In The Wind in the Willows the main characters sing a Christmas carol which speaks of the animals as the first to “sing Noel”, to recognize Christ on Earth.
It is, of course, a fantasy; and perhaps more than that, it is a children’s fantasy. There is no reason to take it seriously. On the other hand, I’m sure I’ve encountered the idea of the animals around the manger worshipping Christ in other Christmas carols. Although I cannot think of an example at the moment, as December begins I suspect we will hear this idea somewhere in the days ahead. Is it all fantasy, or is there something here that we are missing?
There are some hints that animals know more of what is happening in this world than we would like to credit. Balaam’s ass saw what he could not see, the angel of the Lord standing in the path ready to slay the prophet if he continued his journey to curse Israel. The psalmist commands, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” Surely animals have breath. Are they disobedient to the heavenly word, or is it impossible for them to comply?
I don’t think I can answer that question in this world. I do think, however, that in our fantasy worlds, at least, this is a question we can answer. What do the animals know of the gods? Perhaps the answer is precious little, that the divine communes with the human, but not with the animal. I started a story once in which the main character encountered a leprechaun, and learned through their conversations over time that leprechauns knew God had reached out to man, but equally knew that their own connection to God would be through man. It could be much like that for animals in our fantasy worlds, whether or not that’s how it is in this world.
On the other hand, it could well be that animals have the ability to see the spiritual warfare surrounding us, to which we as humans are blinded. Our fiction is full of tales in which animals could sense the presence of ghosts or demons while humans blundered into danger. It could easily be that they see what we cannot, and know much about spiritual matters to which we are oblivious.
It matters in fantasy, of course, because our characters may have the ability to communicate with animals. What do they need to learn from us? What can they in turn teach us? They might know much that would enlighten us.
In Labyrinth a worm shows the girl one of the secrets of the maze, so that she can spot turnings that are hidden by illusion. She asks the worm if it knows the way through the maze, but it doesn’t. “I’m just a worm,” it says. Then when she starts out it calls to her. “Don’t ever go that way,” it instructs, and she thanks it for its help. Once she’s left, the worm says to no one, “If she had gone that way, she’d have gone straight to that castle.” Pleased that it had saved her from what it perceived as the great danger at that end of the maze, it was completely oblivious to the fact that it not only held the answer to her problem, it had steered her away from it.
Similarly, in Verse Three, Chapter One, there is a moment when one of the heroes asks her werewolf friend what special powers werewolves had. The werewolf points out how difficult this is for him to answer. He has no special powers; he can do anything an ordinary werewolf can do, some things better and some worse. That he can smell whether someone he knows has been in his cab within the past three days, or change his appearance between being wolf-like and man-like, or drive his cab through a hyperspace-like dimension to get around the traffic and get where he wants to be quickly, are all ordinary things to him. Seeing them as special abilities doesn’t make sense, because his people are their own baseline. It is humans who have special abilities, in that they can do things werewolves cannot; if humans cannot do something werewolves can, then the humans are deficient.
After having been present for the death of one of his classmates, Harry Potter could see the otherwise invisible thestrals that pulled the carriages at Hogwarts Academy. To those students who could not see them, it was difficult to accept that they were there; those who having been close to death could see these animals had trouble understanding what it was like for those who could not see them. What we see we presume is visible to everyone else, or else there is something wrong with us or them. The idea that reality might not be perceived the same by all is not an easy notion to grasp, nor to keep in mind when communicating with others.
In much the same way, I’m sure that whatever animals know, whatever they see, whatever they understand about spiritual matters, it doesn’t occur to them that we humans don’t share that. After all, they are their own baseline. If they see it, it must be there, and we must see it as well. Whether it’s a ghost or an angel or the hand of God, it may be a visible part of their world even while being an invisible part to us; but if so, it would not occur to them that we could not see it, or did not know it. It would take some fairly pointed questions to find the differences. After all, “What do you see that I don’t” is hardly a useful question, if the person asked cannot guess what it is that you see.
Perhaps then animals are praising God; perhaps it is something they do without our knowledge. If so, perhaps when we communicate with them in our game worlds we will learn something about the realities of the world which are known to them but hidden to us.
This article was originally published in December 2004 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.