This past week I’ve read two novels which feature a horse as the narrator, and I thought it might be fun to consider them together.
The first, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, is something of a re-read for me: I read a Great Illustrated Classics edition of this several times as a child, finding the historical details I had to puzzle over just as interesting as imagining what it was like to be a horse. Beauty is a horse’s autobiography, from his foaling years to a happy retirement, with years of hardship and comfort in between. Growing up I didn’t know a blessed thing about horses or the care thereof, so this was an extremely educational story for me. Beauty passes from master to master, and some are ignorant to the point of cruelty. In every chapter the reader learns about the proper care and treatment of horses, but as this is a book written to edify youths, there are also more general moral lessons. When one character tries to excuse the damage done to two horses disabled by a reckless groom on the account of ignorance, another harrumphs that ignorance is just as good as wickedness.
Next was a new-to-me title in Richard Adams’ Traveller. I recognized the name of General Lee’s horse, of course – -what self-respecting Civil War buff wouldn’t? — and was so amused by the premise that I had to read it. Traveller is a memoir of the Civil War through the viewpoint of a horse, who Lee adopts early during the conflict. Traveller speaks in an obvious southern dialect, and provides a unique if limited perspective on the war; the memoir is delivered in musing memories to the barn cat that keeps Traveller company while Marse Robert is attending to his duties as a college president after the war. He doesn’t understand what the War thing is, or why men were so excited to attend it, and as a rule he prefers being well away from the bangs and booms. He endures them, though, because he loves General Lee, a man who he regards as being part horse: Marse Robert must be, to understand them so well. Traveller’s thoughts on the war are informed by what he overhears from men and horses talking; the book is peopled with an abundance of other equines, many reflecting their masters’ own personality. Speaking of, Traveller has his own dramatis personae, referring to Lee’s generals not by their names, but by the horse’s private name for them: Ol’ Pete, Cap-in-the-eyes, Jine-the-Cavalry. Although Adams occasionally inserts narrative at large milestones, the reader had better have some general idea as to the main battles of the Army of Northern Virginia, or he will be a bit confused. Traveller is only a horse and can’t tell you he’s just witnessed the Battle of Fredericksburg, but the moderately informed reader can figure out the when-and-where, and anticipate what is about to happen — as we do when “Cap-in-the-eyes” rides off into the dark, never to be seen alive again, at least not by Traveller. For the Civil War reader, this is a unique story, one especially of interest to those who cherish the memory of Lee and enjoy seeing his human side — the quiet man struggling with heart issues, faced with fighting an industrial army several times his size with enthusiastic but ragged country peasants, with little support from his own government, run as it is by feckless, self-absorbed patricians.
Taken together, I have to confess to liking Traveller a bit more, given its novelty and gregarious subject.