"The Pig Plantagenet" is a light, playful, tripping fantasy. It is tweaking and fun to read because its author not only is knowledgeable, but also clearly enjoys his knowledge and is skillful at throwing words, thoughts and whole concepts into tension with one another: courtly English gets punctured by a bit of modern slang, all in a single sentence, and both come alive for the apposition. Likewise, 13-century feudal Europe is crossed with 20th-century back-alley characters, and the contrast is delightful surprise. But in the end, the novel that had made a reader hungry leaves him somewhat unsatisfied -- it is more appetizer than meat.
This is the conflict of the story: two societies do, by their very natures, find themselves at enmity with one another. Man, who would pursue his natural course of self-security and economic greed, not only fears the vast untrackable, the dark and bestial forest, he also hates the animals whose habitation it is. For wolves eat flocks -- not, certainly, in the numbers that man would declare (it is in the nature of man to be hyperbolical when his goods are endangered); but wolves do eat flocks, and eaten sheep cannot be sold at the fair. In order to protect his interests, then, man plans a clean sweep of the forest, a battue, a driving into the open of all game animals in the area of his traverse and then a general slaughter.
We are grieved at the prospect.
For the second society is that of the beasts themselves, who live in nearly aristocratic hierarchy with one another, observing with grace, honor with noble bearing the manners and the class distinctions that, at once, divide and hold them together. Here is order, holy order, and something of the great chain of being. This is not to say that the beasts do not also eat onee another. They do (though any such scene is carefully avoided in the book). But when they do, the bite is given and received without rancor. It is what is, and that is all.
Between the societies of Man and Beast are three other groups. There are the dogs, who have, in effect, prostituted their natural wit, senses and instinct by permitting themselves to be domesticated, turned to man's purposes: become man-beasts, as it were. There are, next, the flitting creatures who are not man's, yet live in close proximity to him -- in his chimneys and in his trees and therefore in danger: not of being killed, but converted. Brousse the hen-magpie is one of those and a fallen creature, acting from pure malice like man (and is therefore not purely of the beasts), but remaining undomesticated (and is therefore neither of man). This magpie, together with another flitting creature, a sparrow, discovers the planned battue. She communicates it to the other beasts, but wickedly distorts the facts. So the beasts do prepare to save themselves; but with her information alone, they would prepare for their deaths.
The third intermediate group is composed of those whose hearts beat in both worlds: Adele, a young girl whose breast is full of the notions of her contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi; Rupert, a beagle of British amusement; and the unlikely hero of this novel, the Pig Plantagenet. Plantagenet has a healthy sense of fear before man, who would, were the pig fat, roast him, and before wolf, who would eat him raw. But Plantagenet also has a bestial cousin, Grondin the boar; so that world is known to him and dear. And Plantagenet also has the love of the girl Adele; so that world, too, is known to him and dear. (A sharp question arises, then -- one that might have been more disturbing than author Andrews allows it to be: Which world, finally, should rightly own the pig's allegiance? The naturally civil one of the forest, or the unnatural civilization within walls?) And Plantagenet has one remarkable talent. He is fleet. He can run like no other creature, man nor beast.
With these characteristics -- easy passage between two worlds, care for both of them, and speed -- the pig finds himself in the honorable, perilous, crucial and precarious role of savior. Upon him rests the salvation of the animals; and even the greatest among them, the wolf and the boar, defer to a pig more full of fears than fat. This porker's performance is much of the joy of the story.
The story is, truly, a joyful one. That it leaves a reader a little hungry is no judgment against what Andrews accomplishes here, but rather a vague sense that, given the groundwork that be laid for this fantasy, he might have done more.
The groundwork as described above -- this hostility between the order that man creates and the natural order of creation -- is rich soil in which certain ideas might root, grow and flourish, but do so in the testy form of character, plot, dialogue. These ideas might have informed the story and might have, by the story itself, been brought more dramatically to life.
There is no doubt that the ideas are here. They are clearly (but by exposition!) put forward. Of the forest Andrews says: "When death came, from disease or from predators, the survivors accepted the diminution of the herd. They did not forget the dead, and they did not exaggerate the importance of the living in the gross forms of self-pity which display themselves as mourning, resentment and vengeance. . . There were no rights, but there was Right." Of the human world he counters: "There was no Right, but there was plenty of rights." Strong men supported their "rights" by armies. Therefore, before weak men could claim a right, they "had to become stronger, strong enough to do wrong things like banding together, petitioning the lord, or committing acts of terrorism when the law specifically said that they had no right" to do these things. "Once they were strong enough to do the wrong things, the law was changed to say that they had a right to do these things, which were no longer wrong."
These are affecting ideas; this is sharp, urbane irony; as exposition it is excellent; and being found, like an authorial aside, in the midst of friction, it whets one's appetite to find it also a bubbling ingredient of the fiction itself, a substance of the story. But one doesn't.
Finally, though their language is always artful and right pleasing to the ear, beast and man both speak alike. Differences between the two worlds blur not by the progression of the plot, but because plot and character and dialogue do not admit of them. Again: Though the humans are as a lot somewhat more degenerate and the beasts more civil, there is, in the story, no essential difference between the two. Wretchedness is found in both camps; dear love and generous affection in both; motives universally the same. So Plantagenet's dilemma is not after all to choose between two modes of existence, but simply between two territories of the same existence. Nor is this problem solved by Andrews' reference, near the end, to St. Francis' assertion that all living creatures under heaven are brothers. For want of a truly observed conflict, the dilemma and the tension and the drama are all lessened. The meat anticipated is meat missed.
Yet, if no one had told me there was another course to come (thus the danger of authorial asides), I would have dined with satisfying joy on the hor d'oeuvre! The promise alone was the problem. What Allen Andrews does accomplish in this book he does with consummate, delicate skill, and a reader can relish ironical spices as well as a full stomach.