Bear Necessities: The Surprising Love for Bears in Stories

Bears have roamed the pages of literature for centuries. Perhaps there’s something special about these furry creatures? Read on to learn more.

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Three toy bears with a book

Bears have left their large pawprints on the pages of literature throughout the ages. In modern novels and children’s stories, bears have played diverse roles, representing both primal fears and enduring symbols of the human condition. Bears, as powerful symbols in various cultural and spiritual contexts, hold diverse symbolic meanings. Universally, they are often seen as representations of strength due to their physical might. On the other hand, they can symbolize love due to their cuddly appearance and protective instincts. How does the duality of bears contribute to modern literature?

Claws and Conflict

Bears are creatures that straddle the line between ferocity and gentleness, making them ideal symbols for authors to convey complex themes and emotions. In literature, they often embody the duality of strength and vulnerability. On one hand, bears can be fierce antagonists, evoking primal fears and challenging characters to confront their deepest fears and limitations. In this role, bears serve as formidable adversaries, as seen in classics like William Faulkner’s The Bear.

The Bear by William Faulkner book cover

Faulkner’s The Bear, a central chapter in his short story collection Go Down, Moses, delves deep into the Southern wilderness and presents readers with a profound meditation on the bear. Old Ben, the mythical and elusive bear that haunts the narrative, is more than just a creature; he embodies the unforgiving and indifferent nature of the wild. As the characters chase and confront Old Ben throughout the story, they are forced to grapple with the untamed forces of the natural world, with the bear symbolizing the ultimate challenge. These stories, typically in adult fiction, primarily frame bears as predators in man’s quest to conquer nature.

Bear Hugs and Heartfelt Tales

Alternatively, bears can also represent the gentle and nurturing side of humanity. They become mentors and protectors, guiding characters through trials and helping them discover their inner strength. For instance, in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, the bear king Lorek Byrnison is not only a powerful warrior but also a wise and loyal friend. This dichotomy of bears in literature mirrors the complexities of human nature, showcasing the capacity for both courage and compassion within us all.

a small girl riding on the back of a polar bear in battle armor.

In children’s media, the friendly or temperate bear is especially prevalent. Two beloved characters stand out as gentle, nurturing mentors for children: Baloo from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Winnie the Pooh from A.A. Milne’s delightful tales. Baloo serves as a lovable father figure and mentor to Mowgli, the young human boy raised in the jungle. He imparts crucial life lessons about the importance of simplicity, friendship, and enjoying life’s simple pleasures. Baloo’s unwavering support and encouragement of Mowgli remind young readers that true friends accept us for who we are, regardless of our differences.

Baloo the bear from Disney's The Jungle Book

In addition, Winnie the Pooh serves as that lovable bear with a love for honey. His adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, often accompanied by his closest companions, Piglet and Tigger, teach children about the significance of friendship, kindness, and the power of imagination. Pooh’s insatiable appetite for honey may be a humorous quirk, but it also strays away from the idea that bears are simply predatory creatures out to destroy mankind. Instead of the “man vs. nature” angle, children’s stories give their human characters, such as Milne’s Christopher Robin and Kipling’s Mowgli, a chance to simply enjoy nature.

In literature, bears are not mere creatures of the wild but symbols of the human experience itself. They challenge and inspire characters, embodying the primal and compassionate sides of our nature. They also imitate our historical narratives and spiritual beliefs, reminding us of our deep connection to the natural world. Whether they appear as fierce adversaries or gentle guardians, bears in literature continue to captivate readers, teaching us enduring lessons about the complexities of life and our place within it.

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