During the holiday break I can usually enjoy the leisurely reading of a novel or two other than the ones I need for my teaching and research. Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis, is one of those books I’ve read for sheer pleasure, although I initially picked it up because I thought it might suit my Classical Traditions in English Literature course, where we read works from Greek and Latin antiquity alongside later adaptations. A review I had seen mentioned that the story begins with the gods Apollo and Hermes in a Toronto bar, an intriguing enough idea to make me take a further look. I wasn’t the only one – the book has received a lot of attention lately, as it was named the winner of Canada’s largest literary award, the Giller Prize, as well as the Writers’ Trust Prize.
I enjoyed the book immensely – it’s imaginative, thought-provoking, surprising, brutal, tender, moving. The action begins with Apollo and Hermes betting on whether bestowing human intelligence on animals would make the creatures even more unhappy than humans already are, or whether even one of the animals could live a happy life. On a whim, the gods decide to give some dogs human consciousness and a language.
It’s a little like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, except that Ovid usually represents humans who are metamorphosed into animals or plants while retaining their human minds. Alexis starts with the animals as animals; his dogs retain their essential “dogginess,” though their canine nature is modified by language and the consciousness that goes with it. It’s as if Alexis has reversed the Ovidian transformation by having the animals metamorphose into almost-humans. (Although I’m drawn to comparisons with Metamorphoses, probably because I’ve just finished teaching it, Alexis identifies another genre, subtitling the book An Apologue, a type of story derived from classical literature in which animals are used to point a moral or satirize humankind). Throughout the story, the dogs interact with their own kind, with various humans, and with the gods who, as in classical stories, watch, argue, and intervene, capriciously helping or harming earthly creatures.
As I was reading, I was struck by the following passage (on page 170) in which Hermes contemplates the difference between gods and mortals:
And yet, a divide existed between them, one that the god could not breach, despite his power, knowledge and subtlety: death. On one side, the immortals. On the other, these beings. He could no more understand what it was to live with death than they could what it was to exist without it. It was this difference that fascinated him and kept him coming back to earth. It was at the heart of the gods’ secret love for mortals. Death was in every fibre of these creatures. It was hidden in their languages and at the root of their civilizations. You could hear it in the sounds they made and see it in the way they moved. It darkened their pleasures and lightened their despair. Being one of those who longed for death, Hermes found the earth and all its mortals fascinating, perhaps even at times worthy of the depths he allowed himself to feel for them.
As any Tolkienist would recognize, this is a central idea in Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories as well; death is the “Gift of Ilúvatar” to human beings, who come to fear the gift, in contrast to the deathless elves who sometimes envy the human ability to escape the created world through death. The Silmarillion legends contain many instances in which this difference plays out in the stories. Tolkien identified this theme precisely in The Lord of the Rings: “The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ not to leave it until its whole evil-aroused story is complete” (Letter 186).
Tolkien also identified “death” as the “key-spring” to The Lord of the Rings in a 1968 BBC interview:
In fact, the Tolkien Society has chosen “Life, Death, and Immortality” as the theme for the 2016 Tolkien Reading Day on March 25.
Fifteen Dogs is a very different kind of book from, say, The Lord of the Rings; for one thing, Alexis does not create a complete Secondary World with its own inhabitants. But he does write a mythical story. Of course, authors in all genres can write about themes of life, death, and immortality, but the fact that both Alexis and Tolkien do so by contrasting death-full and death-less characters makes me think that mythopoeic fantasies are particularly well suited to an exploration of these themes.
There are a lot of other fascinating elements in Fifteen Dogs, such as meditations on love, power, language, the desire to communicate with other beings, the experience of time — ideas that Tolkien readers will find familiar. But read it for yourself and let me know what you think! To whet your appetite, here is André Alexis with a preview of his story: