals. From now on I’ll try to think about how the human parts of my stories affect them. Are my characters messing up the local ecosystem, or inadvertently saving it by making it safe for penguins? Have I remembered that war is horrible for horses, and how this will affect them? Am I including the animal equivalent of elves and goblins?

And throughout writing this, one other animal has been playing on my mind. Elmo the kitten is nibbling at my feet. I should go pay him attention.

 

 

* Many of my characters are arseholes. There is something perversely appealing about honour.

** One of this story’s lead characters is pig-headedly patriotic as well as obsessed with honour. He’s all the things I don’t admire in reality, but find fun to write.