Classics : The Incredible Journey (1961)

About the bond between animals and humans….

by Gordon Campbell

These days, it is possible to admire Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey as much for what she avoids as for what she openly achieves. This is a story of friendship, loyalty and endurance between two dogs (a young retriever called Luath and an old terrier called Bodger) and a Siamese cat called Tao, who are trying to get back home – even if it means crossing a large stretch of the Canadian wilderness to get there.

In telling this story, Burnford avoids most of the traps of anthropomorphism. Her main characters are domesticated animals throughout, not wild things. Yet they’re not humans in disguise either, thinly hidden behind four legs and fur. In the book, the animals don’t talk to each other or exchange wisecracks, as they were made to do in the horrible 1993 film version called Homeward Bound. (As a final indignity, that film changed the animals’ names to Chance, Shadow, and Sassy. Enough said.)

The vast success of the book had come as something of a surprise to all involved. Sheila Every was born in Scotland in 1918 and while serving in WWII as an ambulance driver she met and married a doctor called David Burnford. The family emigrated to Canada in the early 1950s, and once her children were at school, she settled into writing. The book dedicated to their children (Peronelle, Juliet and Jonquil) and it uses this famous quote by Walt Whitman as its theme :

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self contain’d…they do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things etc etc…

Even so, we have somehow gained the loyal devotion of our pets, as The Incredible Journey reveals in spades. The story’s potential was first spotted by a young literary agent called Claire Smith, who went on to represent the likes of Richard Adams. Judy Blume and James Herriot. The book sold only modestly on release, but – crucially – Smith managed to sell the movie rights to Disney, who made a highly successful film version in 1963 that was very faithful to the book. There were no talking animals in that version, only a narration by cowboy actor Rex Allen, who had voiced many of Disney’s nature documentaries. From then onwards, the book has steadily achieved classic status in its own right.

The set-up for The Incredible Journey is the most complicated part of the story. When the owners depart for nine months’ academic leave in England, they leave the animals behind with a friend – who in turn, thanks to a faulty telephone line, goes off on a hunting trip believing he has left them in the care of his housekeeper. The lonely animals decide to trek all the away back to the family home, hundreds of kilometres away. The housekeeper then misreads the fragments of a charred note and believes the friend has taken them off hunting, and therefore no one raises the alarm. [A Siamese cat taken on a hunting trip? Oh well, it is hard to get good help.]

The animals have to cover roughly five hundred kilometres of Canada’s wilderness, which Burnford – writing in the 1950s – was describing in the last days of its untamed splendour. Sure, there are a few miners and loggers about, but as she says at one point, humans are mere grains of sand on an ocean shore when measured against the vast reaches of nature :

For the most part there is silence and solitude and an uninterrupted way of life for the wild animals that abound there: moose and deer, brown and black bears; lynx and fox ; beaver, muskrat and otter ; fishers mink and marten. The wild duck rests there and the Canada goose; for this is the fringe of the central migratory fly-way. The clear tree-fringed lakes and rivers are filled with speckled trout and steelheads, pike and pickerel and whitefish.

Lovely, but quite pitiless. The landscape may be Eden on one level, but not for domesticated creatures like Luath, Bodger and Tao. At the beginning of their trek, we watch them gradually toughen up and learn how to survive off the land. Yet one of the interesting aspects of the book is that the trio never fully revert to the wild – throughout, they remain oriented to humankind. The interdependence between humans and their pets is a key facet of the story, and so is the teamwork between the three travelers. The cat, easily the most capable hunter and best equipped to survive on his own, still chooses to stick with the dogs …partly because young Luath at least, knows where they are going, and partly because of the cat’s affection for the old terrier.

None of this would mean a thing without the skill that Burnford brings to the narrative. Here for instance, is an early passage, where the travelers feel tired and out of sync with their strange new environment. Once again, it is a passage for lovers of the semi-colon to treasure :

In the nearby hills a timber wolf howled mournfully; owls called and answered and glided silently by with great outspread wings; and there were faint whispers of movement and small rustling noises around all through the night. Once an eerie wail like a baby’s crying woke the old dog and brought him shivering and whining to his feet; but it was only a porcupine, who scrambled noisily and clumsily away, still crying softly. When he lay down again the cat was gone from his side – another small night hunter, slipping through the unquiet shadows that froze to stillness at his passing.

The young dog slept in fitful, uneasy starts, his muscles twitching, constantly lifting his head and growling softly. Once, he sprang to his feet with a full-throated roar which brought a sudden splash in the distance – then silence – and who knows what else unknown, unseen or unheard passed through his mind to disturb him further? Only one thing was clear and certain – that at all costs he was going home, home to his own beloved master. Home lay to the west, his instinct told him; but he could not leave the other two – so somehow he must take them with him, all the way.

As is evident from this and any number of other passages, The Incredible Journey is a book made to be read aloud. En route, the travellers encounter cruelty, indifference and kindness in a series of encounters with other animals. A life and death battle between the cat and a lynx, and a rolling fight with a family of bears are particularly memorable, as is a perilous river crossing that almost kills the cat and temporarily separates him from his friends.

