I’ve nearly finished with the Solomon Kane stories, but there’s still a lot of chew on. My most recent Howard-inspired musing flows from a line in “The Blue Flame of Vengeance.” Please excuse me as I meander a bit; of course I welcome you to join me.
“While evil flourishes and wrongs grow rank, while men are persecuted and women wronged, while weak things, human or animal, are maltreated, there is no rest for me beneath the skies, nor peace at any board or bed.” — Robert E. Howard, “The Blue Flame of Vengeance”
Although I can’t recall where, I once read an observation to the effect that animals and infants can both be powerful catalysts for certain emotions and vehicles for particular plot devices. In this case with Kane, we see animals lumped right in with human “weak things.” Generally, animals are of a lower order than man. That’s not to say that they’re not “good” (for God judged them so), but they were created under the dominion of man. Even the most intelligent of beasts lacks human faculties. Except perhaps in those cases of specially crafted sapient or magical beasts, animals possess neither the nobility nor the malice of men. Still our storytellers weave tales of talking creatures and all kinds of other anthromorphs. And to be sure, there is both virtue and wickedness to be found in nature — the loyalty of the dog in defending its pack (or its master) and the cruelty of the mighty cat toying with its prey are demonstrative of this.
For the most part, however, although animals may fight and kill to survive, driven by instinct, they bear an innocence perhaps comparable to that of a child.
This may be the reason why animals can make for such memorable supporting characters. There is something inherently stirring in the suffering of the innocent and the voiceless, and animals are often well suited for the role of the victim or the “weak thing” in need of rescue. This proves especially true when the animal suffers as a result of some humanlike display of virtue — often loyalty or self-sacrifice.
I’m almost immediately reminded of Woola in A Princess of Mars, when he comes to John Carter’s aid and is nearly slain. Even now I still experience a tightening of the throat!
“[…][B]ut the great arms and paws of the ape, backed by muscles far transcending those of the Martian men I had seen, had locked the throat of my guardian and slowly were choking out his life, and bending back his head and neck upon his body, where I momentarily expected the former to fall limp at the end of a broken neck.
In accomplishing this the ape was tearing away the entire front of its breast, which was held in the vise-like grip of the powerful jaws. Back and forth upon the floor they rolled, neither one emitting a sound of fear or pain. Presently I saw the great eyes of my beast bulging completely from their sockets and blood flowing from its nostrils. That he was weakening perceptibly was evident, but so also was the ape, whose struggles were growing momentarily less.
In the instant that these thoughts passed through my mind I had turned to make for the window, but my eyes alighting on the form of my erstwhile guardian threw all thoughts of flight to the four winds. He lay gasping upon the floor of the chamber, his great eyes fastened upon me in what seemed a pitiful appeal for protection. I could not withstand that look, nor could I, on second thought, have deserted my rescuer without giving as good an account of myself in his behalf as he had in mine.” – A Princess of Mars
Carter, upon witnessing the ferocity of the Martian dog-beast in his defense, cannot help but be overwhelmed by pity and protectiveness for the poor creature. Certainly Woola is no helpless little critter, but here he is down for the count and quite pitiful. How can he flee when this beast has shown such courage and now needs his help?
SFF is filled with these kinds of animals, and when properly written they can be quite “feelz”-inducing indeed.
Although there are all manner of such beasts, I think dogs make particularly good companion characters. Your mileage may vary, but this is obviously creditable to the age-old bond between man and canine. This can be observed across media, and has bled heavily over in video games, as well, where players may actively build attachment to their digital beastie friends. As an avid video gamer, these characters spring to mind rather quickly. I always had a particular soft spot for the dog character in the SNES game Secret of Evermore, in which the protagonist finds himself bouncing around between different time periods with only his trusty pet pooch to accompany him (though for some reason the dog changes forms with every leap). His AI may not have been the best, but his heart was in the right place.
There have been quite a few good dogs in video games.
To bring this back around somewhat, Solomon Kane didn’t have a dog friend; nor did Robert E. Howard make use of too many “friendly” animal characters so far as I’ve read. But even before him we had Woola, and I’d venture to say that dogs and other beasts have carved out some prominent positions in the world of SFF. What say you, friends? Any favorites you’d like to share?