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 –


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.

13 thoughts on “Penguins in the Minefield – Fitting Animals into Stories”

  1. Did you know that one of the reasons Alexander the Great was so successful in his campaigns (particularly the early ones) was his emphasis on building a fast, well-trained cavalry. Until that point, horses had mostly been used either just as transport to the fight or as chariot-pullers. Fighting on horseback was a revelation, and devastating against infantry who weren’t prepared for it. Plus, because he invested heavily in breeding fast, strong horses, he could get to places a lot quicker than his enemies expected. Horses won him wars, and he knew it.

    He also had his own personal horse, Bucephalon, who he kept with him long past the age when the horse could carry him into battle. Some mountain bandits kidnapped Bucephalon once and Alexander halted an entire campaign to wipe out the bandits and get his friend back.

    1. I didn’t know that – will add it to more store of useful military history facts. And between your comment and Russ’s, I’m now thinking I could write a piece on the most famous horses in military history. Bucephalon seems worthy of more attention.

  2. I strongly recommend “Warhorses of Letters”. I heard it on Radio 4, and I think it’s available to buy. It tells the little-known story of the love between Marengo and Copenhagen (warhorses to Napoleon and Wellington, respectively).

  3. Really great article! That is fascinating about the penguins. Hitherto I would have said pigeons, rats, and racoons were the only species to benefit from the human race, but I’ll have to add Falkland penguins to that list as well. 🙂 I LOVE your idea to create some kind of wool-bearing, non-sheep forest dweller to solve your husbandry issue. I also asked my husband, who studies ancient agriculture/pastoral stuff, and he says that while sheep don’t thrive in forests, goats and pigs both do really well there (especially in oak forests). Another funny side note, it was not uncommon for farmers to make jackets for their sheep out of goat skins in order to keep the wool clean and soft, so they would keep both goats and sheep. There are a lot of plants that farmers raise in order to facilitate their main crop, too. For instance, willow trees were essential to a vineyard because the long, skinny willow branches is what they used to tie the vines to the trellises.

    1. Ooh, that’s some great stuff – thanks very much to your husband! I’m picturing some sort of mixed up forest agriculture, with pigs, goats and my new super-fluffy-goats roaming beneath trees laced with vines, through patches of woodland where the trees have been chosen to support the crops beneath them.

  4. I think it is an excellent idea to try focusing on the wants and feelings of the animals. It brings to my mind Richard Adams’ “Watership Down” and “Shardik”. Also, I love the idea of making the animals into suitable fantasy variants – especially if it isn’t dragons, which have been done so often.

    1. You’re right about the dragons, though I think I’m going to have to write about them sooner or later – my youngest niece is a huge fan of dragons, her bed covered in cuddly versions of them, and I want to ride a story where she gets to ride a dragon. Pandering to my nieces is my favourite hobby.

  5. One of my main supporting characters in a WIP Alt History/ fantasy is my protagonists’ faithful horse companion. I’ve pulled references from a few sources and relied upon some RPG aides to flesh him out, but as he has developed traits and personality he really translated well into a believable beast with intelligence and more importantly an empathetic sense of humor.

    Additionally the protagonist can ‘magically’ communicate with animals. Livestock not so much, but bison, buffalo, birds of prey, even recluse spiders have all played some part in major scenes and that had had direct bearing on how the plot movers along. This was NOT by design, but I’m glad I was receptive to allow it to happen.

  6. So aside from my own field, which is a literal field, here is a fact that changed my thinking when I heard it: A very wide array of mammals seem to laugh, suggesting it is an early aspect of mammalian evolution.

    Once you start seeing that almost all animals have their own motivations, desires and hierarchy of needs, it makes the opportunities for fitting them into fiction a little different. Certainly fearsome animals are less likely to appear out of nowhere and attack people for no clear reason. Also the way one designs fantastical creatures changes a lot the more one has an idea of the variance between predator and prey physiology and their behavioural consequences. I find that really interesting.

    1. I hadn’t heard that about laughter, but it does put a different spin on the way you look at animals. I suppose because they’re often written as forces of nature, we neglect the more personal part of animals. The ‘fearsome animal comes out of nowhere’ trope might be the height/depth of this, and I know it’s one I’ve used without thinking about why the animal is attacking. Working out why would at least have made that scene more interesting.

      Do you have any recommendations for where to start reading on this stuff, including the predator/prey differences? It’s starting to feel like one of those things it would be useful to have some knowledge of for a lot of writing.

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