In honor of National Book Lovers Day, we take a three-thousand year journey to look at half a dozen famous dogs from literature.
- Argos (“Odyssey”, c. 1200 BCE)
Argos was the faithful dog of the Greek hero Odysseus, who waited nineteen years for his master to return from war.
The wait was so long because, on the way home, Odysseus offended the Greek god of the sea Poseidon, who kept blowing his ship off course until he finally relented. Odysseus returns home to hear that there are 108 suitors wooing his wife, so he comes disguised as a beggar — and only his faithful dog recognizes him. Thin, weak, and flea-ridden, Argos raises his head, wags his tail once for the first time in years, and then dies having fulfilled his mission of being reunited with his beloved master.
Trivia: Cesar rescued a galgo, or greyhound, in Spain, and renamed him Argos in honor of Odysseus’ faithful dog.
- Patrasche (“A Dog of Flanders”, 1872)
“A Dog of Flanders” tells the story of Nello, a poor boy who is orphaned at two and taken in by his grandfather. Eventually, he and his grandfather rescue Patrasche, a dog that was beaten nearly to death, and the dog helps Nello on his rounds pulling a cart into town to sell milk.
“A Dog of Flanders” is probably the saddest child and dog story this side of “Old Yeller.” Disappointed in his ambition to be an artist and in his love for a girl in town (he’s too poor, according to her father), Nello and the dog eventually sneak into a church at night to see an exhibit of two paintings he could not afford to attend — and they both freeze to death by morning.
Despite its bleakness, the book has been popular since it was published, and has been adapted for other media multiple times, although most adaptations have happy endings while missing the point: Nello and Patrasche would not have survived so long without each other.
Trivia: The book was hardly known in Belgium for years but became hugely popular elsewhere, particularly Japan. Because of this, Belgium finally built two monuments starting in 1985. One of them is a fictional tombstone near Antwerp Cathedral — engraved in English and Japanese. In Belgium. Where the official languages are Dutch, German, and French.
- Toto (“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, 1900)
Whether you know him from the 1939 movie version of “The Wizard of Oz,” from Baum’s fourteen original Oz books, or any of a number of other books, adaptations, or spins-offs, you know him as a feisty and faithful mutt of indeterminate origin. He’s described by Baum as a little black dog with long, silky hair and twinkling black eyes.
What you might not know from the movie alone is that Toto could talk — he just chose not to until the eighth book, in which he reveals to Dorothy that he could always talk but chose not to. By the eleventh book, he’s talking non-stop. Toto would go on to have his own adventures in several books and receives a mention, though no stage time, in the Broadway musical “Wicked.”
Trivia: The dog who played Toto in “The Wizard of Oz” was a female named Terry, who appeared in 16 films in a nine-year career from 1934 to 1942 and died in 1945. She was originally buried on the Studio City ranch of her owner, dog trainer Carl Spitz, but the grave was destroyed when the Ventura Freeway was built in the late 1950s. While making “Wizard,” Terry received $125 per week — more than any of the actors playing Munchkins.
- Buck (“Call of the Wild”, 1903)
Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” is the 1903 story of Buck, a large and powerful St. Bernard mix who is stolen from his owner’s home in Santa Clara Valley, California — now home to San Jose and Silicon Valley. Buck winds up in the Canadian Yukon province, forced to work as a sled dog. Through this brutal life, he eventually reconnects with his ancient lupine past, shedding the trappings of a domesticated dog.
Buck survives through his intelligence and instinct, finally being taken in by an owner who does not mistreat him, but after the owner is killed by a native tribe, Buck gets his revenge by killing the humans, fighting a wolf pack for alpha position and winning, then heading off into the wild with them, returning once a year to mourn at the place his master died and becoming the “Ghost Dog” of legend.
Trivia: “Call of the Wild” established London as a major writer at 27. In 1906, he published “White Fang” which is basically the story of “The Call of the Wild” in reverse as a feral dog is brought back to domesticity.
- Lad (“Lad, a Dog”, 1919)
Originally published as a series of magazine stories, author Albert Payson Terhune gathered a dozen of the tales into one collection that told the story of Lad, a brave and intelligent rough collie; his family known only as Master, Mistress, and Boy; and Lad’s mate Lady and son Wolf. Through the stories, Lad variously defends the family against danger, although he is frequently wrongly blamed at first for crimes committed by people or other dogs.
One notable detail about the stories, especially for the era, is that Terhune emphasized punishment-free training, believing that it was possible to have a dog be loyal and obedient through discipline and kindness instead of violence and force.
Trivia: When Terhune sold his first Lad story to Red Book in 1916, he was paid $200 — the equivalent of nearly $4,400 today.
- Snowy (“The Adventures of Tintin”, 1929)
Another dog with a Belgian connection, Snowy was the creation of the comic artist Hergé, faithful companion to the human hero Tintin. Unlike Toto, Snowy is quite talkative from the beginning, eventually only speaking to Tintin but constantly commenting on the action and making jokes.
A white terrier, Snowy has a fondness for whisky and a weakness for bones — the one thing that can distract him from his missions to help Tintin on their adventures. The comics themselves have had an equally long adventure, improbably beginning as a feature in a children’s magazine put out by a very conservative, anti-socialist, pro-fascist publisher, surviving a heavily-censored stint under German supervision in Nazi-occupied Belgium, and finally moving on to its own magazine after the war until Hergé started his own publisher and studios in 1950.
Trivia: In the original comics in French, the dog is known as Milou, which was the nickname of Hergé’s first girlfriend Marie-Louise, despite the dog being male. When the comics were translated into English, the publishers chose “Snowy” as the name because, at five letters, it easily fit into the same space in speech balloons and captions.
Who is your favorite dog from literature? Let us know in the comments!