The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes
of Human-Animal Relationships - to be published by Key
Porter Books February 2009.
/ excerpt 2
DOGS AND SERPENTS
One of my aims in The Dog by the Cradle,
the Serpent Beneath is to focus on the role in art and literature
of dogs as the enemies of serpents. This connects to an old, old
story that appears, in some form, in cultures from ancient Persia
to medieval Europe.
A greyhound is left alone to guard his
master’s baby. When a snake comes to menace the child, the
dog kills it in a struggle that overturns the cradle on top of the
baby, and spatters the room and the dog with blood. A servant arrives
and assumes that the dog has killed and devoured the missing child.
Summoned home to this scene, the master concludes the same and slays
his beloved dog. Only after the cradle is turned upright is the
still-slumbering child discovered, as well as the corpse of the
snake—too late to save the dog.
At the Paris Salon of 1827, sculptor Gregoire Giraud
exhibited a small, superb portrait in marble called “Hound”.
An alert-looking dog reclines on an oval base, around which runs
a series of even smaller relief sculptures narrating his life. In
one of them, the hound is killing a snake to save a baby’s
Not long after encountering a picture of “Hound”,
I literally almost bumped into “Bashaw.” This life-size
sculpture of a Newfoundland dog trampling an enormous snake has
stood in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for more than
a hundred years.
The real-life Bashaw belonged to the Earl of Dudley,
who offered sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt a commission of 5,000 pounds
to immortalize his faithful pet. But by the time Dudley died, Wyatt
had not yet completed the work. The artist was never paid, and “Bashaw”
was eventually sold to the V&A for a mere 200 pounds.
The actual Bashaw did sit (or in this case, stand)
for his three-dimensional portrait. But the snake is a boa constrictor—not
a type of snake any dog in England would be likely to encounter,
much less choose to step on.
It may be that a snake was simply added to the sculpture
to help balance the heavy marble body of the dog. Or perhaps the
sculptor seized on a serpent as a shorthand way to convey the canine
as brave protector of hearth and home. The body of the snake coiling
up from the dog evokes images of England’s ever-popular St
George, vanquishing the dragon beneath the hooves of his horse.
In her 1893 animal classic Beautiful Joe, Margaret
Marshall Saunders uses the real-life biography of a mistreated dog
as the basis for a novel narrated by Joe himself. The actual Joe
did overcome horrendous abuse, to enjoy a lifetime of happiness
with a kindly family. But the novel also includes a probably fictitious
encounter between Joe and a snake.
When Joe travels with his mistress, Laura, they are
introduced to a man named Maxwell who keeps in his pocket a strange
little being that darts its tongue out at the dog.
At teatime, Joe creeps from his assigned place in
the hall to a spot under the table to be near his mistress in case
the creature reappears. And sure enough, it does.
As the snake glides out of Mr. Maxwell’s pocket
and onto the table, Miss Laura cries out. Joe leaps onto the table,
plants one hind leg in a dish of jelly and a front paw in a plate
of cake, grabs at the snake and worries it. By the time Maxwell
intervenes, his pet is wounded and Joe is in disgrace.
“I felt so badly,” Joe tells us, “
that I went and stood with my head in a corner…I would not
move till Miss Laura came and spoke to me. ‘Dear old dog’”
she whispered, ‘you knew the snake was there all the time,
Of course he did. And when Joe interposes his body
between the snake and Miss Laura, he sees himself in the role of
protector. He is the literary incarnation of Giraud’s “Hound”,
and even a bit like “Bashaw,”--the sculpture, if not
the real dog. None of these dogs is unusual. In real life, dogs
guard cradles and dogs kill snakes, especially when they intrude
in the house. In fact, many of us have seen even the most mild-mannered
pooch assail a snake with a quality of almost righteous wrath--as
if he’s assigned himself the role of watchdog at the gates
of some pre-lapsarian Eden.
But in the old, old story of the greyhound who attacks
the serpent that menaces his master’s child, there is something
that sets him apart from Giraud’s hound, from the Earl’s
Bashaw, Marshall Saunders’ Joe, and even your real-life house-pet
interposing himself between you and a garter snake: In the story,
the dog kills the snake without witnesses.
After worrying the snake to death, the greyhound
tosses the body into a corner. Not only does he dispose of evidence
that would explain his actions, he knocks over the cradle in the
process, thereby also concealing the child he has just saved. When
a servant arrives, the scene is damning. An overturned cradle, no
sign of the baby, and the family dog with blood on his jaws—and
no way on earth to explain his actions. And therein lies the tragedy
of the dog, the cradle and the serpent, as well as the central story
of animals and us.
To read another excerpt from The Dog by the
Cradle, the Serpent Beneath about the dog Beautiful Joe and to learn
more about the Beautiful Joe Heritage Society which honours his
memory, visit the website www.beautifuljoe.org