Article by Raphael Wildcom
From the earliest fables and parables to contemporary novels, films, and digital content, dogs have long held pivotal roles in literature and popular culture. Serving as loyal companions, brave protectors, or embodiments of human traits, the representation of dogs in creative works has influenced and continues to shape our perceptions of these domestic animals.
The rich tapestry of their depiction across diverse cultures and periods presents a fascinating exploration of the age-old partnership between humans and dogs.
The Role and Representation of Dogs in Literature and Pop Culture
Early Depictions: The Sacred and The Symbolic
Perhaps one of the oldest literary depictions of dogs is found in Homer's epic, "The Odyssey." Argos, Odysseus' loyal dog, waits for his master for 20 years, recognizing him upon his return when no one else does. This depiction paints dogs as steadfast companions, laying the groundwork for the familiar adage “man's best friend.”
This theme is prevalent in numerous ancient texts, where dogs often represent loyalty, protection, and unconditional love.
Dogs in Fables and Folklore
Dogs have been a significant part of the moral and mythical tapestry of many cultures across the globe, often finding representation in fables, folklore, and fairy tales. These narratives, crafted through the lens of their respective societies, often employed the canine character to deliver moral teachings or explain natural phenomena, influencing perceptions of dogs through generations.
Aesop's Fables and Greco-Roman Legends
In the Greco-Roman tradition, Aesop's fables often used anthropomorphic dogs to teach moral lessons. Besides the aforementioned "The Dog in the Manger," another famous story is "The Dog and His Reflection," where a dog carrying a piece of meat sees his reflection in a river and, thinking it's another dog with a larger piece, he opens his mouth to bark, thereby dropping his own piece and losing it. The story is a timeless commentary on greed and discontentment.
In the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers are nursed by a she-wolf. Though not a dog, the close association with canines is notable. This tale influenced the representation of dogs as nurturing creatures, capable of forming interspecies bonds.
Folklore and Fairy Tales
In Russian folklore, dogs frequently appear as helpers to the protagonist. The tale of "Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf" tells of a wolf who aids the prince in his quest, displaying qualities of wisdom and guidance, highlighting dogs' companionship.
In the fairy tale "Cinderella," her dog, Bruno, remains her faithful companion even during her downtrodden life, offering emotional support and protection. He later assists in thwarting the stepsisters' plans, playing a crucial role in the happy ending.
The East Asian Tradition
Dogs in Asian folklore often embody positive attributes and supernatural elements. The Chinese zodiac assigns symbolic characteristics to those born in the Year of the Dog, associating them with honesty, loyalty, and reliability.
In contrast, the one of the forms of the mythological "Tiangou" represents a celestial dog known for consuming the sun or moon, causing eclipses.
Dogs in Novels and Children's Literature
Dogs became central characters with the rise of the novel. "Lassie Come-Home," a 1940 novel by Eric Knight, tells a story of Lassie's journey back to her young master, epitomizing loyalty and tenacity. The novel was eventually adapted into the feature film Lassie Come Home, which was not only a commercial success, but also had a lasting cultural impact on the depiction of dogs in American cinema. The recognizable and iconic Lassie was a Rough Collie, a cousin of the Border Collie.
Similarly, "Old Yeller," a children's novel by Fred Gipson, involves a brave and loyal dog that protects his family but must be put down after contracting rabies in the defense of the family, prompting discussions about love, loss, and responsibility.
In Jack London's "Call of the Wild," Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, is stolen from his comfortable domestic life and sold to be a sled dog in Alaska. This novel explores the theme of primal instincts, nature versus nurture, and the concept of survival, using a dog as its central character.
Dogs in Modern Pop Culture
In recent years, the representation of dogs in popular culture has become increasingly complex, reflecting societal shifts in understanding dogs' emotional lives and behaviors.
Films like "101 Dalmatians," "Lady and the Tramp," "Clifford the Big Red Dog," and "The Secret Life of Pets" present dogs as distinct individuals with personalities and emotions, moving away from the symbolic and towards the realistic. Dogs are no longer mere symbols of loyalty or bravery but have fears, desires, and quirks, just like their human counterparts.
Comic strips like "Peanuts" have also had a hand in shaping our perceptions of dogs. Snoopy, Charlie Brown's pet beagle, is an iconic character who communicates a range of human-like emotions and thoughts, further blurring the line between humans and dogs.