We’ll start with a definition of the first term in the title: What is a familiar? Per Merriam-Webster, it is “a spirit often embodied in an animal and held to attend and serve or guard a person.” And according to the Teen Vogue article, “What a Witch’s Familiar Really Is,” there is no limit to what these animal companions can be, though the common trope of cats still holds true:
Can any animal be a witch’s familiar? Sort of, yes! Insects, cats, mice, rats, toads, ravens, and dogs are traditionally familiars. However, it depends upon how the witch and the animal connect.
LISA STARDUST from “What a Witch’s Familiar Really Is”
In terms of magical connection, I would not say my dog, Eleanor, is a true familiar, but she often knows that my children are awake before I do. She’ll rouse, shake her ears, and jump off the bed. Moments later, my toddler will shuffle in asking for breakfast, or I’ll check the baby monitor and see my 10-month-old staring at the camera with her signature “come get me” face.
Eleanor is not a guard dog. She is 12 pounds of chihuahua-miniature poodle mix, with ears bigger than she knows what to do with, and a haughty nature that constantly seeks pets. But she’s observant, and she’s sensitive. She is patient with my children and very attuned to their sleep schedules. Will she guard me against bloodthirsty enemies or demons? Eh, probably not (especially if they bribe her with food), but I adore her spunky personality just the same.
Familiars & Animal Companions In Literature
Familiars and animal companions in literature do more than pets in the mundane, real world. Rarely is an animal companion just there. The animal has much more agency. And whether a familiar to a witch, a shape-shifting daemon, or an animal that announces a powerful being’s presence, they are important to the overall story, and beloved by readers.
Below is a list of books that include familiars or animal companions in some capacity. A couple of the below examples are widely known, but I wanted to include examples that are recent releases or new discoveries for readers. Hopefully one of the below companions entices you to add a book to your TBR.
Middle Grade and YA Books With Animal Companions
Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, Translated by Emily Balistrieri
We’ll start with one of the classic familiars — the cat Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service. When half-witch Kiki turns 13, it’s time to follow the age-old witch’s tradition of leaving home to live in a new town for a year. Jiji is a wise-cracking black cat and Kiki’s very best friend. This is the book the Hiyao Miyazaki film is based on, and is just as magical as the film.
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
Arguably the most popular familiar in children’s literature, the daemon Pantalaimon is the external expression of Lyra’s soul. Because Lyra is young, Pantalaimon can change shapes into various animals, though as adults the daemons take on one form of animal. The main character Lyra is cast into an epic conflict involving mystical Dust, kidnappers, and control over people’s very ability to make choices.
The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix
Another classic familiar in children’s literature, Mogget is a shapeshifting companion, much like Pantalaimon. Mogget is the bound form of Yrael and usually appears as a small, white cat, but he can also appear as an albino dwarf.
The first in the trilogy, Sabriel, follows a character by the same name as she tries to help her father, the Abhorsen, who’s trapped in Death. Sabriel meets Mogget as a white cat, and discovers that Mogget serves the Abhorsen, though not willingly. Unlike other companions on this list, Mogget is bound to help Sabriel, though very much prefers freedom. This is a familiar you don’t want to turn your back on.
The Witchlands series by Susan Dennard
Blueberry is the name of the giant mountain bat that guards and protects a young character named Owl. This animal companion isn’t prominent until the third book in the series, titled Bloodwitch, but the series is a fantastic, epic fantasy adventure, and meeting Blueberry is well worth the wait.
For those interested in starting at the beginning with Truthwitch (which you should), it follows best friends and threadsisters Safi and Iseult, both born with a type of “witchery” that sets them apart from the rest. Iseult is a threadwitch, able to see the emotional threads connecting the world, and Safi is a truthwitch, who can tell truth from lie. Set in a lush and vast world, Safi and Iseult find themselves in an empire-wide conflict, finding powerful friends and foes at every turn.
Adult Books (of Various Genres) With Animal Companions
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
The most important thing you need to know is Bad is a Very Good Boy. Short for Sindbad, Bad is January Scaller’s faithful dog and often times her only friend during her loneliest moments living as the ward of the wealthy and enigmatic Mr. Locke. January soon discovers a book that gives answers to questions on who she is and where she comes from. This tale is a magical portal fantasy adventure, and one of my very favorite books of all time.
Unlike other familiars and animal companions on this list, Bad does not talk nor does he have special powers. His greatest asset is being a Very Good Boy and extremely loyal and protective of January.
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor
In a near-future Africa, Sankofa walks to find out how she became the Adopted Daughter of Death. Before Sankofa, she was Fatima, a normal girl without the deathly power she now can wield. With a glance, a town can fall. With a touch, she can kill. And as she walks, her companion fox follows as a wary distance, and she names the fox Movenpick.
Those that fear Sankofa mark her presence when they notice the fox. Seeing Movenpick puts villagers on alert, giving Sankofa a wide berth and anything she asks for. This is a brilliant science fiction novella that is striking and emotional.
The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
This epic fantasy of mystery, magic and revolution has a few examples of animal-type companions. In The Bone Shard Daughter, animal constructs that maintain law and order are created from bone shard magic. Lin is the emperor’s daughter, yet he does not recognize her as his heir. Lin resolves to learn bone shard magic to claim her birthright and save her people.
Mephisolou is the mysterious animal companion to the smuggler Jovis, who becomes known as a child savior after rescuing a child from a day in which the Empire takes bone shards from subjects’ skulls (ouch much?). Mephisolou also gives Jovis supernatural strength, which is always a bonus.
Animal Companions in Short Stories and Graphic Novels
“Save, Salve, Shelter” by Essa Hansen
Companions: Baby Animal Foundlings
There are so many great animal companions in short fiction, and I will never stop raving about this story by Essa Hansen, about a scientist exploring a ruined Earth, gathering baby animals into pockets and nursing them back to health. This scientist is not always successful in her rescue attempts, making for brief moments of wrenching heartbreak. Yet by the end of the story, as the scientist searches for the last shuttles leaving Earth, she has amassed a group of animal companions that are fully grown and brutal in their loyalty. Read this story!
Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Companion: Ren Mormorian
Ren is main character in Liu’s sprawling series about an alternate matriarchal 1900s Asia. While Ren’s true allegiance isn’t always known, he is a companion to the characters Maika Halfwolf and Kippa. Like most cats in this world, Ren follows the world of the poets.
I have been meaning to catch up on the latest issues of Monstress and am always gasping at the beauty of the art and brutality of the world these characters must survive.
More Articles on Familiars and Animal Companions
It would take many, many more words to cover all that literature has to offer for animal companions. Definitely share your favorite familiars and animal companions on Book Riot’s social media! Who would you want protecting you as you go through your life? Or is there a familiar you hope never to cross? You can find more animal companions in literary fantasy here or you can read about pets in fiction in this list
There is an abundance of furry friends and creatures in literature. Hopefully you’ll find the familiar that connects with you best as you journey on your own adventures. Meanwhile, Eleanor looks at me from the couch, wondering when the children will go down for a nap so she can sleep in peace.