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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

People Eating People: the "Problem" of Intelligent Animals In Fantasy Books and Games...

Intelligent animals show up in fantasy literature and games all the time, typically as an anomaly and occasionally populating entire worlds of talking things.  Think Watership Down or maybe the Redwall books; although in the latter, the animals are anthropomorphic and basically human.  And then there's Disney.  Bambi and The Lion King both imagine a setting where animals are more than animals.  The animals are people...  

And this raises all manner of moral questions, although it's not necessarily a problem, especially when the whole point of said story is to examine these things.

Let's look at The Lion King.  Here, the animals are intelligent.  All of them.  The predators, obviously, and their prey.  In other words, everyone is a person.  They think, feel, and suffer in decidedly human terms when preyed upon.  And yet, nature mandates this obviously unfair arrangement, which demolishes everything we think we know about human morality and how to treat one another because here, people feed upon other people...

But the lions can explain.  Sure, we eat our antelopes, and yeah, they're pretty clearly terrified and mourn their dead just like we do.  That sucks.  But when we die, we fertilize the grass and they can eat us back.  And there's a lovely ballad too.  Circle of Life, kiddies, everyone sing along!  The whole thing is treated as both beautiful and natural.

Well, it is natural.  But is it natural for humans to eat one another?  Or to enslave one another?  Or to hold some above others based on race?  No, but then we're humans, we'd say, not lower-order animals.  We have an obligation to our own kind.  But what happens when the animals are also people, possessing of the same intelligence and suffering in just the same way when targeted by others (i.e., their neighbors) for harm?

And it gets more complicated because the lions aren't big meanies who could eat grass instead.  They're obligate carnivores.  How can they possibly treat the antelopes fairly when they have no choice but to hunt them for survival?  Can they ever be fair and just in their predation, responsible stewards of the persons they devour, and would (or should) any such arrangement even fly with the antelopes?  This raises endless moral questions...

If you're a lion, do you die before you harm another person?  And if not, how do you justify the pain you bring to your dinner?  And their families?  Or do you even bother?  If an antelope, do you lie down and take it, or fight back?  You have obligations of your own; to yourself, obviously, and your kin.  So who are the good guys in this situation, and who are the story's ultimate villains?  And what gods (if any) rule over such a universe?
Humans have justified centuries of genocide and slavery against their fellow humans in the name of a so-called natural order.  But here, that natural order is an actual thing. 

Now it gets worse in fantasy games because players interact with one another and the imaginary "people" they sometimes eat as a matter of course.  And what does morality even mean in such a universe?  In our own Red of Tooth, we imagine that most predators are basically unintelligent, along with quite a few prey animals.  Rabbits have the Spark, but not mice and other tasty critters.  Weasels are intelligent, along with owls.  But both can spare intelligent creatures in favor of non-persons, although many choose not to.

There's natural danger, and plenty of opportunity for heroism and villainy as well.  But of course, this is only one way to do things.  Sword and sorcery lends itself to mindless monster slaying, but worlds of intelligent animals ask more of us; something to keep in mind when playing Bunnies & Burrows.  And that's a wrap, folks.  I suddenly want some meat...


  1. This is an interesting topic. In my slow-as-molasses developing game world and collected short stories, there are people who can converse with animals. And then there's some animals that have the Spark you mention (in my world it's called Sentience), only it's random who gets it. Some pigs are more than just pigs, and some cows are more than just cows, etc.

    Among the various tribes of men, their animal speakers find the intelligent ones and set them aside so they aren't slaughtered. Which of course creates moral dilemmas among some of the animals with the Spark: standing by idly while their "lesser" kin are killed for food, even though the same lesser kin wouldn't give a sentient damn if the situation were reversed.

    As with humans, merely being sentient isn't necessarily enough for diverse creatures to be allied. An evil sentient cat may well enjoy torturing a sentient mouse beyond the usual playful antics cats engage in with their prey.