Good Boy, Achilles! by Eddie Ellis
Darwinian evolution did something to theology. Suddenly it became much less straightforward to see humanity as the center of the created order. Man was not the apex of creation but rather a species that happened to have had a series of successful random adaptations. More importantly, perhaps, nature red in tooth and claw put to the question the idea of humans as somehow mediating between God and the world in a chain of being where the higher animals were below us (and in our care) and the angels above.
On the other hand, it’s still pretty clear that humans play a role in the natural order, perhaps even a central role—even when seen in a purely materialistic context. We tilt the world toward change through our actions or inactions. (Climate change offers just one example of this.) More than broad ecological effects though, we have physically transformed certain species through the millennia-long experiments of domestication. Even if the rest of the animal kingdom could care less about humans, we in a very real way have some kind of role or responsibility to discharge vis a vis our dogs and cats, cattle, horses, and fowl. All these species are to some extent our own creation and have helped make human society possible. Dogs, for instance, have in some contexts and with a great deal of truth been claimed as our greatest and most enduring invention.
But which way does this responsibility go? Could it in some respects be reciprocal?
Theologically, you could respond to the idea of a unique relationship between humans and at least certain portions of the natural world (domesticated species, for instance) in a couple ways, specifically in light of humanity’s painfully evident inability to properly steward and protect these creatures (as well as ourselves). Classically, this fact is referred to in Christian theology as the Fall or as humanity’s fallen nature.
You could take the stance that this brokenness extends to the rest of the physical world as well as to humanity itself (St. Paul’s expression about the entire creation groaning). A theological view of animals in this case might hold that whatever redemption they have or need is mediated through mankind. C. S. Lewis comments on this somewhere when he responds to a question about animals in heaven by saying something like it is the role of humanity to mediate between God and nature and restore creation—that whatever kind of relationship animals might have with a Creator, it is through their relationship with man.
If that seems to anthropocentric, another theological tact might be that the rest of the world is still pure and unspoiled and that it was only man that went wrong, that this taint doesn’t extend beyond humans. Lewis again provides an example of something like this in his Space Trilogy, where only the planet Earth (the “silent planet”) has been occupied by the Enemy, and the creatures and animals on other planets in the solar system live in harmony with each other and their creator. A theological view of this might claim that animals still have an unobstructed relationship with God and that the responsibility of care might run the other direction— that they might be charged with helping to deliver us.
Now if all this seems like a lot of theological throat-clearing for a review of a slim book about puppies written for kids, I would point out that the author of said book has a Master’s in theology and PhD in religious studies, as well as a clear theological message to communicate in his writing. In the fictional universe Ellis creates (centered around a boy named Jeremy who lives on a farm with his parents and their dog Ginger, who has just given birth to a litter of puppies), it is the dogs who still have a clear point of contact and communion with their Creator and who are charged with the care and stewarding of their humans. Humans are muddled. Not only do they not smell and hear as well as their canine caretakers, they don’t have the inborn instincts and understanding that dogs are born with in Ellis’s book. The puppies and their mother know the voice of God and even occasionally interact with His messengers, but it’s not apparent whether this ability extends to the other animals on the farm or the wild animals (primarily raccoons) that occasionally make a nuisance of themselves.
That last line was not offered facetiously, as this would have been an interesting wrinkle to explore in the work. If dogs are innately “good”, does this extend to other animals that classically represent domestication and companionship? And are wild animals (like wolves, for instance) distinguished by their inability to hear or heed the voice of the Maker? Questions like these, and the potential conflicts that might arise, would have been interesting things to explore in a work that otherwise is a very straightforward tale about a boy who wants a puppy.
Ellis is writing for children, so he keeps the narrative focused and simple. Jeremy wants one of the puppies, named Thunder, for his own, though his parents have explained that they’re giving away all the puppies because they cannot afford them. Jeremy’s universe is as tight and tidy as the narrative itself: a halcyon farm where his dad takes him fishing and his mom makes cornbread and engages in the occasional snowball fight, a world complete with faithful family friends, church, and a cozy barn with a litter of puppies. We don’t see any conflict or fracturing of this idyllic scene; all Jeremy can see is a puppy that his parents have denied him.
Tension builds throughout the book as one by one the other puppies are taken away and Thunder learns what it means to care for and protect his human, from whom he ultimately receives his true name. Ellis’s voice and descriptive prose is solid, as you would expect from someone accustomed to academic writing. His tone is never dry or awkward, and he spins out the warm, domestic scenes with ease. The book slides along toward its inevitable conclusion until a final departure in which Jeremy, with very little warning, takes matters into his own hands with all the simple and unfathomable logic of a child. It is in this final crisis that Thunder (in what feels like a riff on a classic Lassie episode) proves himself to be Jeremy’s dog and saves both the boy and their future together. (Strangely, for all the attention that Ellis pays throughout the novel in passing along wisdom about God, patience, and obedience through the parents to the son, there is no final discussion or consequence related to Jeremy’s final, reckless gambit.)
It’s difficult for me to offer a perspective on how this book would read for a young child except to say this: I think kids like complexity. I think they can handle a lot more ambiguity than we normally give them credit for. Good Boy, Achilles seems to harken back to a time when children’s book were much more straightforward and black and white: a boy and his dog, obedience and trust. But even a book like that needs some wrinkles. In the straightforward world that Ellis creates, I kept finding myself looking for the complexities, perhaps some along the lines of what I outlined above. In some respects this book might fit a niche similar to Charlotte’s Web, but Charlotte’s Web had a cast including not only a pig and a spider but also geese, a rat, and entire barnyard ensemble. Ginger’s puppies have ended up in a variety of homes by the end of the story. If Ellis follows their various adventures, I hope we learn more about what it means to serve and follow (or question) the Wounded One (the dogs’ name for Christ) in other, varied setting with a broader cast of characters.