The Furry Canon: Animal Farm

This article is an updated version of a piece published on [adjective][species] in March 2012.

Animal Farm is George Orwell’s 1945 classic novel.

Orwell is considered to be one of the great authors and Animal Farm, along with Nineteen Eighty-Four, is considered to be one of his masterpieces. Animal Farm follows the story of anthropomorphic animals that overthrow their human farmer master and run the farm on their own terms.

I re-read Animal Farm with the idea that I would review it for [adjective][species]. I was planning to conclude that it’s a great book, and a great furry book, that all furries should read it, and it’s an easy book to recommend to the [adjective][species] Furry Canon.

I have re-read Animal Farm, but I’m not recommending to the Furry Canon. Read something else.

I simply don’t think that Animal Farm is a furry book. Which got me thinking about what constitutes a furry book.

I’ll try to define what a furry book is later, but let’s look at Animal Farm first. It has many qualities that might make it attractive to a furry audience:

  • Animal Farm is not complex or difficult to read. Its full title is “Animal Farm: A Fairy Story“, and it’s written in a very deliberate children’s storybook style. The writing is magical in its clarity, akin to Dr Seuss, J.K. Rowling or Philip K. Dick.
  • Animal Farm is short: you can start and finish it in a single sitting. It took me a couple of hours.
  • The animal characters are fully realized and easy to empathize with.
  • Many furry readers will appreciate that the only romance in the book is homosexual, between Benjamin the donkey and Boxer the horse. In line with the writing style, the relationship is chaste and friendly, and would perhaps be better described as homosocial, a bit like Bert and Ernie of Sesame Street. Still, Benjamin and Boxer are devoted to one another and are inseparable to the point that they plan to retire together.

And yet I don’t think it’s a furry book.

Why? For starters, I think that furry is escapist by nature.

Furry books tend to embrace an alternate universe. Makyo touched on this is some detail in her Layers of Fantasy post. She pointed out that furry art tends to exist in this context:

It is a sort of stacking of different layers of fantasy, with our focus on anthropomorphic animals being layered atop science fiction or fantasy elements.

Makyo goes on to point out that this isn’t a rule that applies to all furry art, and that the alternate-universe concept falls over when we furries socialize in the real world. But I think that furry does necessarily involve some disconnection from the real world, if only to accommodate our self-images as animal people. I understand that this point is arguable (and please do comment away).

I think that a real-life furry gathering is always different from a non-furry group. The alternate names; the blasé acceptance of ears and tails and fursuits; the non-traditional treatment of sexuality, and;- most importantly – the implicit acceptance that each of us are the being that we feel we are on the inside. I’m an anthropomorphic horse; RandomWolf is in a funny mood because there is a full moon; Bob is just a friendly human who likes Thundercats.

I think that furry books reflect the furry community, in that the community is disconnected from the real world. As furries, we want to escape—however marginally—from the real world. We create our own reality.

Animal Farm, despite its talking animals, exists firmly within the real world. It is allegorical, not fantastical. I wouldn’t recommend Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita as a furry book either.

Animal Farm is an allegory of the Russian Revolution. It retells the story of Russia and the USSR from around World War I through to the last years of World War II. The primary porcine protagonists—Major, Napoleon and Snowball—are respective literal analogs for Marx, Stalin and Trotsky. Animal Farm is no fairytale: there is no redemption, no success. The farm, following revolutionary overthrow of the despotic Farmer Jones, charts a course back to corrupt dictatorship as straight as an arrow.

The children’s storybook language is key to the book’s power and testament to Orwell’s genius. The language primes us to expect and hope that our farm animals will earn themselves a better life through hope and struggle: we’ve read storybooks before. We expect conflict and dark times, but we also expect redemption or at least an engaging Brothers-Grimm-style grotesque coda. But there is no hope for our animals. They are as doomed under the pigs as they were under Farmer Jones.

As well as escapism, a furry book will often employ a literary device where species is shorthand for behaviour. (Cheetahs are fast; foxes are vain; bulls are strong.) This does occur in Animal Farm to an extent—for example we have a strong horse, a lazy cat, and a grumpy donkey—however like the characterization of the pigs, this is meant allegorically. That is, Orwell explores the fates of the Russian people against their (respectively for my three examples) loyalty, work ethic, and cynicism.

To put it more directly: Animal Farm doesn’t explore speciation as a philosophical idea in the way that a furry book does.

I wrote about Gulliver’s Travels (in an article which will also be adapted in the context of the [a][s] Furry Canon project), using this as the key “furry” idea. Swift’s rational horses and animalistic humans and are intended to disconnect our rational nature from our atavistic selves. In doing so, he asks us to consider what it means to be human, a question close to the heart of many furries (and, of course, [adjective][species]). I’d recommend Gulliver’s Travels to any furry interested in exploring the idea of identity.

