Some of my favorite novels as a kid all had one similarity between them; every one had animals as the protagonists, antagonists, and characters in general. Typically these works are all lumped into the category of Fantasy, defined as a genre as anything that “contains elements that are not realistic” (readwritethink.org).
On its face, the definition holds water, talking animals tend not to be considered accurate by most of the population. But the word fantasy conjures up images of dragons, of orcs storming Helm’s Deep, of helicopters blitzing a village to Wagner (Apocalypse Now), of magic and mythology galore. This does not do these great works justice, misguiding and deluding readers’ expectations. I advocate a new genre, one exclusively for these non-fantastical creatures.
There are many series that have been mislabeled, and I shall kick off this exploration of injustice with the series that started it all for me. Guardians of Ga’Hoole is a fifteen books series exploring the Owl Kingdom through various protagonists. The main conflict resides in the Pure Ones, an army of Barn Owls seeking to take over the entire land, opposed only by the righteous peacekeepers known as the Guardians. There are very vivid parallels between the Pure Ones, who believe their species is destined to rid the world of impure blood, and the gospels of Nazi Germany, a very realistic inspiration.
The methods of war are also very believable, owls using metal claws forged by smiths to murder and fight on a massive, glorious scale. Nothing outlandish there. Of course, the envelope is tested by the later books, when more imaginative concepts are introduced such as hagsfiends, the owl equivalent of demons, and blue owls, but for the majority the books are based off real owl species fighting battles with very plausible weapons. Thus the label of fantasy is inappropriate and wouldn’t even be used if it weren’t for the fact that the owls communicate, coincidentally enough, in the language of the book; English.
The Ga’Hoole series whetted my appetite at an early age, and Redwall would offer an all-you-can-eat buffet for my inquisitive mind. These books, depicting the struggles of woodland creatures such as otters and mice to fend off the murderous ferrets, rats, foxes, and snakes referred to as “vermin.” Only later did I realize that all the carnivores had been labeled as villains, but this illustrates the real world basis for the main conflict; a natural struggle of prey versus predators. The characters also fight with Iron Age weapons (swords, spears, bows, etc.) another realistic aspect of this series. There is, to my memory, no use of magic as much as illusions and trickery, though I have not managed to read all twenty-two books in the series. Again, if not for the characters speaking to one another, these works would not receive a label as fanciful.
A good example of a properly-labeled version of these archetypes is Bambi: A Life in the Woods. Let me preface this discussion by saying the movie came after the book, and this is about a hundred times its superior in content and tone. This novel is a dark depiction of a deer’s existence, following Bambi from his birth as he experiences the tragedies wrought by Man and his “third arm” (a rifle). The style is vivid, with detailed descriptions of flora and fauna allow the reader to truly envision the wild setting of the work, and the plot is moderately paced but impactful. Yes, the deer talk to each other. Yes, the deer even converse with all the other woodland inhabitants. And what does this book receive? A genre of fiction.
There’s no reason to abolish genres. There’s no reason to attack fantasy as a genre itself. I merely say that those novels that exist on the fringes of the category, such as the quite realistic examples above, should not be lumped into a group for the sake of having them filed. Let them exist as fiction, and let the reader appreciate them as the free standing works of genius they are.
(If you are interested in this type of work, I recommend The Deptford Mice series, though this one definitely counts as fantasy, One for Sorrow: Two for Joy, and Warriors as additional examples. I am also writing my own novel, The War of the Rose, as an attempt to expand the genre.)