11 Beloved Dogs From Literature by Catherine Britton
As the saying goes, dogs are man’s best friend. Since the Stone Age, our canine companions have been illustrated, described, dramatized, and eulogized in one form or another. “Dogs in Books” celebrates the role of over thirty dogs in literature, from Tintin’s white Wire Fox Terrier Snowy, to Lassie, Toto, and Snoopy, as well as dogs from Mark Twain, Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, and many more well-known authors.
Culled from the British Library’s incomparable archives, “Dogs in Books” features illustrations from rare editions of classic literature and contemporary renderings from popular books. Odysseus had his faithful dog Argos and King Lear’s pack of dogs barked away at him as if warning him. From narrating an entire story to rescuing our hero, these dogs are critical characters in these books, demonstrating the timelessness of our undying love and respect for dogs and proving that they have always been more than just a pet.
Very little is known about life of Aesop. The Greek writer Herodotus (485-25 BC) recorded that he was born a slave on the island of Samos about 620 BC. The comedies of Aristophanes (448-388 BC) refer to his fables, but both he and Herodotus were clearly describing a person who had already been dead for several hundred years.
Many of Aesop’s fables featured animals and birds, often making a mistake or behaving badly and then suffering the consequences, and the fable of the greedy dog is no exception:
“A dog who was crossing a river carrying a piece of meat looked down and saw his reflection in the water. Thinking the reflection was another dog with a bigger piece of meat, the dog dropped the meat he had and jumped into the water to take the larger piece, and ended up with no meat at all.”
2. “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Dafoe
Since its first publication in 1719, the story of Robinson Crusoe has been a model for many tales of survival in primitive conditions and against great odds. Although Crusoe’s dog is barely mentioned in the text, it is often illustrated in the numerous editions. There is no consistency in the way the dog is represented, but as there is no description of him this is not surprising. He also has no name, which is strange to the modern reader, since he was obviously a valued companion. The longest passage is at the beginning of the book when Crusoe is first shipwrecked:
“…as for the dog, he jumped out of the ship of himself, and swam on shore to me the day after I went on shore with my first cargo, and was a trusty servant to me many years; I wanted nothing that he could fetch me, nor any company that he could make up to me; I only wanted to have him talk to me, but that would not do.”
3. “The Tinder Box” by Han Christian Andersen
Magical animals are an essential part of many fairy tales, and “The Tinder Box” by Hans Christian Andersen is no exception. A brave soldier is sent to retrieve a tinder box (an old version of a match box), hidden inside a hollow tree. Inside the tree are three chests full of money, each one guarded by a ferocious dog which the hero must overcome in order to possess the riches, and he discovers that by striking the tinderbox he can command these fearsome dogs, so he enlists their powers and retrieves the treasure.
Amongst the finest editions of Andersen’s stories is the 1916 volume published in London by George Harrap. He commissioned the young Irish illustrator Harry Clarke (1889-1931) to create 16 color plates and 20 line drawings.
4. “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens
Bull’s-Eye is the English bull terrier companion of the evil character Bill Sikes. A rare example of an out-and-out “bad” dog, his viciousness mirrors Sikes’s brutality, and the noble canine characteristics of loyalty and obedience are cruelly distorted, as the dog is willing to harm anyone on Sikes’s whim. After Nancy’s murder, Sikes becomes determined to get rid of Bull’s Eye, seeing him as evidence of his own guilt and convinced that he will give him away. Instead, the law catches up with him, and Bull’s-Eye also meets his inevitable bloody end. “Oliver Twist” was Dickens’s second novel, and some of his readers were taken aback by the novel’s dark tone. The British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne was openly disgusted by its portrayal of low life, and even advised Queen Victoria not to read the book, saying it dealt with “paupers, criminals and other unpleasant subjects.” The Queen found the novel “excessively interesting,” however, and the book remains one of Dickens’s most popular and frequently dramatized works.
5. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum
Toto is Dorothy’s dog in the “Oz” series of books, introduced at the beginning of the first book as having “saved her from going as gray as her surroundings.” He is “a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes” and was drawn by WW Denslow as a Cairn or possibly a Yorkshire Terrier. In the first book, Toto behaves like an ordinary dog: when the cyclone approaches he runs and hides under the bed; when Dorothy meets the scarecrow he runs around barking, and later on he tries to bite the leg of the tin man, “which hurt his teeth.” Toto is also a “real” dog in that he does not speak, although he gains this ability in later Oz books. He is also crucially important to the story: when Dorothy and her friends are finally granted an audience with the Wizard in the Emerald City, it is Toto who knocks over a wooden screen to reveal the very ordinary man behind it.
6. “The Hounds of Baskerville” by Arthur Conan Doyle
Ghostly dogs are pretty common in traditional folk tales, their eerie howls usually heard as the precursor to death and disaster. Arthur Conan Doyle was certainly aware of this when he heard the story of Richard Cabbell – Lord of Brook Manor and Buckfastleigh in Devon, England – who had supposedly been killed by a monstrous dog after stabbing his wife. The ghost of the dog apparently haunted the surrounding moors, and it is clear that Richard Cabbell became the model for the evil Hugo Baskerville.
