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Tom’s attachment to this elephant, Jenny, opens his eyes to the quagmire of human motivation that gives rise to the unjust world they live in. Like many other stories, the presence of an animal as a key character offers a compelling stand-in for those members of society who don’t have power and metaphorically can’t speak for themselves. Sometimes, they become tales of a sympathetic human finding his own voice to represent those who literally cannot.
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As early as the ninth century, with a present from Caliph Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne, elephants were offered as special gifts to European royalty and marched from court to court until they died of cold and loneliness. A few such stories have been fictionalized — Nobel laureate José Saramago’s (2008, translated 2010); young-adult fantasy author Judith Tarr’s (1993); and BBC World Service producer Christopher Nicholson’s bleakly enchanting first novel (2009). Set in eighteenth-century England, it begins with the purchase by a respected gentleman of two half-dead baby elephants from a merchant ship just returned from the East Indies. A stable boy, Tom, takes a shine to them, is made responsible for their care, and becomes inseparable from one of them forever. (The other is resold and eventually killed.)
They were inseparable until Jenny died a few years later.
Even bare, bleached old elephant bones will stop a group if they have not seen them before. It is so predictable that filmmakers have been able to get shots of elephants inspecting skeletons by bringing the bones from one place and putting them in a new spot near an elephant pathway or a water hole. Inevitably the living elephants will feel and move the bones around, sometimes picking them up and carrying them away for quite some distance before dropping them. It is a haunting and touching sight and I have no idea why they do it.