Sunday, September 18, 2011

Horses in fantasy

Horses are common in fantasy, and have as much of a mystical appeal as swords. When I was a kid, I loved reading horse books – My Friend Flicka and The Black Stallion. Horses feature prominently in mythology as well – the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are often identified by the colors of their mounts, and Odin was said to ride the eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

The most well-known horse in fantasy may be Shadowfax from The Lord of the Rings, but there are dozens of others, such as the white horses in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. The horses are telepathic beings called Companions that choose certain humans.

But because horses are so often haloed in this way, I enjoy seeing them hostile and dangerous. The Keplians in Andre Norton’s Witch World are red-eyed beasts that lure humans to their deaths, though even they were civilized in The Key of the Keplian, when a girl saved a Keplian mare and her foal.

I’d love to see ugly horses as well. With horns or tusks, maybe, or natural bridles in the form of tendrils sprouting from their heads. Said tendrils would sink into the flesh of a rider, linking the two creatures via nervous system and meaning that commands could be given mentally and instantaneously.

They could have sharp, slashing blades growing from their bodies – like the Hippae in Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass. When people ride these horses, they’re forced to sit perfectly upright so they don’t get impaled on the spikes jutting from the back of each horse’s neck. As for the Hippae themselves, they’re intelligent and vicious – one review described them as being “velociraptor-like”.

Armored horses are also an option. They might grow flat close-fitting plates of keratin along their backs and sides for protection – though that would also reduce their speed and they might have broader hooves to carry the excess weight. They just wouldn’t have the “champagne-glass ankles” of thoroughbreds.

In the world of Eden, I like to characterize lands by the different types of horses they use. Dagre, in Before the Storm, is the closest to what we’d consider normal, so their horses are ordinary too, but the only breed of horse in Iternum is the palomino.

And Lunacy has intelligent but wild horses, which prey on people. Natives of Lunacy ride anything but horses, because there’s too much of a risk of the wild horses trying to impersonate tame ones, or even breed with them.

In Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a humorous parody of the cliches of fantasy, she mentions horses being treated as living motorbikes. That’s something a writer needs to take into account if the horses are covering miles and miles of rough terrain without rest or food. And if they’re a different breed of horse which is capable of this – like the sandsteeds in A Feast for Crows – it might be more realistic to give them a weakness too.

What are your favorite horses or horse stories?

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Anonymous said...

Don't forget the Mares of Diomedes who fed on human flesh.

Anonymous said...

Or the Hoyhnhnm in Gulliver's Travels.

Anonymous said...

Or the Hoyhnhnm in Gulliver's Travels.

Randall said...

P. C. Hodgell's Kencyr series presents us with Rathorns: armoured, carnivorous horse-like creatures. They don't like being ridden and tend to eat anyone who tries. The hero of the series does manage to ride one, but it takes a long time and a lot of work to manage.

Marian Perera said...

ralfast - One of the Labors of Hercules, right? I wonder what the mares' teeth looked like.

Randall - Thanks for mentioning that series, because the Rathorns sound fascinating. I'll keep an eye out for the books.

Claudine Gueh said...

I love Athansor, the mysterious horse guardian of Peter Lake, from Mark Helprin's 'Winter's Tale.'

east midlands airport said...

Black Beauty was always my favourite. Must watch it with my daughter sometime, not really my sons or husbands cup of tea tho sadly!

Anonymous said...

Personally Kelpies and Nightmares were the mythical creatures I loved the most, though I do think any sort of faerie horses would be interesting.

Marian Perera said...

Do you mean the night mares in the Xanth novels? I liked Piers Anthony's system of naming them after the seas of the Moon - Mare Imbrium was one, IIRC.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks Claudine, made a note of that one too! And I just realized I forgot another great horse - the vain and lazy Bree in C. S. Lewis's The Horse And His Boy. Bree was a great character. I was actually sorry to see his reformation at the end.

east, I liked the book up until Ginger's death. :(