The most famous horse of the lot would have to be the hollow, wooden, Trojan Horse referred to in Homer’s Odyssey and in Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid from which thirty Greek warriors, led by Odysseus, crept out from the belly of on a moonless night, starting the total decimation of Troy and its gullible citizens.
Everyone has their favorite equine character and mine is Boxer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Boxer is a big draught horse and is used as an allegory for the Russian working class after the 1917 revolution. He works hard to make the farm a commercial and viable success after the human owners are expelled, follows all dictates faithfully, leads his fellow animals into battle against two-legged enemies, but is eventually purged by the pigs and their savage guard dogs. The description of Boxer being carted off to the Vet hospital (slaughter house) is powerful and the mental image of my other favourite horsy character, Benjamin, the cynical Donkey, galloping up to the other assembled animals to try and make them see the reality of the huge betrayal taking place, is indelible.
Donkeys and Mules
One of Benjamin’s utterances after the animals take over the farm is: “Life will go on as it has always gone on — that is badly!” It’s reminiscent of quotes by another cynical, though less intelligent donkey, Eeore in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Adults wise enough to read the various adventures of Christopher Robin’s slow thinking but lovable Pooh Bear to their offspring will revel in the pessimistic, depressive utterances by the tatty, grey donkey who is in the delicious grip of anhedonia.
Some may take umbrage at my inclusion of donkeys into the equus ferus caballus family. My excuse is in copulation. If a donkey mates with a female horse, the progeny is an infertile mule, which tends to be even more intractable than Benjamin, but has the same devotion to duty as had Boxer. This character evolved into Francis the Talking Mule by David Stern, a story from the early 1950s. Francis became a five-installment comedy movie series and was the progenitor of the still syndicated, palomino TV star, Mr. Ed.
Two of the most poignant but awful horse stories are in John Steinbeck’s novella, The Red Pony, which was published in episodes in 1933. The main characters are 10-year-old Jody and Billy Buck the ranch hand. I dare anyone to keep a dry eye when the red pony, Gabilan, dies of pneumonia, or when a mare, Nelly, has trouble foaling and Billy has to kill her and cut out the colt that he has previously promised to the boy.
Shadowfax, Red Hare and Black Beauty
Fans of Tolkien will be raising their hands by now insisting that the horses from Lord of the Rings be included with Gandalf’s stallion, Shadowfax, the lord of all horses, leading the stampede. Following closely are Arod ridden by Legolas, Brego by Aragorn and Arroch by Glorifindel. Neighing in their dust is Felarof, who understands the utterances of men. In the valiant rear come the more prosaic Hobbit steeds like Bill, Bumpkin and Fatty Lumpkin.
Because it’s one of Asia’s most popular novels, I must include the four famous horses in the 600-year-old Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. Readers will readily recall Lu Bu’s mount, Red Hare, the horse that “was fiery red from mane to tail and that neighs and howls as if leaping into the air and plunging into the sea”. They’ll remember the huge leap across the flooded Tan River by Dilu carrying his rider Liu Bei, desperately outpacing their enemies. They’ll picture again Cao Cao on the tall and the magnificent Flying Lightning as he returns victorious from battle. Then there is Shadowless, Cao Cao’s battle steed, a horse so fast that it casts no shadow, and who was finally, tragically killed when an arrow pierced its eye.
Few modern horse novels can compete with the first book in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses. Set in 1949 Texas, when horses were still a valuable and necessary commodity in many rural areas of America. It has to be one the most powerful coming-of-age stories ever written as it follows the often harrowing journey on horseback of three teenagers from Texas into the lawlessness of the Mexican border and back again. One boy is executed in a Mexican prison. One returns older and wiser to his home in Texas. John Grady Cole finds and forcibly relinquishes a Mexican lover and becomes one of literature’s honourable loners.
If you’re like me and occasionally like to have a few tears rolling onto your page or Kindle screen, then you can’t pass on Anna Sewell’s 1877 classic, Black Beauty, which will make you weep about the fate of horses in Victorian London. Black Beauty, Rob Roy, Ginger, Merrylegs and Captain probably started off our fascination with animal personification in literature.
For more information on Bookworm go to bookwormhanoi.com. Besides their original store on Chau Long, Bookworm have a second, smaller shop in Nghi Tam Village in the West Lake area. Located behind the Sheraton and in the same alley as VilaTom Coffee, it can be found at Lane 1/28 Au Co, Lang Nghi Tam, Tay Ho