Some creatures capture the human imagination more readily than others. Hares have always been magical, perhaps because of their singular behaviour during the spring, perhaps because of the magnificent way in which they will sit up on their hind legs in a field, catch a whiff or a glimpse of danger and bound away, leaping and weaving, ducking and taking advantage of cover and terrain, to throw any would-be pursuers off the scent; most mystical of all, the near-silent pair dance through a woodland glade, for once so mutually bonding that a standing human watcher is passed unnoticed. By comparison, the rabbit is streets behind in the enigma stakes. He shuffles and bobs about, waving his scut ineffectually and, as soon as he takes fright, scampers off with no pretence at dignity or even of making a measured retreat.
Domestic animals exercise similarly varying effects upon the fancy. I’ve never been close to horses, but I can see why people say that they’re noble. There’s a certain stolid majesty about cows as they stand grazing and gazing; pigs endear with their uncannily human-like squabbles. However, farmyard animals generally don’t bring with them the same depth of historical literary allusion, maybe because writers of earlier generations were more accustomed to draw their metaphors from the wild, maybe because we know that the cows and pigs and horses of, say, late mediaeval England bore only a generic resemblance to the ones that we see today. For at least the last two hundred years animal husbandry has involved the intensively selective breeding of farm animals in order to accentuate their most marketable and productive features: today’s cows and sheep are very different from those that feature in eighteenth century paintings; pigs are bred to yield less fatty meat as dietary preferences change. There’s also often a kind of placidity about the creatures found on the modern farm, as if they understand and have accepted that their purpose in life is to bend to the will of their human masters in return for plenty of good food.
Bulls are an exception, of course. I’ve known some very tricky bulls, especially those unpredictable Channel Islands fellows, only too ready to vent on unwary passers-by their frustration and bad tempers. When a bull catches your eye and rolls his own, stamps his hoof and tosses his head – or makes any of these movements – you know at once that discretion is the better part of valour and that, if there is no stile nearby, your best bet is to dive over the nearest hedge or barbed wire fence, a few nasty scratches being preferable to serious injury or death. Bulls in stalls can be even more irate and the escape routes more limited; during my youth, I knew of several Lincolnshire farmers who were gored by bulls in the byre, one of them fatally. The bull does not take kindly to having his masculinity compromised. Yet still they are domesticated, at least in the sense that they look nothing like their forbears.
One creature, however, that evokes for me all the mystery and romance, the pomp and pride as well as the murderousness, of the Middle Ages, is the cock. I’m well aware that chickens have also been subject to generations of selective breeding techniques designed to improve either the laying-power of the hens or the quality of meat for the pot; yet a proud cock, strutting among his hens, still seems to carry the primeval stamp of his ancient forefathers. He shakes his comb and wattles menacingly at impertinent human observers; he preens and poses in the midst of his harem, spurs sharp and threatening. He is a fighter; barbarously, his fighting instinct has been exploited by men until quite recent times. It is the cock who, through the ages, has serenaded the dawn and it is for this, above all else, that he has secured his pole position in the literary canon. From Aesop’s fighting cocks to the rooster after whose third crow Simon Peter betrayed Christ (unusually, all four Gospels agree about this), to Chaucer’s Chauntecleer to stories from other cultures, such as the generations-old Indian story of the cock and the hen, cocks have always crowed and have always been part of myth and fable, woven by talented narrators into great tall stories.