Animal Tales and Tails: A review and reflection

Amanda Cleary Eastep

I don’t recall how old I was when I realized Aslan the lion was an author’s fantastical version of Jesus.

I had been raised in church and Sunday school, so although this connection should have been obvious, it didn’t quite dawn on me. But once it did . . . I felt as if I’d opened the wardrobe door to Narnia.

In this excerpt from another book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan explains his presence in Narnia and in our world to young Lucy:

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are — are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

It’s true. As a child, knowing Aslan in the fictional world (even before I made the connection) helped me to know–and even to love–Jesus more in my own world.

The Chronicles of Narnia played an important role in my spiritual formation. These books fed my moral imagination, the richness of which Professor of Theology Vigen Guroian believes can be measured by a generation’s ability to “recognize, make, or use metaphors.”* 

And how many times since childhood have I envisioned God “with me like a mighty warrior”? (Jeremaih 20:11)

Or as the Good Shepherd leading me beside still waters? (Psalm 23:1-2)

Or as the mother bird covering me with its wings? (Psalm 91:4)

Immersed as I already was in Bible stories, the idea that Jesus, the Lion of Judah, could also be a “real” lion in Narnia, made the most beautiful sense. It still does.

Another Kind of “Chronicles”

Last year I discovered a children’s book series that possesses the kind of magic Narnia does. I don’t mean magic as in the magic system created through world building, but the magic that the fairy tale–or in the case of The Mistmantle Chronicles, also the animal tale–casts over a young (or “old”) reader. 

What a fairy tale does, G.K. Chesterton wrote, is this:

It accustoms [the child] for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.  

G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles

[Before I go on, I should say that, sadly, the Mistmantle series is no longer in print. HOWEVER, the books are available via ebook, interlibrary loan, and used book sellers. The first two books are especially easy to get in paperback.]

The Mistmantle Chronicles is an action-packed and beautifully written series of five books that follow the adventures of Urchin, a young and brave squirrel with an unknown past . . . and a cool sword. 

The series includes:

  • Urchin of the Riding Stars
  • Urchin of the Heartstone
  • The Heir of Mistmantle
  • Urchin and the Raven War
  • Urchin and the Rage Tide

Author M. I. (Margaret) McAllister is from the UK and is a vicar’s wife. Her stories are written from a Christian worldview and do not shy away from themes such as loyalty and treachery, self-sacrifice and selfishness, and sanctity of life and the taking of it. 

Yeah, heavy stuff. Yet, McAllister weaves these themes, with a deft and gentle hand, in and out of the lives of her multifaceted (and furry) characters. And it is to the “Heart” her noble creatures look for guidance and strength.

I can’t recommend The Mistmantle Chronicles highly enough, especially for family read alouds (ages 10 and up, depending on the sensitivity of your child). The number of characters can be a bit confusing until you get to know everyone. And although the books can stand alone, I believe it’s best to read them in order.

I was so thankful to discover this series that I tracked down the author and wrote to tell her. I was thrilled to receive a warm and gracious response. 

You can read detailed reviews of this series at Story Warren and at Redeemed Reader

What the Tales of Tails Teach Us

The power of animal tales lies in the fact that, well, children love animals.

My daughter used to keep even boxelder bugs as pets, capturing one from amongst the plague of them that descended on the sunny side of our house in the fall. I recall she named him Ralph and fed him bits of pear.

But animals don’t need us to feed them. Their Father feeds them. 

The other day, I sat with that daughter (now grown) in the parked car eating frozen yogurt on a 35-degree day and watching the puffed up sparrows perched on shopping cart handles. 

Yes, as adults we love animals, too; but do we learn from them? As the old poem goes, we still “rush about and worry so,” as if we have no heavenly Father who cares for us too. 

In gazing out her own window, author and missionary Elisabeth Elliott once spied a wayward ewe and then a wild pig. She listened to the chatter of squirrels and the call of myriad birds. As she recounts the experience in Joyful Surrender, Elliott observes how “everything created is connected” because “feather and fur, and fin and flesh” have been brought into existence by “the same mind, the same love.” The same Creator.

All are dependent on Him. And this is what she learned from watching them . . .

“As I look at the ewe, peaceful, dependent, finding her food provided by the Lord,” writes Elliott, “I think of how He provides for me as well.”**

This is why Jesus said, LOOK! 

“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26).

An Exercise for Our Moral Imaginations

Perhaps fairy tales and animal tales (and tails) boldly escort us–both young and old–to a place of seeing what we so blindly pass by every single day.

Perhaps these stories declare: if you won’t easily look with wonder at the titmouse who is “possessed and known by Him” (Elliott), the same as you are, then we will put a sword in his hand!

In the post “Of Mice and Magic, In Praise of Animal Stories,” Maria Bonvissuto explains why animal stories, in particular, are an “invaluable” part of a child’s reading. 

[Animal stories] are often a child’s first exercise in learning to see and consider things from a foreign perspective—to put oneself in the shoes of a squirrel certainly requires strength of both the imagination and empathy.

Maria Bonvissuto, rabbitroom.com

And I would add these stories are invaluable to an adult’s reading as well . . . if not as a first exercise, then a much needed stretch of our atrophied moral imaginations.

Being in Urchin’s shoes builds that strength of imagination and empathy in the young reader and tests that strength in the “grownup” reader. 

Along with Urchin . . .

We clutch the mast of our tiny boat as the wild wind tears at it. 

We shiver as the icy sea soaks our fur. 

And, oh, do we kneel in our desperation, tip our heads back against the rain, and cry out to the Heart: 

“‘Can’t you see me? Won’t you help me? Won’t you DO SOMETHING?’” ***

Because of stories like these, I see myself in Urchin’s little squirrel shoes.

And more important, I see my need for the Heart.

*Vigen Guroian, Tending the Heart of Virtue, How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination

**Elisabeth Elliott, Joyful Surrender: 7 Disciplines for the Believer’s Life

***M. I. McAllister, Urchin of the Riding Stars

Photo of lion by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Photo of sparrow by Ash Ashley on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Animal Tales and Tails: A review and reflection

  1. Amanda, I thoroughly enjoyed the first Mistmantle book upon your recommendation and have the second one on my list To Be Read.
    How delightful to hear that the author corresponded with you–what a treasure.
    Thank you also for the mention of Elizabeth Elliot’s book–I’ve been meditating on the ways that God reveals Himself in creation, all the ‘heaven in ordinaire’ as George Herbert says.

    Can’t wait to read y o u r book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m an Elliott newbie (I know, I know! What?!). My husband just bought me Joyful Surrender (formerly Discipline), and I was so thrilled to see she opened with her observations of nature–one of my greatest loves. So, I’ve managed to collect all of the Mistmantle books in hardcover, although 4 and especially 5 cost a lot if you want them in good condition. I honestly can’t understand why these books aren’t in print. If they’re still with Disney, then I think I DO get it. 😦

      Like

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