During the closing of my other long-running series, Andre Norton Reread, I mentioned a topic that has occupied me for some time. This is how Norton’s horse-savvy colleague, Lyn McConchie, portrays horses as opposed to magical and at least physically horse-like Ceplanians. I mentioned in my post that I had already seen this in the work of another favorite author, Anne McCaffrey. Dragonsdawn, when the horse trainers will become dragon riders. As soon as the fantasy creatures take control, the horses cool down.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons and excuses. Dragons are predators on steroids, and herds are their natural prey – and the “running beasts” of the early books are retrofitted to be somewhat mutant descendants of the horses of the original settlers. Of course, once you become a dragon rider, you have to leave your horses for their own safety. Otherwise they will eat.
Keplans are nowhere near as deadly as dragons. Their problem is that they are extremely intelligent, far beyond the human scale, and perhaps beyond, and despise anything but poor, silly, non-telepathic horses. Of course, as soon as our heroine is mentally attached to Kepliak, she will continue to use the pony she rides for much of the book, but will focus entirely on the big, bright, spectacular, very clever magical creatures.
This is not an unusual topic. Mercedes Lackey’s companions look like horses, but are actually magical creatures of great power and high intelligence. Horses are indispensable means of transportation in Valdemar, but mentally and emotionally simply cannot keep up.
I love the magic creatures standing next to the horse. I love the unicorn in Peter S. Beagle The last unicorn, and he was just as horrified as when the helpful wizard turned him into a man. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a dragon rider. I was a member of Team Pooka at Emma Bull’s War on oaksand if The key to Keplia it would have existed at the time, I would have loved to join the Keplian team as well. As for the Companions, well, I managed to finish with the equivalents of our world.
And that’s where I start pulling the whole train. For a long time, I immersed myself in the idea that horses are beautiful and everything, but Dragons, Capsians, and Companions are prettier. Bigger. Expert. Brighter. And much smarter. They know talk thee. Yes in your head, but they use words and continue the conversation.
I also see attraction and frustration. People are usually very verbal and deal a lot with the power of spoken language. I remember the often heated debate over whether sign language for the deaf is language at all. They speak one language, the opposition said. People talk, and that speech sets them apart from animals. (The reference to the deaf was not subtle.)
There is a long tradition of talking animals in the literature. Either they are supposed to do this, or they are endowed with human speech through magic or divine intervention. In wild animal tales, animals behave and speak as humans, with human culture and institutions. There may be a fox or a rabbit, a lion or a donkey in the story, but the point of view, we might say, is always human.
Real animals, of course, don’t talk, except for a few birds (and there’s a lot of debate about whether they understand what they’re saying – hence the word “parrot,” which means “repeating words or thoughts without understanding their meaning”). ). This is frustrating for people who want to know to explain things. Or explain things to them instead of guessing.
Therefore, in fantasy, the telepathic companion is a favorite tropical. The vocal apparatus may not be suitable for human speech, but conversation between minds solves the problem. Quite often at this time, because people value intelligence, or at least human-like intelligence, the imaginary animal will also be able to think and make sense on a human level.
I have no problem with that. It’s a fantasy. If we want to talk to a dragon, a unicorn, or a caplan, why not? They are great characters, lovingly and carefully drawn, and the relationship between them and their people is one of the best things in the books and stories they appear in.
They start to cause problems when a fantasy animal is compared to a non-fantasy animal and the non-fantasy animal suffers in the comparison. Oh, the author says through their characters, we love our usual animals, but they’re not as fantastic as our fantasy animals. They are poor, so boring, simple and mundane, and really not very bright. They can’t talk to us like our fantasy animals.
And then our fantasy characters throw out their poor stupid boring animals. Or use and exploit them, but deal with the fantasy animals as they treat the pony The key to Keplia. For all his good and faithful service, he receives a life of hard work. Then he gets down to the side of the road when the man he has served so loyally can ride the Kepleans.
I’ll give McConchie one thing. He takes to heart the passion of his mentor and co-worker, Norton, for alien intelligence, and tries to show us how alien the mind of Kepli is and how difficult it is to communicate with him. This is a beautiful world construction. But despite all his visible knowledge and attraction about horses, he doesn’t make the same effort with the horse.
Understanding of animal intelligence has evolved a lot in the decades since the novel was published. Science is developing a broader and deeper understanding of how and how much animals think. Plenty of research remains to be done, but the animals appear to be smarter than we thought. It may not be as smart as ours, but it is there, sometimes to a much greater extent than we guessed.
Horses were generally rated as not very shiny. Prey animals; they are frightened by the shadows. They live in the moment. They don’t think ahead. You can love and admire them for what they are, but when it comes to basic clevernesses, say, they haven’t been achieved with dogs. And for fantasy purposes, they can’t talk to you in your head. They can’t do it.
Such is McConchie’s horse. Sweet, loyal, hardworking. No question. But not much comes to mind. Not like the snaps of the Keplans snap flying.
So, of course, when the protagonist gets to know the magical animals, he continues to transport the horse, early, often, and every day, but never tries to find out if his expanding mental abilities would really work with him. He doesn’t even think about it. From the beginning, he came to the conclusion that he could not.
The same thing happens with McCaffrey’s proto-dragon riders. They are expert and dedicated horse trainers, but horses have no inner life to talk about. Surely it is dangerous for them to be near the dragons and they are completely upset by the huge flying predators. However, the instructors are not sorry enough. Maybe it’s not sad enough that horses are locked in front of them by their relationship with dragons. No, this meme all over the internet, the guy walks down the street with his girlfriend and turns away from him to whistle at a passing (and almost identical) random human woman.
In the dragon universe, people who are not or cannot be attached to the big ones can take the consolation prize of one or more fire lizards. That’s really cool, and I wouldn’t mind myself, but there are horses on this planet. McCaffrey was a horseman, very much so; he lived on a horse farm in Ireland. But even Piemur’s pony zoid is called Stupid, and everything but bright. They play for comic relief, not as real companions.
Maybe as we better understand cognition of animals and learn to respect it more, we will have more respect for our animals in the real world in a fantasy environment. Be sure to bring in the dragons and the Kepleans, but also give the horses their reward. Find a way to balance between the glittering new fantasy animal and the boring, old real animal – who isn’t boring at all if we just let ourselves see it.
Judit Tarr is a rider for life. He supports his habit by writing fantasy and science fiction works, as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as e-books. He wrote a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. He lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzan, a cat, and a blue-eyed dog.