Trigger warning: Talking animals

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There's a folk belief that domestic animals gain the power of human speech on Christmas Eve — and often have things to say that their human owners would just as soon not hear. I discussed some folkloric and fictional examples in a couple of earlier Christmas-eve posts: "Talking animals: miracle or curse?" (12/24/2004)and "Watch out for those talking animals tonight" (12/24/2013).

For most of us, talking animals are kind of cute, evoking memories of stories like Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester (1903). So I was not expecting a web search for "talking animals" to yield the following Product Warnings on a novel by D. Reneé [sic] Bagby, Adrienne:

This title contains adult language, talking animals, violence, and scenes of near rape.

As I observed in the cited earlier posts, the discourses of Christmas-Eve talking animals are often uncomfortable or even dangerous. Some of the (scholarly and fictional) citations:

Marguerite Cunliffe-Owen, The Tribulations of a Princess (1901)
Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Chapter IX  (1912)
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, "Christmas Customs in Many Lands", (Monthly Bulletin, December 1919)
H. H. Munro (Saki), "Bertie's Christmas Eve" (1919)

And I noted that this superstition might have something in common with what Horace called "December Liberty" — Wikipedia puts it like this:

Saturnalian license also permitted slaves to enjoy a pretense of disrespect for their masters, and exempted them from punishment. It was a time for free speech: the Augustan poet Horace calls it "December liberty." In two satires set during the Saturnalia, Horace has a slave offer sharp criticism to his master.

One of the cited passages is from Satyrarum Libri 2.7, starting like this:

Horatii servus libertate usus Saturnalitia festive illum et acriter obiurgat.  

'Iamdudum ausculto et cupiens tibi dicere servos  pauca reformido.'
'ita, Davus, amicum  mancipium domino et frugi quod sit satis, hoc est,  ut vitale putes.'
'age libertate Decembri,  quando ita maiores voluerunt, utere: narra.'

Or in Theodore Alois Buckley's 1869 revision of Christopher Smart's English translation:

One of Horace's slaves, making use of that freedom which was allowed them at the Saturnalia, rates his master in a droll and severe manner.  

"I have a long while been attending [to you], and would fain speak a few words [in return; but, being] a slave, I am afraid."
"What, Davus?"
"Yes, Davus, a faithful servant to his master and an honest one, at least sufficiently so: that is, for you to think his life in no danger."
"Well (since our ancestors would have it so), use the freedom of December: speak on."

Buckley's footnote on this passage:

The particular design of the Saturnalia was to represent that equality, which reigned among mankind in the reign of Saturn, when they lived according to the laws of nature, without distinction of conditions. Horace here introduces a slave, asserting that a wise man alone is free, and that real liberty consists in not obeying our passions, or being enslaved to vice. He boldly reproaches his master with his faults and follies. His reasoning is so natural, sensible, and pressing, that Horace, not being able to answer him, at last loses his temper, and is obliged to make use of menaces to silence him.

Animals endowed with the ability to talk, like servants given the license to talk freely, are a threat to their masters and indeed to humans in general. And Catherine Elick (Talking Animals in Children's Fiction: A Critical Study) notes, in reference to Alice in Wonderland, that

Alice […] does not typically win the verbal battles she wages with the animals of Wonderland. In her waking world, Alice has come to expect animals to be subordinate and silent, at least in terms of speech. Wielding the power of the word in Wonderland, they now compete with Alice as equals, especially since most of them speak in the same privileged sociolect that Alice and her creator Carroll use. […] Alice's exasperated comment late in the novel — "How the creatures order one about about, and make one repeat lessons!" (82) — acknowledges her recognition that she is engaged in a battle with the Wonderland creatures, one in which she who controls the language holds the power. […]

Alice's first line of defense against this violent discourse is to repress her rage and indulge in the polite expressions that her upbringing has equipped her with as weapons of dominance. […] However, as the novel progresses, Alice abandons politeness and finds that she competes best with the characters of Wonderland when she indulges in the same blunt, rude language that they speak. Ultimately, the familiarity of the carnival square gives Alice license to speak candidly, to give vent to what Bakhtin calls "the outspoken carnivalistic word". […]

[M]ost of the conversations in Wonderland are marked not only by anger but also by incompletion. In many cases, the conversations trail off, often accompanied by the threat of violence […]

Still, I wonder what elevates the talking animals in Ms. Bagby's novel to the level of "violence and near rape".


