Why is the Talking Beast so beloved as a character? I think partly because as children we long to connect with all of our world, not just the parts of it that look like us, and it makes perfect sense that a monkey or an elephant or a pig should have elaborate and long conversations as much as humans do.
For another, most of us who still believe – slightly sneakily – in magic also believe that all the animals we see are secretly talking about us behind our backs. Even those people with a more scientific mind tend to give animals human traits: cats are independent, dogs are loyal, crows are sly, and so on.
No wonder the Talking Beast is usually a much-loved character in whichever book it is in. Here are some favourites – both mine, and crowdsourced from Twitter and Facebook – broken up into categories for helpful reference.
Animals who can talk to only one human
Ralph S Mouse from The Mouse And The Motorcycle and Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary: In these books, Ralph, a smarter-than-average mouse, can talk to boys who are “like him,” slightly shy and lonely and obsessed with toy cars and motorcycles.
Dr Dolittle’s animals from the Dr Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting: Here, the idea is that Dr Dolittle – who loves animals – has taken it upon himself to learn all the animal languages in the world. It means that the books are peppered with conversations he has with his dog Jip, his parrot and teacher, Polynesia, and my favourite, the green canary, who tells him her life story in Dr Dolittle And The Green Canary, which he turns into an animal opera, complete with singing parts for each creature.
Pets who talk (non-magic in human world)
Kiki from the Adventure series by Enid Blyton: Most beloved of all Enid Blyton’s mystery books featuring kid detectives, pimarily because the others featured just a dog (albeit a very smart one), while this series had a whole lot of animals from badgers to mice. But foremost among them was an extremely smart parrot named Kiki, who added her nonsense to the beginning and end of the books and helped lighten up the slightly darker tone (compared to the other cozy mysteries.)
Pets who talk (magic in human world)
Archimedes from The Once And Future King by TH White: Pre-Hedwig, perhaps even the inspiration for Hedwig, there was the very wise Archimedes, a sarcastic owl who claimed lineage from Athena. In the books, he’s Merlin’s familiar and pet, but he’d never deliver mail or do anything below his dignity.
Porterhouse Major from Porterhouse Major by Margaret Baker: I had to include Porterhouse Major, who starts out a normal kitten but thanks to a spell put on him by a little boy called Rory, turns into almost a tiger-sized animal. Porterhouse can now talk and solve problems, and is very wise as well as very selfish, as is expected from a cat. (If any of you can name the other magic cat book whose name eludes me: of a girl who lives with her grandparents and befriends a local cat who also has magic powers and helps her get what she wants, there’s a prize in it for you.)
Magic animals in magic worlds
Bree from The Horse And His Boy by C.S Lewis: Perhaps you’re surprised I don’t name Aslan the lion from the same books, but I have no patience for Aslan. The Horse And His Boy stand out in the Chronicles Of Narnia because it is the only book set entirely in Narnia with no children arriving from outside to rescue the country. And chief to it all is Bree, a war stallion who is vain and strong and a good friend in the end – almost human and not at all a goody-goody like some lions I could mention.
Iorek Byrnison from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman: The armoured bear had a way with words, and a strong sense of right and wrong, and was perhaps my favourite character from the books. Think of him as a sort of Yoda-meets-father-figure.
Toy animals that come to life for their 0wners
Hobbes from the comic strip Calvin And Hobbes by Bill Watterson: Everyone knows Hobbes, right? And yet, the first time you realise he’s just a stuffed toy is a moment of sadness for you. The strips zoom in and out of Calvin’s perspective – showing Hobbes both as wise mentor and best friend as well as Hobbes lying on the floor, as a stuffed animal.
Eeyore from Winnie-The-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne: I was going to put Tigger in here, but let’s be honest – Tigger would wear us out in the first five minutes of making his acquaintance. Instead, it’s gloomy Eeyore, the sad donkey that captured everyone’s attention, making him one of the most suggested names on my social media posts asking for favourite talking animals. They’re all stuffed animals though, who belong to Christopher Robin, but who have their own lives when he’s not there.
Animals who only talk to each other
Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web by E.B White: Again, a popular pick among my Twitter and Facebook friends, Charlotte is the motherly spider who is the mastermind behind saving her piggy best friend, Wilbur, from being turned into bacon. While she can write English words into her web, Charlotte only talks to her fellow barnyard animals, and not to humans, who can’t understand her, except for Fern who stays so quiet the animals are comfortable talking around her.
Hazel from Watership Down by Richard Adams: Fiver may be the hero in this book about rabbits travelling from one warren to another to save their skins, but Hazel turns out to be the best (rabbit) hero after all. You probably don’t spend that much time thinking about rabbits, but after a while inside Hazel’s head, you’ll pay more attention to their inner lives next time. No humans at all, except for a looming outside threat.
Kotick from The White Seal, a story in The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling: Nope, not all Mowgli fighting tigers. Interestingly, The Jungle Books contains a number of non-Mowgli animal stories, where all the creatures talk to each other. It was a toss-up between Kotick the albino seal, who – much like Hazel – has to find a newer, safer breeding ground for his tribe and Rikki Tikki Tavi the mongoose, but Kotick wins in the end, for being a better hero. Again, people are perceived vaguely as a threat, but not spoken to.
Animals who can talk to humans but are not perceived as unusual
Paddington Bear from the Paddington books by Michael Bond: Was there ever a more loved bear than Paddington? This adorable bear from “darkest Peru” makes himself very much a part of his human family, but interestingly, no one questions why he can talk (and sleep in a bed or eat human food) and why the other animals can’t. It’s just one of those things.
(Special thanks to people who responded to my question on Twitter and Facebook.)
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of five books, most recently a collection of short stories titled Before, And Then After and a novel titled Split.