The Heritage of the Barnyard: Common Animals in Uncommon Fiction


Vision 10

The Heritage of the Barnyard:

Common Animals in Uncommon Fiction


Justin Stanchfield

Copyright © 2002, Justin Stanchfield, All Rights Reserved

We live on an amazing planet: a world teeming with life, countless species of animals, some wild, some domestic, filling every conceivable niche. Sadly, too many fantasy stories populate the pages of their pre-industrial world with people, wolf-hounds, horses, and the occasional lap cat, neglecting to the point of absurdity the rich heritage of the barnyard. And this is too bad. History, both real and imagined, is incomplete without the animals that helped shape it, fed us, and provided the sheer muscle to build empires or tear them down. Without our beasts of burden we would most likely have remained little more than clever apes hovering at the fringe of extinction. Fortunately for us all, our ancestors came to the same conclusion several millennia ago.  

Although we like to think of biotechnology as the cutting edge of modern knowledge, it is in truth the oldest of all the sciences. Man and animal have a long history, stretching back so far that the roots are all but lost in history's dust. Where and when the first wild animals were domesticated is irrelevant, as it most likely occurred hundreds of times in different locations around the globe. However, the first creatures to be domesticated were most likely wolves. Certainly archeological evidence supports the idea. Wolves had been tamed and bred to become the forerunners of every breed of modern dog centuries before humans crossed the land bridge between Asia and North America, or made the dangerous sea crossing to Australia. Dogs were our companions, hunting partners, pack animals and yes, even food, ages before any herbivores were bred in captivity. But what of the larger animals? To trust Hollywood, horses leapt into our lives not long after the discovery of fire. The truth, obviously, is somewhat different.  

Horses are romantic. They're bold, seductive, even lovable at times. But they were never the true ”workhorse” of the world. That honor fell to the lowly ox. Cattle, another of the earliest wild species to be domesticated, have long been used as a dual-purpose animal, both for meat, milk and as draft animals. Egyptian tomb paintings show spotted oxen, distant precursors to the longhorns that would someday stampede across the American west, yoked in tandem, side-by-side, pulling crude wooden plows. From tropical Asia to sub-arctic Europe, oxen provided the sheer power to transport loads otherwise impossible to move. More tractable than horses and easier to break to harness, oxen were teamed together in strings sometimes containing more than thirty animals, giving an enormous pulling capacity. Furthermore, as cruel as this may seem to modern sensibilities, they could be eaten at the end of the long journey.  

This is an oft-repeated pattern. Nearly every domesticated animal served two or more roles on the farmstead beyond simply being a ready source of protein. Sheep, and some breeds of goats, were shorn for their wool, the most important fabric in northern climates. Goats, not cows, were also the chief source of milk in most regions of the world. Chickens, ducks, and geese were kept as much for their eggs, and occasionally their feathers, as their meat, and in many farms were left to roam freely in order to warn the family of intruders. (Anyone who has been chased by an angry goose can attest what an effective alarm system they are!) Even pigs, which were considered unclean by many cultures, were trained to root out truffles and other edible fungus.  

These, of course, are simply the more common animals, especially in European traditions. Nearly every major species of animals has, at one time or another, been domesticated. Camels, donkeys, llamas, and reindeer are just a few of the many animals that have been harnessed through the ages. One creature that does surface often in fantasy settings is the falcon; the image of a mounted warlord surveying the hunt, his favorite bird perched and hooded on his forearm, is almost irresistible. However, the years of training, devotion, and constant care, not to mention the tenuous bond between falcon and falconer, is seldom mentioned. Indeed, the most pressing question on most falconers’ minds is not whether the bird will return with prey, but whether it will return at all; the constant knowledge that many hawks eventually do return to the wild is foremost with every hawker.  

Sadly, another problem in all too many fantasy novels is an abject ambivalence toward agriculture. In a time when survival, not to mention the economy, of every kingdom, duchy and province was dependent on farming, even the most urbane lord was expected to have mastered a rudimentary knowledge of animal husbandry. Knighthood, as with most minor titles, entailed a grant of land with the title. And while many courtiers chose to sharecrop their holdings, they were still intimately connected with the production values of the farms in their keeping. To ignore the source of their wealth, whether for a minor landlord or high king, could only spell financial ruin for themselves and their subjects. And while the gentry would have shunned the physical labor associated with farming, most took a keen interest in the breeding stock, allowing another avenue for competition between nobles. A prize bull or ram was always worth its weight in bragging rights.  

Raising livestock, to those who have never done it, seems a simple matter. Turn a bull into a herd of cows, then sit back and let nature take its course. In a few months your herd will have doubled in size. Of course, reality is always a bit more complicated. Raising stock, whether in modern Iowa or Third Century Rome was a complicated, time-consuming endeavor, and then, as now, a study unto itself. Knowledge was passed down, each generation adding to the unwritten library of animal lore. There were no textbooks, no County Extension Agents to turn to in case of trouble. There were also, sadly, no antibiotics or vaccines. Sickness could, and did, decimate entire herds in a matter of weeks. Entire bloodlines could be wiped out by something as minor as a dirty water hole. Only the canniest of stockmen could bring their herds through a season unscathed. Is it any wonder that the herders specialized? Consider the origin of some common English names: Shepherd, Calvert (calf herder), Beeman, and my personal favorite (my son's name), Colter.  

Still, if fantasy relegates the majority of creatures great and small to the back pages, science fiction usually ignores them altogether, assuming the food our intrepid voyagers eat will come from ”replicators” or hydroponic vats. And while it is true that the first generations of space pioneers will most likely derive their food from plants and algae which thrive in artificial environments, by the time humanity begins terra-forming new worlds the same animals we have raised for centuries will be as valued as ever, though perhaps for different reasons. Horses will still provide cheap, renewable transportation. Bees will still pollinate the same old flowers under alien suns. Birds will still flit about under strangely colored skies, genetically tailored perhaps to fit their new environs, but still recognizable as Terran species. But it will be the large, sharp-hoofed species such as cattle, deer, and sheep, which will prove the most valuable, rendering the vital link between seed and soil, spreading grasslands far more effectively than any cultivator might.  

Farm animals may, in fact, prove to be the perfect ”first colonists.“ They thrive in captivity, their health and genetic traits are readily understood, and most importantly of all, while they are generally docile and easy to handle, they will become feral in a single generation. Given all this, considering how important barnyard animals have been to our past, present, and future, shouldn't we give them their due in the stories we create?