  1. Robert Coren said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 10:07 am

    Oh, good, this gives me an opportunity to ask a question that came up while reading this morning's newspaper.

    In today's Arlo and Janis, is that a real human language, and if so, which one?

    [(myl) To guard against future bitrot, here's the strip:

    The language is Hungarian, and an English translation is "Merry Christmas, and God bless us every one."]

  2. Thorin said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 10:23 am

    It looks to be Hungarian – the Hungarian-English dictionary is giving me translations for each word.

  3. Ellen K. said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 10:29 am

    According to Google Translate, it's Hungarian for "Merry Christmas and God bless us everyone", and "LSTEN" should be "isten". (Someone mistook a capital i for a lowercase L apparently.) Though if you translate back to Hungarian, it comes out somewhat different.

  4. Paul said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 10:55 am

    Is the title of this post a Roy Rogers pun?

    [(myl) Not intentionally. And unfortunately for your suggestion, Trigger never talked, as far as I know, nor did he even behave in any other subversive or problematic way.]

  5. D.O. said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 10:59 am

    I scanned through the first chapter and can attest that adult language (cursing), violence, and a scene of near rape are all in there. No talking animals this far, but there is a good candidate.

    [(myl) You have more courage than I do — please keep us posted.]

  6. Milan said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 11:50 am

    I would think that the "talking animals" are included in order to create an ironical distance to the practice of giving trigger warnings, while still doing so.

    [(myl) I'm afraid you're right. Other books from the same publisher include Product Warnings like

    Contains a dragon king challenged by a devious demon and an alluring, not-so-human human. Expect carnal hunger only a king can satisfy, and heat only a dragon can generate.

    Contains a smoking-hot cop with a talent for keeping his eye on the target, and a sweet-baking heroine who might as well have that target painted on her curvaceous butt. Misuse of police-department-issued equipment, and one very slippery wading pool.

    Contains a redheaded man with a Texas-wide stubborn streak, and a chameleon-like woman with a heart that needs attention and a soul that needs redeeming. Foolishness, canoodling and deep abiding love result.

    Contains two stubborn people. A smooth-talking lawyer who knows when to play rough, and a no-nonsense nurse who doesn’t know whether to kiss him, or kick him. Naughty sex in all the best positions—up, down, upside down, and backwards.

    But I prefer to think of "talking animals" as a category of potential psychological disruption parallel to "adult language" and "violence".]

  7. Chris Croy said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

    My understanding is that those sorts of 'warnings' are common in digital romance novels. For example, Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt's Amazon page notes:

    "This erotic tale is 4,000 words of sizzling human on gay ass action, including anal, blowjobs, rough sex, cream pies and sentient butt love."

  8. Rodger C said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 12:56 pm

    Some fundamentalist Christians are quite disturbed by the concept of talking animals. It violates their theory of the soul and seems pagan/ Satanic/ etc.

    Speaking of disturbance, Chris Croy's quotation troubles me with the implication that insentient butt love is a thing. I am not requesting an explanation.

  9. BZ said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 1:16 pm

    When did the term "trigger warning" actually enter the mainstream? I'm hearing it now all the time in the US political discourse mostly quoting or describing positions of the likes of Donald Trump that the US has become too politically correct.

    When I first encountered the term a few years, in a piece of fiction, it described at length what a trigger was and how trigger warnings worked in the world of the psychologically traumatized and those who care for them (the story was about such people). Also, the warning on the story, and as described in the story, was just "trigger warning", without any elaboration.

