Written in the Dam
Obviously it goes without saying that the most famous beavers in literature are Mr and Mrs Beaver from The Chronicles of Narnia, but there is a rich tradition of beavers in literature and folklore that goes beyond the wintery world of C. S. Lewis’ creation.
One of the oldest (and strangest) is that, in Ancient Egypt, people believed that male beavers nibbled off their own testicles. This came about for a number of reasons – one being that beavers’ testicles do not hang outside their bodies, so were not visible.
You can find this myth again in the odd world of medieval bestiaries, which depict the beaver being hunted for his testicles as they were believed to have medicinal properties. The beaver is shown biting off its jewels and throwing them to the hunter to avoid further pursuit. This also protected against future hunters chasing the beaver.
This story was also later told in Aesop’s Fables. An interesting aside to this is that the oil believed to be medicinal is called castoreum, and so the origin of the word castrated. Related to this, in historical depictions, characteristics such as kindness and gentleness has been attributed to the beaver. In the Middle Ages, beavers were thought to be gentle and kind for giving up their testicles to the hunters!
The beaver’s tail also changed shape through the ages of stories about them. As above, the beaver was not originally depicted with the familiar broad tail.
The North American Ojibwa people have a legend that also tells of the beaver’s kindness. This comes from the story of ‘How the Beaver got its tail’.
The Ojibwa beaver is very proud of his big fluffy tail, and when he realises no-one is as impressed as him he gnaws down trees in his irritation. A tree falls and squashes his tail. The beaver cries out, devastated that his tail has been ruined. The Creator tells him that he isn’t liked for his tail, but for his kindness and wisdom. The beaver is then happy again, and finds that he can swim better with his new tail. He never boasts about his tail again.
The depiction of beavers in literature and folklore hasn’t always done them favours, however. We spoke earlier about Mr and Mrs Beaver, who erroneously were depicted as fish eaters even though beavers are – as I’m sure you know – strictly vegetarian! This has perhaps been a contributing factor to people assuming them competition for fishing rights. The truth is that they eat bark, buds, stems, mushrooms and twigs.
A sad element of the beaver’s literary story is they have ever been misunderstood in their depictions, and the fact that many people seem to be losing touch with nature in this modern world isn’t helping.
In 2007, the Oxford English Dictionary removed a number of nature-centric words from its children’s dictionary, replacing them with words like ‘chatroom’ and ‘database’. One of the lost words was ‘beaver’, among many others.
Although this is tragic, it has in turn led to wonderful attempts to re-integrate nature words into our language by folklorists, authors and folk musicians alike. One notable project, which I adore, is The Lost Words – Spell Songs. The folk behind the project are a group of writers and folk musicians seeking to bring back the words of nature into our lives, whether that be in the classroom or the home. You can read more about their wonderful project here: https://www.thelostwords.org/.
There seems to be a growing contingent of writers out there weaving folklore and nature back into their writing, and I am very happy to be a small part of such an important calling. I hope this will be a part of breaking the dam, if you will, on nature in our literature and help bring it flooding back into our lives.*
(*(*This blog has been written by independent writers outside of our organisation. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)
Alexandra is an author of folklore-inspired tales. Her debut novel based on astrological folklore is out in April and she is currently writing a fantasy book based on old English bird folklore. She writes alongside my fulltime job and in her spare time enjoys rambling or cycling in the local countryside. Follow her here:
Twitter – @ABeaumontWriter
Insta – @abeaumontwrites
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© Alexandra Beaumont 2021.