The finished story of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was serialised in The Strand magazine from 1901-02. At this point, there had been no new Sherlock Holmes stories for almost eight years, and the new tale was an immediate success. The illustrations were by Sidney Paget, although Conan Doyle did not care for them, saying that he had made Sherlock Holmes much handsomer than he wanted. Nonetheless, the story of the terrifying devil dog became embedded in the public consciousness, where it has remained ever since. Drawing on age-old fears of darkness, lonely places and wild beasts, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is probably Conan Doyle’s most famous story.
7. “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London
“The Call of the Wild” is the story of the dog Buck, the offspring of a St. Bernard and a shepherd dog who, just like the author, travels from California to follow the Yukon River Trail. Like London, Buck nearly dies in the Northland, but through courage, skill and physical strength he overcomes many setbacks and ends the story triumphant. The story’s authenticity resonated with reading public and, after years of failure as a writer, London found critical acclaim, although his financial acumen did not match his literary success. In a pattern that was to recur throughout his career, London sold his work short, charging $750 for serialization in the Saturday Evening Post and $2000 for book rights.
8. “A Dog’s Tale” by Mark Twain
Mark Twain’s “A Dog’s Tale” was written in 1903 by Twain in support of his daughter Jean’s condemnation of vivisection. It is a somber tale of the “rewards” for a dog’s loyalty to human beings. The dog Aileen lives with the wealthy Gray family, and is happy there until the day Mr. Gray sees her dragging their baby across the hallway, not realizing the dog has just rescued the child from a fire. He beats Aileen, breaking her leg. However, when her heroism is discovered she is treated better than ever, and her happiness seems complete with the birth of a puppy. This idyllic state is not to last: Mr Gray is a scientist and experiments on the puppy, who dies in great pain. The story ends with Aileen keeping vigil at her puppy’s grave, the implication clear that she will die of a broken heart. “A Dog’s Tale” first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1903, and in book format in 1904 published by Harper and Row, illustrated by W.G.Smedley. Although the critics said that the story was overly sentimental, it was popular with the reading public, and it remains an interesting example of a work told in the dog’s own voice.
9. “Lassie” by Eric Knight
The many films, comics, television and radio series about this rough-haired collie all began with one book: “Lassie Come Home,” published in 1938. The story recounts Lassie’s separation from an impoverished English family, and describes how Lassie, against all odds, finds her way back to them. Stories of dogs that traveled great distances to be reunited with their owners are not new, but the one which was almost certainly the precedent for “Lassie Come Home” took place in 1924. Bobbie, a three-year-old collie, became separated from his owners while they were on holiday in Indiana. He embarked on a 3000-mile trek back to Oregon, taking six months and travelling through the depths of winter. The story made headlines across America, and it is likely that this story was known to Eric Knight, an English journalist who owned a rough-haired collie and worked in Pennsylvania. He had already written two novels when in late 1938, “Lassie Come Home” was published as a novella in the Saturday Evening Post. Within a year, Knight had extended the story into a full-length novel, and from this point the book became a bestseller.
10. “101 Dalmatians” by Dodie Smith
On December 16, 1954, Dodie Smith wrote in her diary that she had read a book by Enid Blyton for the first time, and immediately decided that she too would write a book for children. That night she sat and worked until 3 AM to create a story, based on the Dalmatian dogs that she had kept for over 20 years, and it was the memory of the first litter of 15 puppies that she drew upon to plot the story of the “101 Dalmatians.” The idea of the villainess, Cruella de Vil came from the remark of an actress friend who saw Dodie’s first Dalmation puppy, Pongo, and declared that “he would make a nice fur coat.” The image stuck in Dodie’s mind, inspiring a plot in which an evil woman would steal Dalmatian puppies in order to start a puppy farm. Pongo was cast as a canine Sherlock Holmes, on a mission to locate the stolen puppies and return them home to their owners. “101 Dalmatians” was published on November 19, 1956, priced at ten shillings and sixpence. It was a popular and critical success: The Times Literary Supplement commended it as “a doggy tale that will please a great many children, so light it is, so easy to read with not one slow word in its expert telling.” The author and critic John Rowe Townsend observed that, “If dogs could read they would be unable to put it down.”
11. “Blue Dog” by George Rodrigue
The first appearance of “Blue Dog” was in a book of ghost stories entitled “Bayou,” in 1984. Local artist George Rodrigue had been approached to provide 40 paintings to illustrate the stories, inspired by Louisiana myths and culture. Rather than follow the specific details of each story, he drew on their themes and titles to create the paintings, the most famous of which is the illustration for “Slaughter House.” This tale of a ghost dog who guarded a house is taken from a Cajun myth of the Loup Garou – a strange dog (or wolf) who haunted cemeteries and sugar cane fields and whose name was invoked by mothers as a threat to naughty children. The shape and stance of the “Blue Dog” figure was inspired by Rodrigue’s own terrier-spaniel, Tiffany, who had died a few years earlier. The idea of a blue dog was intriguing to many, and Rodrigue began to create more paintings featuring the colourful canine, although he remembers that plenty of people told him he was crazy, and it would ruin his career. 10 books and dozens of paintings later it is clear they couldn’t have been more wrong, and “Blue Dog” is established as one of the greatest pop art icons in America.