From well-known and treasured stories including Aesop’s Fables, Black Beauty and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, to writers such as Michel de Montaigne, Anton Chekhov and T.S. Eliot, storytellers have used animals not only to capture the imagination of readers, but to deliver powerful and revealing messages about what it means to be human.

Animal Tales, a new exhibition in the British Library’s Entrance Hall Gallery, asks why animals have come to play such an important role in literature for adults and children alike with a variety of charming editions and manuscripts from the Library’s collections.

Set amongst silhouetted animals and a woodland scene, the exhibition explores the central role animals have played in traditional tales around the world, their importance to the development of children’s literature and their use in allegories from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to the first appearance of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in the underground comic Funny Aminals.

In the centenary of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, it also looks at the literary transformations between human and beast, from Philip Pullman to Angela Carter.

On display will be Library treasures spanning centuries of history, from one of the earliest illustrated printed editions of Ovid to modern prize-winners of today such as Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.

Exhibition highlights include:

  • One of the first children’s picture books, Comenius’ Orbis sensualium pictus (1659 edition)

  • Gilbert White’s The Natural history of Selborne and its antiquities, annotated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, bound in colourful cotton dress fabric by Mrs Wordsworth and once owned by Romantic poet Robert Southey

  • An eighteenth century woodblock edition of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West

  • Dolly: edition unlimited, a pop out jig-sawed book by the artist Karen Bleitz, responding to the genetic cloning of Dolly the sheep

  • A soundscape installation drawn from the Library’s world-leading collection of natural history recordings, along with other animal tales from the sound archive

Matthew Shaw, lead curator of Animal Tales, says: ‘This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to explore the rich and imaginative history of animals on the page. From their central role in children’s literature to more recent explorations of love and loss, animals offer a way to reassess what makes us human. As nature writing has had a dramatic rise in its popularity in recent years, Animals Tales offers a chance to look at some of the history and background of that genre, and perhaps to think about some of the reasons for its success.’

Animal Tales hosts a children’s reading area and is accompanied by a Family Trail brochure, available at the Information Desk. The exhibition is free of charge and is complemented by a series of events.