    So while I've seen warnings of the type discussed in this post for as long as I can remember, I've never heard them described as trigger warnings until this year.

  10. Guy said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

    I'm deeply dismayed that my habits and routines are not such that I would ordinarily become acquainted with a novel that has such a wondrous title as "Pounded in the Butt by My Own Butt".

  11. David Morris said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 7:21 pm

    @Rodger: There are two talking animals in the Bible, so maybe that should carry a trigger warning.

  12. dave schutz said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

    Well, okay, talking animals:

    A ventriloquist cowboy walks into town and he sees this Indian sitting on the side of the road with his dog, horse, and sheep. The cowboy walks up to the Indian and says, "Hey, that's a cool dog. Mind if I speak to him."
    The Indian looks up at the cowboy and says, "Dog…no…talk."
    But the cowboy turns to the dog anyway and he says, "Hey dog. How's it going?"
    The dog answers (via the cowboys ventriloquism), "Doin' all right. Thanks for asking."
    "Is this your owner?", the cowboy asks.
    "Well, how's he treating you?"
    The dog answers, "Real good. He walks me, he feeds me great food, he takes me to the lake to play."
    The Indian is amazed at this point, and then the cowboy asks if he can talk to his horse.
    Again the Indian says, "horse…no…talk."
    But the cowboy turns to the horse and says, "Hey horse. How's it going?"
    The horse replies, "I 'm doing good."
    "Is this your owner?", says the cowboy.
    "Sure is," answers the horse.
    "Well how's he treating you?"
    "Pretty good. Thanks for asking. He rides me regularly, he brushes me down, and keeps me in a nice warm barn with all the hay and straw I'd ever want."
    The Indian is totally amazed, so when the cowboy turns to the sheep, the Indian is clearly worried.
    The cowboy asks, "Mind if I talk to your sheep?"
    To which the Indian answers, "SHEEP LIE!"

  13. JB said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

    Surely Ms Bagby didn't write the literary companion to this animated film on the Marquis de Sade?

  14. John Lawler said,

    December 24, 2015 @ 10:41 pm

    As long as we're under the trigger warning, I should mention that the phrase talking animals brings to my mind — even on Christmas Eve — the animals on the Bean farm in upstate New York, as they appear in Walter R. Brooks' Freddy the Pig series.

  15. John Swindle said,

    December 25, 2015 @ 8:55 am

    Some credit for the description of the Bagby book should go to the publisher, Samhain Publishing, Ltd. Others use "warnings" like that, but Samhain seems particularly consistent and adept in doing so.

    @dave schutz: Are you saying that Native Americans have sex with sheep and get fooled by cowboy ventriloquists, or that we, whoever we are, have these expectations of Native Americans? Either way, I'm not convinced.

  16. Robert Coren said,

    December 25, 2015 @ 10:57 am

    @John Lawler: I loved the Freddy the Pig books. The animals not only talked, they had their own "civilization" — which intersected with human civilization but also had a life of its own.

    It's worth noting that Mr. Bean was kind of upset by the fact that his animals spoke English.

    And how can one not love a world in which the cows are named Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurzburger?

  17. mary apodaca said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 6:21 am

    Many of us who grew up with Disney, etc., don't think of the animals talking about learned subjects as talking animals, but stand-ins for humans. I can see how people of Alice's day were more impressed.

  18. Rodger C said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    @John Swindle: I agree that the story would be improved with the cowboy-and-Indian frame removed. Then it becomes a harmless tale of insentient butt love.

  19. John Swindle said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 10:44 pm

    @Rodger C: Or it could be reframed to feature, say, a cowboy and a linguist. "The linguist looks up at the cowboy and says 'Dog…no…talk.'"

  20. KevinM said,

    December 28, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

    or a philosopher, who'd add: "And if he could talk, we couldn't understand him."

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