Real horses or Fantasy Horses?

Here’s a post by Judith Tarr at tor.com: Why Do Writers Abandon the Ordinary Horse for the Extraordinary Fantasy Animal?

I actually like real horses very much! I’ve got real horses all over the place in my books, though of course often enough just as a mode of transportation, not as animals with personalities. There’s only so much room to develop characters in a novel and sometimes it’s just not convenient to develop any of the horses. That’s true even though I certainly enjoy the horses in other authors’ novels, such as, oh, Tsornin in The Blue Sword or Copperhead in the Sharing Knife series.

In the Tuyo world, a few of the horses have more personality. I’m sure you’ve noticed that horses are also used to show something about the Ugaro vs Lau cultures: the former always apply gendered pronouns to animals and the Lau seldom do, though every now and then they will. That’s for both domesticated and wild animals. Did you ever notice that neither tends to give animals actual names? I’m sure the cultural reasons for that are different for Ugaro vs Lau, but no one has discussed this, so it hasn’t come up.

Anyway, of course my one true fantasy horse is the fire horse in The White Road of the Moon. What a creature he is! Both when he’s alive and later, when he’s a ghost and becomes a real character. He was a lot of fun to write. I don’t think there was a real reason I put a fantasy horse in this novel. I threw the term “fire horse” on the page pretty much at random and then came up with what fire horses were actually like as I went along, then brought one in as a minor character because it was convenient to the plot. No matter what reasons Judith Tarr may mention in her post, there really wasn’t a big reason for deciding to put a fantasy horse in the story. The dog, now, he was crucial.

So what does Judith have to say? Let’s take a look …

Ah! She’s talking about the attraction of the intelligent, verbal magical horse-like companion — and she’s not pleased with how regular animals are devalued when magical ones appear:

I start to have a problem when the fantasy animal is compared with a non-fantasy animal, and the non-fantasy animal suffers in the comparison. Oh, says the author through their characters, we love our regular animals, but they’re …so dull and plain and ordinary …. They can’t talk to us the way our fantasy animals can. And then our fantasy characters dump their poor stupid boring animals. Or use them and exploit them … the way the pony is treated in The Key of the Keplian. For all his good and loyal service, he gets a life of hard labor. Then he’s dropped by the wayside when the human he’s served so loyally is permitted to ride the Keplians. I will give McConchie one thing. She takes to heart her mentor and collaborator Norton’s fascination with alien intelligence, and tries to show us how alien the Keplian mind is and how much of a stretch it is to communicate with it. That’s nice worldbuilding. But for all her visible knowledge of and affection for horses, she doesn’t make the same effort with the horse.

That may well be a justifiable protest. Ordinary horses are indeed very cool. Now I sort of want to write a story where there are both magic fantasy horses and ordinary horses and both are valued by the same character.

A real horse, one presumes, but nice enough to be a fantasy horse.

You know who did something like this? Dean Koontz. What was the story with the Golden Retriever? Ah, right, Watchers. I wonder if anyone else specifically noticed that scene at the end where the people settle down with the special super-smart verbal Einstein and also a perfectly ordinary female Golden? Someone asks Einstein if it bothers him that the female Golden is an ordinary dog, not super-smart, and he says, essentially, No, no, intelligence isn’t everything! and dashes off to play with her. I liked that moment a lot, and in that scene Koontz is doing exactly what Judith Tarr wants authors to do when they include a magic horse in their stories.

Koontz always does a good job with his dogs.

In fact, Koontz includes dogs as important characters a lot, including a ghost dog in the Odd Thomas series. I don’t think I specifically had that dog in mind when I put a ghost dog in The White Road of the Moon — no, I’m sure I didn’t. The metaphysics is so different and ghosts are everywhere. Very different. But I certainly did like Koontz’s ghost dog.

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9 thoughts on “Real horses or Fantasy Horses?”

  1. The biggest example that comes to mind for magical not-horses is Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series. When I was a teenager I found out that a family friend grew up with Lackey. Apparently they’d put on plays for their parents, and no matter what the play was about Mercedes always wanted to be a talking horse.

    But, Scorpio Races values both its magic and nonmagic horses – the whole plot is about a regular horse competing with the magical ones. They don’t talk though. I think Tamora Pierce shows appreciation for nonmagical animals, too, in spite of having some talking ones. I like that her talking animals still think differently than people.

  2. You’re right, SarahZ, that’s one more excellent thing about The Scorpio Races. And funny anecdote about Mercedes Lackey! In her place, I probably would have wanted to be a talking dog or cat.

  3. One of my favorite books from a pretty long time ago was Judith Tarr’s A Wind in Cairo, where the spoiled prince is turned into a horse and becomes a better person for it. From what I remember, Judith Tarr wrote from the point of view of the man/horse and melded it wonderfully.

  4. One complaint about real horses in fantasy is that they seldom cause trouble. I note that having a horse cause trouble is difficult. If nothing much is happening, it feels like a waste of time. If something is happening, it feels like the hand of the author showing.

  5. Bansh! Bansh acts like a real horse 99% of the time. But she runs without tiring, needs little food, and occasionally runs up into the sky… Plus I still gripe that she is drawn as a stallion on the book cover.

  6. CJC’s Rusalka trilogy has real horses that act like real horses, including being trouble sometimes. And loyal to their riders.

  7. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen authors use horse misbehavior as a way of showing characters’ level of experience (how well or poorly they handle things), but can’t remember specifics.

  8. In the Paksenarrion trilogy, Paks gets a horse that’s been abused and has to do quite a bit of careful training to rehabilitate him. Not SFF, but in Gillian Bradshaw’s Island of Ghosts, the horses are real (obviously, since it’s not a fantasy novel), well-drawn, AND there’s another badly treated horse that is rehabilitated. In just a few sentences. In at least the latter case, the horse’s ill treatment furnishes characterization (of a villain, of course).

    I think that’s one way to handle horses causing trouble well — use the trouble to build characterization, either of the protagonist or a secondary character, through good handling of the animal, or of a villain, through bad handling. Oh, you know what, I just remembered, I did that with Lorellan’s poor stallion. Not that he had an opportunity to cause trouble.

    Bansh is indeed an excellent horse. And it’s always frustrating when a cover artist doesn’t know how to present animals properly.

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