Beavers are heroes, as any Narnia fan will tell you. Now the news confirms what we have known since meeting Mr and Mrs Beaver in CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Industrious rodents havebuilt six dams upstream of the flood-prone Devonshire village of East Budleigh. These have been slowing the flow of water during the recent storms, reducing pollution and restoring native wildlife, according to a local five-year study.
Fiction is full of heroic animals, real and imaginary: brave colt Joey in Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, Harry Potter’s unflusterable pet owl Hedwig and Lyra Belacqua’s quick-witted shapeshifting daemon Pantalaimon in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Peter, Lucy, Susan and Edmund are up to their necks in trouble when Mr Beaver offers them shelter from the snow in the cosy dam he shares with Mrs Beaver. He even fights in the Last Battle.
Horses and dogs are the animals we consider most noble and loyal. It’s impossible not to cry at the scene in War Horse when Joey is sold off to the army and Albert promises to find him – or when they are finally reunited amid the blood and mud of the Somme. Or think of stoic, strong Boxer, the great cart-horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, who is forced to plough and plough for the Pigs who finally sell him to the knacker’s yard and buy whisky. The ur‑horse is Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, forever meeting cruelty with kindness, despite being starved and beaten.
Buck in Jack London’s adventure novel The Call of the Wild is Black Beauty’s feistier canine counterpart. The stout St Bernard-collie cross is stolen from a comfy fireside in California and forced to pull sleds in Alaska, where he endures countless wicked owners before finally being rescued by John Thornton whom he saves in turn. A pleasingly grizzled Harrison Ford plays Thornton in the latest film remake of London’s enduring classic. One of the most faithful characters in my own novel, You Will Be Safe Here, is a pug called Britney, snuffle-nosed companion to the friendless Willem.
Black Beauty is one of the best examples of xenofiction, a story told from the perspective of a non-human. My favourite is Watership Down, though I remain traumatised by the bloody teeth of General Woundwort. As a genre it’s hit and miss – Virginia Woolf is not always convincing on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved cocker spaniel Flush in her 1933 dog biography. Andrew O’Hagan, however, captures perfectly the impish charm of Marilyn Monroe’s observant Maltese terrier Maf (short for Mafia) in The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe – a wicked nip at the ankles of the rich and infamous surrounding the doomed star. As Monroe quipped: “Dogs never bite me. Just humans.”
There are shelves of memoirs about real animals and real people. In Tales of Amazing Animal Heroes Mike Unwin recounts courageous creatures – from Bucephalus, the horse that helped make Alexander so very Great, to Lizzie, the elephant that carted steel around Sheffield in the first world war when all the horses were on battlefields. As with James Bowen’s A Street Cat Named Bob, the story is often us rescuing them. Really, they are saving us – usually from ourselves, the cruellest animal of all.
• You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr is published by Bloomsbury.