Of Noble Steeds

viggohidalgoI saw the end of Hidalgo the other day. I have to say that, even though it isn’t the greatest movie ever, I really do like it. Mortensen’s character’s relationship with his horse is a thing I instinctually identify with; indeed, its something that a lot of people identify with. Domesticated animals and our relationships with them play a large role in many of our lives. They are as important, often, as our relationships with other people and, indeed, often our animals’ welfare can be seen as more important than the welfare of those humans we dislike or have no relationship with (cue Mortensen’s throaty growl: “Nobody hurts my horse.”). We think of them as our family, as our friends, and relentlessly anthropomorphize them. They are characters in our lives, and important ones, too.

It’s just a little bit odd, then, that fantasy novels so rarely depict animals as the real, well-rounded characters we know them to be. Granted, the story is often not about the hero’s horse, but rather the hero’s attempts to destroy the Evil One/rescue his lover/attain revenge, and it may seem as though incorporating their steeds as characters is a waste of valuable time. Truthfully enough, this might be the case in many situations. I’m not that certain, though, that this situation comes up as often as one might think. Perhaps you needn’t personify the horse or dog or what-have-you, but that certainly doesn’t mean you need to objectify it. It’s a living creature; it should get the same consideration any other random minor human character gets, from a shopkeeper to a barmaid to a nameless soldier.

Part of me feels like some of this objectification is a side-effect of our own modern society. Animals aren’t part of our lives on a daily basis, so we don’t always consider them as ‘alive.’ I have encountered a disturbing number of people who purchase dogs and treat them like fashion accessories, then can’t understand why the dogs are out of their minds with frustration and boredom. It’s because they’re alive! Our mechanical world is accustomed to conveyances that do whatever we say, whenever we say it and toys that turn on and off at a whim – no wonder we don’t always think that animals can be characterized. In pre-industrial societies (which includes most fantasy settings), animals and interacting with animals was a daily occurrence. They were required for a lot of the work that needed to be done in both farms and cities. Granted, these people didn’t have the overly-sentimentalized visions of pets and animals that we often do – they were as much tools as companions – but they were probably more aware that animals had attitudes and characteristics that separated them from mere objects.

Some of my favorite moments in some fantasy novels involve a character or characters’ interactions with animals. I love how hard Sam finds it to send the pony, Bill, away outside the gates of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. I love how Kvothe introduces himself to his horse in The Name of the Wind – with a mix of kindness and caution – even though he turns around and sells it shortly afterwards. One of the best is Haplo’s relationship with his dog in Weiss and Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle, which is very nuanced. It is not by accident that the dog winds up being a part of Haplo’s own soul.

Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that animals can – and should – be used as important and interesting characters in fantasy settings, and not just in the ‘my horse talks and isn’t that awesome’ sense that permeates all that young adult fantasy stuffed aimed at girls. They are living creatures that can share in the story and enhance the main character, just like anybody else. Just like our animals do in real life.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on January 7, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I love Mouse, and even Mister, in The Dresden Files. They’re great supporting characters, Mouse especially. They’ve got personality! It’s great!

  2. While I tend to agree with the idea that animals should be seen as characters and to not do that is at the best of times an opportunity missed and at the worst times makes the characters look unsympathetic or even psychopathic in nature.

    However, I think a lot of the use of animals in some fantasy (Wheel of Time comes to mind) is proper and what you would expect given that fantasy is often meant to be a sort of alternative historical world and through our history we have often treated animals as tools more than as companions. Horses were extra muscle we used in hard labour and while it might be nice to have a good relationship with your horse and enjoy all her ups and downs in personality you still were more interested in if she was healthy, if the shoes were all on, signs of exertion etc. An experienced horseman would view horses in quite a callous way from how we today enjoy horses (large pets basically), they were prime tools meant to be used and they were expensive tools so it was far more important that the tool was good at the work at hand, not fun to be around.

    Anyway, didn’t mean to ramble but it is also important to note that Viggo’s character is quite different to what the norm would have been (especially a few decades further back in time), and while it is nice for such interaction it might not always be natural or fitting.

    • That’s fair enough. I’m not necessarily saying that their interaction with them ought to be overly sentimental (I certainly agree that horsemen of old saw horses as tools), but that part of using the tools was being aware of their behaviors and identity as living creatures with individual characteristics. Take Kvothe, for example–he rides the hell out of that horse and sells it immediately afterwards, but he also treats it like a living thing. I feel that, in the same sense as you might treat a coffee barrista and a taxi-driver as ‘tools’ in your daily life, so also would animals be treated. Yes, the horse is there to take you from point A to point B, but you don’t want it to throw you, you don’t want it to run away, and you need to make sure it’s willing to obey you. These things require a degree of personal interaction with the creature which can be used to enhance certain scenes.

      • Yeah, I think we are sort of on the same page, it is easy for a modern human who might not have even ridden a horse once to fail to grasp the interaction necessary and perhaps portray it a bit like jumping on a bike.

        But at the same time the loving interaction of Viggo’s character Frank with his horse might not be the natural reaction either. To me, that is a sign of Frank’s love for that horse and for the art of horse-training; he is a man seduced by the thought of the horse just like there are horse-lovers and dog-lovers etc. these days but in many ways he is closer to a modern appreciator of animals than what you would expect.

        Mat’s reaction to horses in Wheel of Time on the other hand is perhaps closer to what you would expect from a man used to working with horses, especially a few centuries back in time. He expects horses to behave and that is it; their behaviour should be mandated by the rider and any little personality behaviour might be nice but it isn’t important. He looks for hoof-cuts, feel of the tendons, muscle build, spine curvature, gloss of coat etc. not a lack of grumpy behaviour (good riding horses can still be grumpy when riderless). In many ways he looks at a horse how he would look at a servant, it is still a living being but the important qualities aren’t necessarily connected to the character of the living being and how much of a friend he will be with it.

        But as you say it is a great opportunity to add a little empathy to your character (or lack thereof if that is what you want) and increase the feel of realism to your story.

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