A fable is a story that imbues animals and imaginary creatures, along with any manner of natural or supernatural forces, with human-like traits to convey any part of its plot, meaning or narrative. It seems that fables have been a staple of human storytelling for as long as humans have had stories to tell. Even the oldest documented story currently know, The Epic of Gilgamesh, contains elements of fable carved into tablets.
Given this fundamental position of fable in human culture, it should be no surprise, that fable retains a key role in contemporary story-telling. Human connection, whether individual or collective, to the natural world is too vital for fable to ever be completely banished. Fable may be considered as humanism over-lain on the natural world.
We do tend to used fable where it seems to have proven highly effective: story-telling to convey a moralistic message. Often that means children’s stories, but fable is certainly not exclusively for children.
The Council of Animals, by Nick McDonell was published early in 2021 and is a contemporary fable. The storytelling is not particularly innovative nor is the story itself novel and compelling. At the beginning of the story, a council of animals is gathering to decide the fate of humanity – will the animals decide to exterminate the last of humanity or leave them to live out their lives in peace?
In reading the story, other fables readily come to mind and it seems only marginally necessary to state their titles. Pick the first five fables that come to mind and you’ve probably stitched together much of the plot and much of the narrative style. Mentioning McDonell’s willingness as an author to mug for the camera via animal-themed puns and set-pieces and that might be the end of it. It’s almost unworthy of a book review.
Except that the book feels as though its original intent, a story where Kingdom Animalia renders judgment on humanity, had been leant a new direction when the global pandemic came to town. Over the course of the story, it is revealed that some unspecified pandemic had struck down humanity’s population and provided animals (and some mythological creatures) the opportunity to finally gather their collective strength and dominance to be able to decide what to do with the stragglers that had survived.
The efficacy of fables is not their reality. The efficacy is in their ability to convey a moralistic meaning. McDonell’s novel expresses existential concern regarding humanity’s relationship to nature and existential panic in the face of pandemic. Whether that should be considered to be moralized fear-mongering, naive hand-wringing or something else entirely may be up to the reader.
Whether the book is viewed as any of these things should not preclude recognizing that the matter of the book’s panic (a human-created pandemic that threatens to end humanity) is the smaller consideration compared to the book’s concern ( humanity’s relationship to nature).
The book does not seem to be a book of humanism, however it is a book which offers a reminder that contemporary humanists, or perhaps more accurately, contemporary human societies whether they’re humanist or not, currently have the significant challenge to set aside human-centered existential crises in order to address the larger and more significant concern of this planet’s capacity to support life in any form at all. We need a new and vigorous Biophilic Humanism – a humanism, and a humanity, that places its interest in itself within the sustaining interests of the natural world we inhabit.
The moral of the story, when it comes to reading The Council of Animals, is that the time for fables, this over-laying of human priorities and characteristics onto nature, seems to be reaching its limits. Now is the time for laying of nature’s needs and priorities over human character.
Citations, References And Other Reading
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