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The Greatest Animal Stories in English : WILD ANIMALS I HAVE KNOWN : ANIMAL HEROES : LIVES OF THE HUNTED : ( three volumes) by Ernest Thompson Seton (Creative Arts , Berkeley, Calif.: $8.95 each, paper; 360 pp. each, illustrated)

February 21, 1988|David M. Graber | Graber is a research biologist with the National Park Service.

I did not have the good fortune to read Ernest Thompson Seton's animal stories when I was a lad. After decades of success, they had become old-fashioned and quaint. I stumbled across Seton as a graduate student studying black bears and dutifully probing every vein of published information, however unpromising, to be sure I'd executed my scholarly responsibilities. I sat down with one of Seton's volumes and promptly succumbed. Later, I would preach to students that they should emulate Seton--both as observers of nature and interpreters of what they had seen.

Seton wrote scores of animal stories in the years preceding and following the turn of the century. Most originally appeared in magazines for boys and girls; later Scribner's compiled them into books.

Seton was born in England, spent much of his younger days in the wilder parts of the Canadian prairies, and eventually settled in New Mexico where he headed the Boy Scouts of America for a time. His stories are about "Krag, the Kootenay Ram"; "Lobo, the King of Currumpaw"; "Little Warhorse: The History of a Jackrabbit," and "Bingo, the Story of My Dog." They are all characters with personalities; whose individual lives matter and contain high drama and pathos. "These stories are true," wrote Seton. "Although I have left the strict line of historical truth in many places, the animals in this book were all real characters. They lived the lives I have depicted, and showed the stamp of heroism and personality more strongly by far than it has been in the power of my pen to tell."

Seton was a Victorian, and he has built moral lessons into his stories. He wrote: "Lobo stands for Dignity and Love-constancy; Silverspot, for Sagacity; Redruff, for Obedience; Bingo, for Fidelity. . . ." But although his animal heroes are captivating because he has given them such vitality, his characters are not little people clothed in fur and claws. The quality of Seton's natural history--judged by contemporary scientific standards--is stupendous. His talent at drawing out good information from the outdoorsmen he lived and worked with was surpassed only by his own incredible powers of observation and inference. These are real animals!

Seton's perception of wildlife and the natural world was eerily modern. He was not sentimental about animals, and accepted death by tooth or bullet without grief. "The fact that these stories are true is the reason why all are tragic," he wrote. "The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end." He felt that if people understood animals, could really get inside their skin, they would continue to make a place for them in the world. "I hope some will herein find emphasized a moral as old as Scripture--we and the beasts are kin. Man has nothing that the animals have not at least a vestige of, the animals have nothing that man does not in some degree share. Since, then, the animals are creatures with wants and feelings differing in degree only from our own, they surely have their rights."

Creative Arts has faithfully reproduced Seton's paintings and drawings with these 24 stories, and bound them handsomely. It may be that Seton's writing is perhaps a bit old-fashioned, and too literate, to entice contemporary boys and girls. I hope not, because these are the greatest animal stories in the English language.

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