Another example: The First Book of Lapism by [a][s] contributor Phil Geusz deals with the philosophical aspects of identity and species. Geusz imagines a world where people voluntarily transform themselves into bunny-people in the hope of creating a pacifist and highly-socialized race. Guesz’s books explore the consequences of this new race in an accessible alternate-universe manner. Speculative fiction isn’t personally my cup of furry tea, but Guesz’s works are well written and beloved by many.

Animal Farm is a work of genius and was a very important book when it was published in 1945. History is important, but the Russian Revolution is less relevant in our post cold-war world. And if a version of Animal Farm were published today as an allegory for conflict between the Western and Islamic worlds, I still wouldn’t recommend it as a furry book.


Follow this link to explore everything we have published on the [adjective][species] Furry Canon project.


The Furry Canon, recommended, at the time of publication:
Redwall

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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14 thoughts on “The Furry Canon: Animal Farm

  1. Something interesting that I thought Mary Lowd pointed out is was along the lined of: “if we can’t identify works as furry, and separate that from an idea of a furry community, then there is nothing here for me.” (Paraphrased.) And I think that that’s a fair point to make.

    I can see Animal Farm as something that can exist as furry, although I think the express purpose of using animals in animal farm was to establish an Us vs. Them (Us being animals as the working class, them being the bourgeoisie and the humans, and later, consequently, the pigs too.) They are not necessarily there because the writer enjoyed an animal aesthetic, which does feel like an important factor for me to recognize a work as having a furry meta theme. For me, as a corollary, using animals for the express purpose of a theme or a plot point makes a work less likely to be tapping into that meta theme of furry aesthetic, although there are always exceptions to that.

    If somebody came up to me and said “my favorite furry book is Animal Farm,” I’d probably blink, and then come around to “okay, yeah, I can understand that perspective if I squint at it.” I think it goes into the same category as Maus for me as “this is furry if you want it to be furry for sure.” They’re both an example of “societal catalysts shapes our identities” an using animals as a symbol for this as opposed to “we explore and shape our own identities.” And then we have works like Zootopia, which do both.

    1. That’s a good point and it’s why, when I say that Animal Farm isn’t a furry book, I precede it with “I think”. I can certainly see how it can be read as a tragic fairy story, although I also to do so is to miss the point of the book entirely.

      Animal Farm is on Fred Patten’s list of “top ten furry classics”—the list that helped prompt the Furry Canon project—and it immediately struck me as an outlier. To read Animal Farm as a furry story feels like a wilful misreading, just as it would to treat Maus the same as, say, Mouse Guard. For Animal Farm or Maus to be read as animal-person adventure story is perverse.

      But then, as The Dude might say, that’s just my opinion man.

      1. No, I think I agree with you to some extent. I don’t think Maus and Mouse Guard belong in the same category, and it would be weird to see it in a ranked list where “one of these things looks in no way like the other nine things.”

        So I do think they need different treatment when it comes to pointing at intent, effect and purpose. But I also think Furry doesn’t serve well as a genre married to specific themes of adventure and escapism if it ever wants to grow beyond a niche. I think it needs to grow and branch out just like how Scifi grew beyond just space operas. But we also have the caviat of not grabbing onto content we didn’t produce and say “look this is a product of our community” which comes off as maybe not the nicest or respectful thing to do. That is why I support the firm separation of furry community and furry works, even if they two do frequently overlap.

  2. I completely agree and was ready to bite when this book’s review would show up. ;-) “Animal Farm” is a great classic but neither the way it employs animals nor the topics it deals with have much to do with modern furry art. It is a far better fit for genres like fable or political satire. Even the ending scene is still an allegory which doesn’t really question human nature – or pig nature.

    I’m not sure furry art has to be escapist in nature though. A long time ago I started a (pretty naive) question on the Yerf forum asking why almost no furry art seemed to touch upon ongoing historical events such as the Iraq War and I got basically the same anwer (from Ursula Vernon nevertheless, if I remember correctly). Yet some furry stories, especially in the transformation genre, are on the long tail of the escapist spectrum and come closer to real world matters than most fantasy books and entertainment movies. “Black Beauty” is not merely escapist either, although it’s really a one of a kind book. I wonder whether a good serious novel/movie starring furry fans and fursuiters, dealing with social and identity issues related to the fandom, and perhaps including an escapist furry nested narrative, could qualify as a furry classic. This is mere speculation though. As a general rule yes, furry is more escapist and philosophical than critical of the real world.