As for humans…not all the encounters with other humans are positive. Yet at crucial points along the way, the animals do accept assistance and are faced more than once with the temptation of giving up, and being adopted by new owners. The little girl who rescues the cat from drowning has to face up to painful rejection in this scene:

When she woke, later in the night aware of a lost warmth, she saw him crouched at the open window, looking out over the pale fields and the tall dark trees below. His long, sinuous tail thrashed to and fro as he measured the distance to the ground. Even as her hand moved out impulsively towards him he sprang, landing with a soft thud.

She looked down and saw his head turn for the first time to her voice, his eyes like glowing rubies as they caught the moonlight, then turn away – and with sudden desolation she knew that he had no further need of her. Through a blur of tears, she watched him go, stealing like a wraith in the night towards the river that had brought him. Soon the swiftly running form was lost among the shadows.

I’ll spare you the final scenes of the book – well known to test the emotional sangfroid of the most stolid parent. Just remember to keep a box of tissues handy.

In the wake of the enormous success of The Incredible Journey, Burnford could have retired to some gated community in Florida. Instead, she made her own forays into the natural wilderness and cultural unknown. A crack shot with a pilot’s licence, Burnford was not your typical 1950s homemaker. In the late 1960s, she and the artist Susan Andrina Ross published a quasi-anthropological work called Without Reserve, about the time they had spent living among the Ojibway and Cree Indian communities of remote northern Canada. (Chapter four of The Incredible Journey you may recall, puts the animals in contact with an Ojibway encampment, and the Indians treat them as good omens sent from the spirit world.)

In the early 1970s, these two intrepid women in their mid forties went off together again and lived for nearly two years among the Inuit of Pond Inlet, at the top end of Baffin Island. Their experiences are recounted in Burnford’s 1972 book One Women’s Arctic. Alongside her accounts of long journeys by dog sled and of the beauties and terrors of the northern wilderness, Burnford writes compassionately and somewhat idealistically – this was the early 1970s after all – about Inuit values, and she describes an indigenous lifestyle that was right on the edge of drastic and irrevocable change. Game for anything, she seems willing to eat whatever is on the end of her fork, as this charming passage demonstrates:

I never became addicted to seal meat – thought the liver was delicious – and entirely agree with Kane’s description of it – ‘When raw, the meat has a flabby look, more like coagulated blood than muscular fibre; cooking gives it a dark soot colour; it has a flavour of lamp-oil.’ The blubber was unexpectedly good, of a delightful melting in the mouth, almost non-existent, texture, and with no more taste than mineral oil – a sensation more than a taste.

Muktuk, the narwhal skin was good from the first taste – a sensation of hazel nuts, and the taste for it grew and grew. And Arctic char is fit for the gods, whether raw or cooked – although I couldn’t bring myself to try that tastiest of all parts, apparently, the eyes, which the Eskimos suck out with gusto. Muktuk to me was not unlike horse, which I had eaten plenty of times in my youth in France though possibly a bit richer…

Eating and the hunt that precedes it formed quite a large part of the backdrop action in The Incredible Journey, too. The trio of animals became heavily reliant on the hunting skills of Tao the cat. Despite all the famous sentimentality of the final scene, Burnford is quite unsentimental about the “survival of the fittest’ ethic that these soft, domesticated creatures must follow in order to stay alive, and to reach their goal.

Yet Burnford – for all her practical turn of mind – never quite seems to have resolved this issue. Vegetarians may be able to do so. Yet most other people simply pat their pets and conveniently forget how and from where, their food arrives on their plate. Up on Pond Inlet, Burnford found herself confronted with a disturbing example of what the ‘survival of the fittest’ ethic can involve. As she relates the incident in One Woman’s Arctic, while on a walk out from base camp one day, she encounters an old stray husky, desperate and starving. To stop the dog from becoming a pest and a scavenger, her friend John shoots it. While she accepts the harsh logic, what haunts her is that the dog had wagged its tail at her, beforehand.

So I reasoned [in accepting the execution.] Yet this husky, who had wagged his tail so uneasily before us just now, was a dog who had lived and worked in the cruellest possible elements his entire life, straining his heart out in harness, goaded on by the whip lash, or staked out to a short chain in the non-working months, to fight and to pant with thirst with his team, his only reward the hunk of seal or fish flung down once or twice a week, his only anticipation that of running in the traces again. In spite of all this, in his extremity he had sought out man again – and heavens knows how far or how long the search had been on this uninhabited island – and shown by the only means in his power that he was ready to do the whole thing over again.

But we had no use of him. He dragged himself back a few yards at another threat, then, when once again there was no movement outside the hut, he regained the ground. John came out with a rifle, and lay down to take aim. The dog wagged his tail again, there was a crack, and he fell. There was no movement, only the stiff, injured leg lowering slowly down to the heather. He had known nothing: he was all right now.

Burnford concludes : ‘But I was not all right, not at peace. I had known something. And what I knew I did not like or understand: the whole human race, of which I was a part.’ That same indomitable spirit that had driven Bodger, Luath and Tao homewards, had been visible to her in the husky. Sometimes, humans do not seem worthy of the bond than animals feel with us.