'Bob, Son of Battle' comes alive in a wonderful new edition

Award-winning author and translator Lydia Davis scraped away some 'taxing overgrowth' to enhance the rough beauty of Alfred Ollivant's classic dog story.

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    Alfred Ollivant's Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir,
    by Alfred Ollivant, Lydia Davis,
    New York Review Books,
    320 pp.
    View Caption

Reviewed by Alexandra Mullen for The Barnes & Noble Review

I’m guessing the best-known sheepdog of recent years is really a pig. The movie "Babe," based on the children’s book "The Sheep-Pig" (1983) by Dick King-Smith, is a sweet yarn about a pig who wants to herd sheep like his adoptive Border Collie parents. Because he’s not a Border Collie – who are, as the sheep well know, descended from wolves – he herds sheep in his own distinctive way: mild, polite, and respectful. There’s a dreadful moment when the protective pig, after fighting off a pack of feral dogs who have been terrorizing his flock, is caught red-snouted by the farmer. The farmer suspects him of being a sheep killer and is about to shoot him – but Babe’s innocence is proved in the nick of time. Babe survives to become the unorthodox champion at the sheepdog trials. Filmed in a glorious glow of Australian light, it is the dog story for our times: you can become, it insists, whoever you want, and whatever differences from the norm you have are all good, probably even better.

But the narrative DNA of "Babe" comes from a source that is quite different: a stark, unlovely, primal book from 1898 in which nature is not malleable but determining. Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle (which some of us grew up knowing under its British title, "Owd Bob, The Grey Dog of Kenmuir") pits two sheepdogs and their masters against each other in a bleakly stunning landscape of Cumberland dales that “includes moors and ravines, swift streams and lakes; with a little village standing far away in one spot and a sheep-farm alone up on a hilltop in another.” Families battle loneliness, early death, fatal snows, and, with increasing desperation, a rogue sheep-killing dog.

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In this harsh world, one shepherd and his dog, Adam McAdam and Red Wull, conquer natural challenges by embracing that harshness, but they are feared and isolated by the community. The other human-dog pair, James Moore and Owd Bob, work with sober restraint; the community embraces them as their highest exemplum.

The people, the land, and the animals are all linked together, but within this chain there are multiple hierarchies. The family Bible of the Moores of Kenmuir, for example, contains the genealogy of the Moores pasted in the back and the pedigree of the dogs slipped in the front. The Moores of Kenmuir are landowners who have been rooted in this one landscape so long that their very name now marks it. McAdam is a tenant shepherd who has traveled down from Scotland. (Is it too fanciful of me to hear an echo of the artificial road surface macadam in his name? It was invented in 1809 by his fellow Scot John Loudon McAdam.) McAdam is a man out of place:

"The little Scotsman with the mean smile had lived at the grange for many years; yet he had never grown used to the land of the English. With his shrunken little body and weak legs, surrounded by the sturdy, straight-limbed sons of the hill country, he looked like some brown, wrinkled leaf holding its place in a galaxy of green. And just as he was different from them in his body, he was also different in his nature."

The Moores share a family trait of being slow in learning to speak and laconic when they do. Adam McAdam is also different from the stolid Dalesmen in having a sense of humor, however sardonic, and in being quick and cutting with his tongue  – traits that, however uncharitable in real life, imbue this story with energy and suspense.

In a world so constrained by nature and heredity, the annual sheepdog trial determines more than technical success; it puts one’s very being-in-the-world on display in the relationship of man and dog to sheep and landscape. The values of the world of the sheepdog trial have nothing to do with transcending one’s nature; rather the trial rewards understanding and perfecting one’s nature to be most fully oneself with others. And the worst fault one can commit is in betraying that nature.

I called "Bob, Son of Battle" an unlovely book a few paragraphs ago, and so it is, but that does not mean there aren’t very many people who love it. One of them is Lydia Davis, who read it when she was a little girl: “I felt as though I had lived through it myself.” Just like the arduous landscape, Ollivant crafted his book to reflect the arduous world it depicts. As he wrote, “The talk of the men of the land is of wethers and gimmers, of tuphoggs, ewe tegs in wool, and other things which are but fearsome names to you and me.” The book combines Border and Scots dialect with Victorian flights. Even the names of dogs might need translating: Owd Bob is Old Bob, and Red Wull is Red Will. The adult Davis, now a celebrated fiction writer and translator, wanted to ensure that the powerful experience of reading this book would still be accessible to children today. As she writes in her afterword – pitched at the children who might be receiving this handsome New York Review Classics edition as a present – she has tried to translate the “hard words and puzzling expressions” “just enough so that almost everything could be understood without any problem, and there would be nothing to get in the way of the story.”

Like Davis, I fell under the spell of this book when I was a child, and I remember very well the feeling of moving through Ollivant’s thorny sentences – a dark pleasure of reading tentatively, picking my way from uncertainty to some knowledge, trusting both in the narrator’s art and my own stamina, in the belief that there would be another opening through a thicket. Among other things, such experiences of being carried by a current of narrative beyond one’s skill and strength in childhood prove the truth of T. S. Eliot’s criterion for great poetry – it is “communicated before it is understood.”

Thus I met this new version with some dismay. But as I read Davis and reread Ollivant, I have come to appreciate her subtle rearrangements and small decisions, which, even if I wouldn’t have made all of them, scrape away some taxing overgrowth without smoothing the rough beauty of the whole. It is a wonderful achievement, and I already have children in mind who’ll get it as a present, lucky children who will be led to think through thorny issues of fate and choice, to judge the values by which our natures are tested, and to feel the sometimes conflicting forces of justice and mercy, condemnation and respect.

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