Animals hold a major role in fantasy literature. Many of our earliest picture books personify animals, allowing them to talk, walk on their hind legs, wear clothes, and behave in human ways. Their anthropomorphic traits have become one of the conventions that define the genre.
Toto from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was a recognizable dog, a loyal companion to Dorothy, but the Lion had the ability to converse, plan, and dream about finding his courage. Children’s creative minds make the transition comfortably. Their imaginations accept characters which could never exist in our world and find common ground with them. As a result, we have a wealth of fantasy literature for children and young adults.
Transformations from human to animals is a popular motif in fantasy literature, bringing more complex novels into the realm of adult fiction with adult themes. Vampires change into bats and fly. Werewolves shift from human to wolves, merging characteristics from both species to their advantage. Young Brandon Stark from George R. R. Martin’s The Game of Thrones is a warg, meaning he is able to merge his consciousness with animals. In essence, he becomes that animal with his human mind controlling the animal’s actions. This ability carries Bran beyond his own limitations as a human being as every hero must transcend mortal abilities to reach his full potential in order to defeat an enemy or to complete a heroic task.
Sometimes technology causes the change in form. The Marvel Comic’s character Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Man, a superhero able to use his spider silk for mobility and defense. Often a magical intervention causes the change. In T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Merlin changes Arthur into various animals in order to teach him life lessons. Sometimes the character has an innate ability that awaits a trigger to cause the shift. Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniel’s novels are urban fantasies of a race of shapeshifters who survive in an altered post-apocalyptic world using their enhanced powers. Their traits are passed on to their young.
Readers meet new animals in fantasy literature, animals that don’t exist, that never existed in our human world. Unicorns, dragons, mermaids, griffins and firebirds emerge from mythological tales to become recognizable symbols in our culture. When an author enters the world of fantasy, he needs to have an understanding of the supernatural characters which other authors have given substance before him and the natural world so as to paint a portrait of his unique animal that is believable to his readers. J. R. R. Tolkien populated his Middle-earth with elves, dwarfs, and hobbits as heroic figures, orcs, sentient spiders, and trolls as their enemies. Tolkien didn’t digress too far from humankind when he created hobbits. Their diminutive size, over-sized feet covered with fur, and their love of comfort are endearing characteristics. Frodo and Bilbo’s willingness to risk themselves to protect their people, shucking complacency for a wider view of the world, gives them heroic proportions and makes them some of the most enduring characters in literature.