Sunday, September 04, 2005

Animal Character

At the end of this black week, a lighter post on the characters of animals.

Horseback riders quickly learn that their mounts have distinct characters - some positive and outgoing, some surly and irritable. On a farm you find that young steers are smarter than dogs and have elaborate social structures.

So this is to celebrate Patrick O'Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin books, on which the movie Master and Commander was based. He combines massive expertise with a deep understanding of the men who fought on the high seas 200 years ago. Each emerges as a distinct character, as do the animals.

Here's a favorite passage which shows his unsentimental appreciation. Maturin, in his capacity as a naturalist, is drawing a rare aardvark.

It stood before him now, a pale creature with a bulky hog-backed body close on five feet long, a broad tail, an immense elongated head ending in a disk-like snout, short stout legs and disproportionally long translucent ass's ears; it was covered with sparse yellowish hair that showed the unwholesome night-walker's skin below; it blinked repeatedly. The aardvark was acutely conscious of its position and from time to time it licked its small tubular lips, for not only had it been measured and weighed, while a tuft of bristles that could ill be speared had been clipped from its flank, but now it was being looked at through a diminishing-glass and drawn. It was a meek, apologetic animal, incapable of biting and too shy to scratch; and it grew lower and lower in its spirits: its ears drooped until they obscured its weak, melancholy, long-lashed eyes.

"There, honey, its done,' said Stephen, showing the aardvark its likeness...