Abi Oliver on the best pets in literature

Abi Oliver, author of A New Map of Love, on what literary pets, from Bill Sykes's Bulls-Eye to Tintin's Snowy, bring to our favourite books.

From Snowy in Tin Tin to the daemon's in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, here is a list of Abi Oliver's favourite pets in literature.

When I came to write A New Map of Love, I gave the main character, George Baxter, a large Bassett Hound called Monty. At first this was simply because I wanted him to have a dog who (despite him being married) is his closest companion. And the Bassett Hound, as I know at close quarters, is a dog it would be hard to outdo in entertaining daftness.

As I wrote the story though, the more Monty took on a key role. He was an outlet for George’s comments, made in times of sorrow or frustration by George, who as a man is  - well, rather doggy. That’s the thing. As we know – critters that live together grow more alike.

Animal pets – as opposed to animals as the main protagonist – are scattered across literature, from Odysseus’s dog Argos in The Odyssey to Hagrid’s slobbery pet Fang in Harry Potter.

Some are key players in the story. Snowy, right-hand-dog of Herge’s Tintin, does not help shed much light on Tintin’s largely unemotional character. But Snowy is crucial both to the slapstick moments – getting caught on ledges, sinking his teeth into a villain’s leg at just the right moment – and the developing. It’s Snowy who can sniff out clues. Timmy, the dog Enid Blyton wrote into the Famous Five is similar, if less funny.

Even if the author seems only to have included an animal as local colour, they still enhance the human characters. Dickens made good use of this with Bill Sykes’s Bulls-Eye in Oliver Twist and Florence Dombey’s little dog Diogenes who is not only her prime companion but a link to her dead brother Paul. In Bleak House the names of mad Miss Flyte’s birds, from Joy and Youth to Ashes and Despair are a satirical flight path through the cynical wasteland of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Philip Pullman has probably taken the animal as an expressive companion the furthest in the His Dark Materials trilogy, giving each character an animal daemon which embodies in physical the essence of the character’s inner life.

Unlike an actual daemon, George’s Monty is not capable of speech, but the body language of a Bassett Hound is something to behold – the guilty avoidance of eye contact after a misdemeanour (chocolate rustling and such), the low level slithering gait when up to no good, the abandonment to absolute comfort, an ear draped over the eyes….

The presence of this dog in the story gave me a way of expressing a certain kind of doggy maleness. That baffled expression so characteristic of Bassett features began to extend to George in relation to the cast of females who populate the novel.

Dogs, on the whole, seem to be more useful in this regard than more independent cats. But - remember the arch-villain Blofeld in James Bond – or rather, his hands stroking that white Persian cat? This was a filmic embellishment . In the novels Blofeld has no cat, whereas in the films, cat plus hands are a simple, visual representation of the sinister character of the man.

And then there’s Schrodinger’s Cat… Oh - or not…

A New Map of Love

by Abi Oliver

Book cover for A New Map of Love

George Baxter has settled for a comfortable life, content as the years unfold predictably - until Win, his wife of twenty-six years, dies.

With his loyal dog Monty by his side, George throws himself into his work as an antiques dealer. His business is at the heart of the village and all sorts pass through the doors, each person in search of their own little piece of history. 

Over the course of the summer George uncovers some unexpected mysteries from his past, which could shape his tomorrows.