Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pigs in Literature

Until I started in on the work editing Toby's memoirs, I must confess I had never paid much attention to the field of pigs in literature. If I had been pressed on the subject, I would have probably named Piglet from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and Wilbur from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, but that might have been it. And yet now, having helped bring Toby back to the public Eye, it seems only fitting to look about at other literary pigs, and I must confess myself amazed at their number and variety. One of them, at least -- Gub-Gub (shown here), who featured in Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle books -- was also an author, in his case of a cookbook, entitled Gub-Gub's Book: An Encyclopedia of Food. This was described as the first of 20 planned volumes, the rest of which were, alas, never published. Another lesser-known but significant creature is Hen Wen, the oracular white sow in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. She proves, in fact, to be a pig of extraordinary powers, and her white coloration is that long associated with the Celtic otherworld. Still another storied pig was Walter R. Brooks's Freddy, whose adventures took him as far as the North Pole in a series of 26 books published between 1927 and 1958. Freddy is, I fear, not so widely known as he once was, and Brooks is more commonly remembered for another of his creations, the talking horse "Mr. Ed," who starred in his own television series in the 1960's. Lastly, I would be remiss indeed not to mention the Empress of Blandings, who cavorted through ten volumes issuing from the pen of that singular wit, P.G. Wodehouse, beginning the same year as Freddy (1927) and carrying on through Sunset at Blandings (1977).

Of course, people will always bring up Orwell's Animal Farm, but much as I admire many of his essays and other fictions, the allegory of that volume has always felt a bit heavy-handed to me. And it's impossible to leave out Babe, who debuted in Dick King-Smith's The Sheep-Pig in 1983 and was the basis for the 1995 film Babe and its sequel. The book and the films are endearing enough, but all of them -- as with Orwell's and Blanding's tales -- require that we imagine that pigs could talk. Talking animals are perfectly fine, of course, but it breaks the mold of realism to include them. To my mind, talking pigs belong in the world of mythic and fantastical tales, where they can take their place with magic swords and one-eyed giants; they are right at home there, and can speak all they like. Whereas pigs in this world, it seems to me, must -- if they are to find a way to make their thoughts known -- do so in a manner consistent with their capacities.

Of course, all fictions are, to put it bluntly, made up, whether they march under the banner of "fantasy" or that of "realism." Whereas Toby's singular career, as plainly documented by the most reliable of witnesses, is a matter of fact, albeit his story is told from his personal perspective, and is therefore subject -- as with any human memoir -- to a certain bias, as well as to the vagaries of memory and the capacities of the writer. And yet, perhaps because they are only familiar with sentient animals in fairy tales and fables, many people have written to ask me what the "moral" of Toby's story is! -- but I have no answer for them. Whoever it is that first decided to reduce the pleasure of stories -- whether factual or fictional -- to some idiotic truism or platitude, ought to be sentenced to eternity watching Jay Ward's "Fractured Fairy Tales" or "Aesop & Son," where this device is so aptly skewered. What, after all, is the lesson of a life? That it was lived, and that, via the curious incantatory power of language to conjure up shadows of this experience in our own minds, we may know of creatures and times other than our own, and -- if we have the talent for it -- expand our sympathies.

And so I would say this: Pigs in literature have, whether fictional or not, exhibit a sort of kinship with us. When they talk, we listen. We seem to have travelled the world together, and there is something of us in them, and them in us. This, I think, is the principal reason that pigs feature so often in literature and film -- the Wikipedia lists 37 pigs in fiction, 46 in television, 11 in music, and 23 in video games (not to mention Angry Birds!). There will be, I am certain, more to come.

But have I left out a personal favorite pig? If so, let me know.


  1. Just wanted to say that I loved the book, and thanks.

  2. Thanks for your comment -- so glad you enjoyed PYG!