February 20, 2012 1:48:00 PM
I love dogs. I love books. So I was a natural target for Dogs In Books: A Celebration of Dog Illustration Through the Ages (The British Library and Mark Batty Publishers) by Catherine Britton, a former senior editor at the British Library. You surely know people who are other natural targets for such a book, and it would be a perfect little gift. It is only 112 pages long, small in format but heavy on the illustrations, featuring the most famous dogs in literature and their depictions as found in the British Library. None of the dogs or their pictures are so obscure that only the British Library would have them, although the lovely reproductions of medieval miniatures here are not part of popular book illustration. Britton's comments upon the books and the pictures have many remarkable facts, and I learned a lot about the dogs, even those with whom I was already familiar.
Dogs turn out to be guardians of the underworld in different religions. The initial chapter of the book is on the three-headed dog Cerberus who welcomed dead souls into Hades but kept them from ever passing out again. Anubis was associated with mummification and the journey of the dead in Ancient Egypt, and in Eskimo mythology a snarling dog performed the same function as Cerberus. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, took a more realistic view, commenting upon the dog's fidelity, memory, and bravery. The two pages on dogs in the Bible include a lovely picture from the fifteenth century of two stupefied shepherds hearing from an angel about the birth of Jesus. A dog sits placidly as if amused by their physical demonstrations of astonishment. "The dog is not a popular animal in the Bible," says Britton, and she understates. Biblical dogs were regarded as cowardly, lazy, and unclean scavengers. Of course, in my view, this reflects the general opinion of the region at the time and not some divine judgement; Mohammed didn't think much of dogs either, but his followers have been far better at continuing the scornful attitude toward dogs than Jesus's have. There is no dog in the Bible who does anything as lovable, for instance, as Argos did, waiting all his long life for the return of his master Odysseus, finally able to wag his tail upon the traveler's return and then close his eyes forever.
Robinson Crusoe had a dog, and though he is barely mentioned in Daniel Defoe's text, Crusoe calls him "a trusty servant to me many years." He doesn't have a name in the book, and he is not described. Illustrators, however, have included him as part of the many depictions of Crusoe, and there is no consistency among them about how he looks. This is true of many of the dogs depicted here, though some others have consistency from being drawn by those who made the stories about them, like Snoopy and like Snowy from Tintin. Tintin's little white terrier is in the French originals known as Milou, after the first girlfriend of the author and artist Hergé. The dog in Old Mother Hubbard is here in 1806 prints, but the nursery rhyme has been illustrated many times. I was glad to be reminded that "so the poor dog had none" isn't the final comment on the dog's fate. He wound up in subsequent verses doing a series of remarkable things, including from the verse illustrated here, "She went to the Tavern / For White wine & Red; / When she came back / The Dog stood on his head."
It was not so pleasant to be reminded about the book Struwwelpeter. I had this book when I was a child, and my mother says I hated it so much that I would not have it in the room with me. It was first printed in Germany in 1845, and has gone through many editions and translations, so perhaps my dislike of the book is a minority view. I will maintain, however, that the "Jolly Stories" illustrated within it, including a thumbsucker getting his thumbs cut off and a girl who is immolated when she plays with matches are just not funny. Nonetheless, one of the stories has an outcome I like. Fredrick was a boy who brutalized small creatures, and whipped his poor dog Tray. Tray is able eventually to take the whip away, give Frederick a nasty bite, and then enjoy Frederick's sausage supper because the boy is confined to his sick bed. Thus to all abusers of animals, say I.
There are bad dogs here, however; they have been made villainous because they are owned by villains. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle was drawing upon ancient legends of vengeful phantom dogs, but the poor hound is just doing what it is trained to do. Similarly, Bull's-eye, the "white shaggy dog, with his face scratched and torn in twenty different places" owes his miserable state to being the companion of the horrid Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. The two of them meet fitting ends at the book's finale, but I am sorry for Bull's-eye and glad to be rid of Sikes.
I hadn't before encountered the funny and endearing pictures of dogs by Cecil Aldin, who illustrated and wrote popular books with dogs in them. When his bull terrier Cracker, a popular favorite, died, there was an obituary in The Times. Many dogs here need no introduction; Toto is here, and Lassie. You could argue that Snoopy is overexposed and over-commercialized (do you trust an insurance company whose spokesman is a cartoon beagle?), but this is not the case with the famous Blue Dog of Louisiana artist George Rodrigue. He took his stories from Cajun myths. His Blue Dog with piercing yellow eyes is a famous image only from his books and paintings, because Rodrigue strongly resists commercialization of the icon.
Britton admits that in a little book like this one "there are no doubt many favourites that have not been included," and I am glad to play that game. If you are looking for a big time literary dog, you won't find here Garryowen, the irascible dog of the equally irascible "citizen," the hyper-patriotic Irishman in the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses. More appropriate to the tone of this light and delightful book would have been Montmorency, who figures in the funny title of the very funny book Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome, a book illustrated by A. Frederics. It is a surprise to find a picture of Montmorency in the introduction, but no reference made to him, except that he shows up just where Britton is apologizing for not getting all the worthy dogs in. I vote for Montmorency in Volume Two, if there is one. After all, he is the subject of some of Jerome's funniest reflections, like: "We went downstairs to breakfast. Montmorency had invited two other dogs to come and see him off, and they were whiling away the time by fighting on the doorstep. We calmed them with an umbrella, and sat down to chops and cold beef."