    1. Hi Scale, terrific point, and I guess there are degrees when it comes to escapism. It’s been a few years since I wrote those lines and I’ll admit I considered reworking that section. In the end I decided that “escapism” is flexible enough.

      Black Beauty is a terrific example and is a book we will definitely be covering here on the Furry Canon as part of our first tranche of reviews. And I also think we have also identified a good, serious novel that can be considered a furry classic: Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

      We will be looking at Steppenwolf in due course, but it was one of the books that kicked off the discussion that eventually led to the Furry Canon project in the first place. With respect for Fred, and the impossibility of writing a “top ten furry classics” list that satisfies everyone (or possibly anyone), we boggled at the inclusion of Animal Farm to the exclusion of other books we’d consider to be shoo-ins. So this is our attempt to build a better list of furry classics, escapist or no.

  3. Hrrrm.

    First, thank you for citing my own work. Just being mentioned in the same piece as Orwell is… Wow!

    This is all IMO a matter of semantics. I can recall this same essential discussion taking place over and over again during the earliest furry writing panels I ever attended, circa 2001 or so. “What is furry literature? And is it a genre?” JM here takes the position that for literature to be furry it has to somehow reflect the modern fandom’s _sensibilities_ of what is furry. Don’t get me wrong– that’s an entirely defensible position, and at many levels as inherently “good” and “workable” as any other. And yet… I was essentially a furry by 1970, and had never met another. There was no “fandom sensibility” because there was no fandom– I’d never even met another fur, and I doubt many others had either. Yet, I certainly had my favorite furry works! If our definition is centered on current sensibilities, does this mean that we’ll need to generate a brand-new list every time these sensibilities shift over time? As quite possibly may happen any day now, I’ll add, if indeed “Zootopia” draws in a large new wave of different-culture fans as some anticipate.

    Personally, I prefer a much looser and more inclusive definition. To me, a work of fiction (or for that matter a film) is furry if even a single major character is anthropomorphic in even a single story-important respect. Disney’s “The Shaggy Dog” has but a single furry character– or at least the 1959 version I saw had only one. Yet, by my working definition it’s clearly a furry movie. Similarly, the rabbits in “Watership Down” are physically fully rabbits. Yet they can speak to each other and have developed a rich, complex culture, which (though some disagree, on anatomical grounds) to me makes them anthropomorphic and therefore the book featuring them by definition a furry one. As an aside, I’ll add that this is also a far less subjective and easier-to-apply definition than the one laid out in the main article above. Which can be important when it’s time to hand out formal awards and the like.

    Also, as a matter of full disclosure, I should point out that a large percentage of my own work features only a single furry or two– sometimes not even the protagonist, but always an important personage– in an otherwise human world. Usually they’re there to teach a lesson, provide an “outsider” viewpoint, or sometimes represent the potential of transhumanism for good or evil. Sometimes my peer-furs consider these works furry, sometimes not. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m a bit irked sometimes when it’s the latter, especially if this is the reason cited for a story’s rejection from a furry collection. Because _I_ certainly think it’s furry, or I’d never have submitted it in the first place.

    We can define “furry literature” any way we choose– this is our right and privilege as a fandom. And arguably our duty as well, if we’re ever to employ the term seriously. JM, I suspect we’ve put the cart before the horse here, in discussing a furry canon when we haven’t even agreed upon a definition of furry literature yet. Part of me is terrified to bring up the matter, as a large segment of my body of work is liable to be ruled outside the pale of the readers I cherish most and originally created it for. But…

    How can we hold a discussion like this– or for that matter give out awards for things furry– if we don’t grasp the nettle and have it out?

    1. Hi Rabbit, thanks for the comment and analysis, and I can’t disagree with anything you say. Taking a broader definition of “furry” to include basically any muddling of anthropomorphism (or zoomorphism) is indeed a far less subjective criterion than the “modern furry sensibility” that we are looking to apply with this project. My only complaint is that such a definition would mean that, as well as Zootopia, Finding Nemo is now also “furry”. And while that’s logical, I think it misses the point about what is special about genuinely furry works, like Redwall or indeed Watership Down (which we will be one of our next reviews).

      We’re drawing on Flip’s analysis of the Modern Furry Aesthetic (http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2015/06/04/the-beginnings-of-the-modern-furry-aesthetic/) to help us define what “modern furry” is, and that can certainly include works that existed before furry did – Watership Down being an excellent example. To put it into the shortest form I can manage, the modern furry aesthetic is one that considers acting like an animal to be instinctually honest: the animal instinct provides insight to the human condition.

