There aren’t that many dogs in fantasy novels. When I was a kid, I liked the sort of stories where there’s always a dog sidekick, not the horrid kind where the whole point of the dog is to die and turn Boy to Man, but things like Blyton’s The Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers, or Berna’s Hundred Million Francs. I liked Lassie-Come-Home and Bel Ria, where the dogs had the adventures. Rosemary Sutcliff had Owen and Dog in Dawn Wind (yes, Dog dies, but it’s part of the story, not a mere coming-of-age device) and Marcus’s Cub in The Eagle of the Ninth — though Cub doesn’t get to go on the adventure, left at home like Cottia, and isn’t, technically, a dog. In fantasy, there was Ahab in Blaylock’s The Elfin Ship and The Disappearing Dwarf, Huan in The Silmarillian, and, I suppose, Farmer Maggot’s Grip, Fang, and Wolf in The Lord of the Rings, though nobody invites them along for the journey. Now we have Nix’s Lirael and Abhorsen, where finally a dog gets to be one of the adventuring characters, though of course the Disreputable Dog isn’t your everyday canine sidekick. There’s a dog of the Blyton type in my Cassandra Virus series, which is “kids foil spies” science fiction, not fantasy. Annot in The Warlocks of Talverdin is always accompanied by Blaze, but as Mister Wicked and I were plunging along a path through the alders a while ago, I thought, that’s still not a lot of fantasy dogs, and I wondered, why not?
Whereupon Mr Wicked froze, stared at nothing, and began barking furiously. Then he cunningly dove into the alders barking, weaving himself in and under and over and around into a sort of Gordian leash situation.
Holla-Sayan would never do that, you know. (Not that anybody could ever get a leash on the Blackdog.)
Let’s picture the first stage of The Lord of the Rings with Dog. Merry and Pippin are both of the rural landed gentry, the doggy class, one might say; one of them could easily have always had a dog at heel. We’ll even assume a dog that’s had more practice with “come when called” than Mr Wicked, who falls into the “comes when called unless there’s something really interesting he wants to look at/sniff/eat/chase first” category, although we’re working on this and he’s improving. This lets us leave out the leash.
So, where do we start? Bilbo makes his speech and slips on the Ring, sneaking back to Bag End to set off on his final visit to Dain’s folk. Gandalf releases his flash and bang. Dog, sleeping full of tidbits by Merry’s seat, leaps up out of a happy dream barking hysterically at the thunder. Then, amid the clamour, which of course he feels is all in response to his heroic alerting of the guests to the bang, sniffs, lifts a lip, and growls at nothing. Something weird going on here, Dog thinks. He slinks over, sniffing. Growls a little more. “What?” thinks Merry, and goes over to investigate, colliding with Bilbo, who trips over the dog, trying to dodge him, and a crate of empty bottles is knocked over. Dog begins to leap about and bark . . .
Next, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin setting out in the evening on their cross-Shire hike to Crickhollow. Dark shadow slinking about down the lane, asking impertinent questions of Gaffer Gamgee about Baggins, whom the Gaffer fortunately thinks has already left. Dog smells something strange and suspicious and scary. Dog bristles and growls and cringes and quite possibly works himself up to that fearful, staccato bark that is meant to both intimidate the threat and, I think, summon higher authority to help. Black Rider comes up from next door to investigate . . .
And on the way . . . hiding just off the edge of the road when the Black Rider stops to sniff? Well, again we have the cringe and the snarl, that low snarl that grows in volume and burst into baying that overcomes fear and the launch at the Black Rider’s bobbing hood.
They haven’t even got to Buckland yet.
And that, Mister Wicked, is why you probably have to stay at home with the girls, when adventures are afoot. We can both heave a sigh of mingled disappointment and relief together. (On the other hand, as I generally say, dammit, it’s fantasy and I’m going to ignore the whole division of labour due to edged weapons and babies not going well together thing, why not also say, dammit, the Hero is a Hero and possibly dog-training is one of his or her Heroic Skills? One of these days, one of my heroes is going to have a proper, natural and well-trained dog. And Mr Wicked, when its master says, “Stop growling at those glowing eyes in the night and come back inside right now!” — it will.)