The Collaborative Research Center 948 “Heroes – Heroizations – Heroisms” at the University of Freiburg, Germany, studies heroic figures within their cultural and socio-political contexts, taking a long-term comparative perspective. Heroes and heroines function within given social orders, which they can stabilise but also challenge. Hence they are crucial focal points of communal self- understanding. Theorisations of the heroic are not aimed at essentialist definitions but focus on cultural, social, and medial factors, which shape specific societies’ perspectives on the heroic.
This issue of helden. heroes. héros. extends scholarly interest in heroes and the heroic to the field of heroised animals, thus giving new perspectives on the notions of heroism and the heroic. Animals have long played a crucial role in how we construct our identity as human beings. Over time, our perception of animals and of how they relate to us has undergone significant changes. Recently, there has been a surge of interest in human-animal relations (the “animal turn” associated with the 1990s) which must be seen in connection with posthumanism and the posthumanities.
Heroic behaviour is generally conceived of as intrinsically human behaviour. A heroic deed comes to mind, a feat achieved, maybe a heroic death, and almost certainly an afterlife: a heroic reputation guarded, commemorated, and celebrated by a community of admirers. Interestingly, animals have been heroised in very similar ways. To the extent that their behaviour appears analogous to that of humans, we project onto them concepts of heroism and the heroic. In fact, a closer look reveals a plethora of animals that have become the focal point of such anthropomorphic attributions. Animals saving their owners are the most obvious case in point. Very often, this only constitutes one heroic moment, but there are many instances where the heroisation of animals is longer-lasting by far. Exceptional situations like catastrophes and war seem to be occasions not only for human but for animal heroism. Indeed, prominent categories of animals conceived of in heroic terms are war horses, and, in more recent times, military dogs.
Potentially, animals can become heroic for the very reason that they do not ponder (indeed, they lack the ability to ponder) but act. Their acts have been treated in much the same way as human agency: they have been medialised, disseminated, and remembered. The concept of agency may have to be reconsidered when talking about animals: if they do not have the intellectual power to reflect, how are their actions to be assessed? Furthermore, what links animal and human heroism is the sense of exceptionality, of pushing the boundaries of expectable everyday behaviour, and finally transgressing them. When it comes to the heroisation of animals, the heroic is quite as much a focal lens on socio-cultural needs and attributions as it is in the case of human heroism. As they are unable to articulate themselves through language, animals may even be more prone to be subsumed in agendas than human heroes, transporting standards and values that a given community is interested in propagating.
Animals eligible for consideration range from historical animals construed as heroes, like Hannibal’s elephants or war horses from Antiquity to World War I, to fictional ones, such as the main characters of many children’s books and films. Lassie, Black Beauty, and Flipper come to mind here, animals which are represented in close relationships to their human owners and/or friends. Alongside the animal as helper, there are animal characters whose relationship to the world of humankind is much more complex. Willy (Keiko), the eponymous orca of Free Willy (1993), may serve as a good example of how animals are heroised and at the same time inscribed into political agendas. Garfield, the fat cat in a series of comic strips by Jim Davis (from 1978), or the small and immensely likeable clownfish Nemo in Finding Nemo (2003) are examples of animated animals capable of drawing large audiences. The whale Moby Dick of Herman Melville’s novel opens up possibilities of monstrous animals, endowed with near-supernatural powers. On the whole, animals such as these invite heroic attributions and projections, shedding light on communal knowledge, social orders, and their transformations and faultlines.
We are asking for contributions on heroisations of fictional and historical animals from academics working within the humanities – work on all cultures and time periods is welcome. Besides case studies on individual animals, we particularly invite work that theorises the heroisation of animals. Please send your abstract of a prospective article (2,000 characters including spaces) with a brief cover letter including your discipline and research focus to email@example.com- freiburg.de by 31 March 2017.
Articles selected for publication will be limited to 40,000 characters (including spaces) and can be submitted in English, German, or French. They must reach the editors no later than 31 July 2017.