      Jakebe, with help from myself and others, did a pretty good job of laying down these definitions and goals in this Furry Canon introductory article (http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2016/03/10/introducing-the-furry-canon/). We are trying to identify works that mesh with this modern sensibility, and that comes with all the shortcomings you mention: that not everyone would agree with that definition; that the definition may shift with time and with the furry mainstream; that the definition is fluffy as best. Still, the more restrictive definition allows us to focus on things that are “furry” (like Redwall) rather than those that are merely anthropomorphic (like Animal Farm).

      But where does that leave the collected writings of Phil Geusz? I can’t think of anything that would come close to falling outside the “furry” scope of this project, but then I guess it comes down to the analysis and opinions of whoever writes on the topic. And I suppose that’s the biggest weakness of this entire project: whether a book is recommended to, or rejected from, the [adjective][species] Furry Canon ultimately comes down to the sensibilities of one writer.

      1. JM, you and I have discussed Animal Farm in the past and disagreed on thes issues, so I won’t go into it again. However, I strongly support Phil’s point here. The notion that there even is a “modern furry sensibility” rubs me the wrong way, because it denies the variability we see in furry as a whole. There is no more agreement here than there is in Congress or Parliament. And, as Phil points out, furry itself is not “modern.” It didn’t begin with the internet, nor with some Disney motion picture. We have our roots in prehistoric culture, animism, totems, and pagan spiritualities. Limiting ourselves to some modern concept seems like masochism to me.

    2. Well, what comes into question here is the pratical reasons for trying to list a “furry canon”. I think this kind of exercise is most useful for explaining which ideas are standing the test of time among furry fans, so that the claim that a work has had a heavy influence on furries can be backed with some evidence. Looking for all the influences which brought people to the fandom results in a huge and incoherent list ranging from Golden Age sci-fi to Saturday Morning Cartoons to classic literature, but a list of essential works should be, well, more essential.

      Maybe we should simply look for repeating patterns in stuff that furries like, with a stress on _repeating_. A possible hint to “how much furry” a work is (I prefer a fuzzy classification) would be considering how easy it is for a reader brought to the fandom by such work to find similar works created by or for the fandom. Animal transformation for example is such a popular topic that animal transformation stories are considered a whole subgenre of furry. A reader who falls in love with your novels featuring animal TF will find a variety of other stories employing very similar elements under the furry umbrella, so your novels are definitely furry, as is “The Golden Ass” (even though I’m sure that very few furries were brought to the fandom directly by it). Not all will be equally representative but at least there is proof that they actually are of furry interest and a fan of any of them can find more to read in the fandom.

      On the other hand, a reader who enjoys “Animal Farm” for its allegories won’t find similar works in furry literature. Furry ignores traditional animal allegories for the most part and when it tackles political issues (tipically gay rights) it does so with in very different ways, hardly ever employing satire or allegory. It seems that furries just aren’t interested in creating works similar to “Animal Farm”, which means its influence and ispirational power among furries are smaller than they seem.

      So I would argue that discussing wether a work is essential for furry is subordinated to checking wether the fandom actually values (and therefore tries to create) works sporting similar themes and narrative devices. If it doesn’t then it’s an external influence at most.

  4. Interesting. I have no problem with treating Animal Farm as a furry work, though I agree that it wasn’t the author’s intent to make it such. Jack London or Anna Sewell weren’t thinking in furry terms either, yet I find they can be read in those terms. The same is true of this single work by Orwell.

    I do not see Animal Farm as a strict allegory of the Bolshevik Revolution but more as a broader work on the nature of society and how it connects to economic structures and social conventions. These elements are just as relevant in a furry world as they are in Star Trek or some other setting. Orwell may have intended the work as a simple condemnation of socialist idealism, but I read it as a tragedy on many levels and like most tragedies, one that allows us to see how the disaster could have been averted without losing sight of the goal. Many of the characters are “flat” but a few of them are very well-developed and meet all my criteria for furry. Those would include Benjamin and Boxer, of course, as well as Snowball and Napoleon. A reader can identify with these characters easily and fall into the dreamscape just as much as in any other furry work.

    1. Furthermore, I think that JM uses too narrow a definition of “escapism,” one that borders on “fantasizing.” Tragedies and disasters can allow someone to “escape the real world” just as much daydreams. Animal Farm resonated with me when I read it in part because I, with my pre-teen apocalyptic tendency, was reading it among other classic dystopias.

  5. Animal Farm is a furry novel in the same way that 1984 is a science fiction novel; it was written outside the genre, for readers outside the genre, and most of those who want to deag it into the genre seem to be doing so in order to have something to point at and say “look how literary and respectable our genre can be!”

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