Wednesday 6 July 2011

God took a handful of the South Wind… by Katherine Roberts

An Arabian horse in the desert. Antoine-Jean Gros, c. 1810 in the public domain
 …and from it formed a horse, saying: "I create thee, O Arabian! To thy forelock I bind victory in battle, on thy back I set a rich spoil, and a treasure in thy loins. I establish thee as one of the glories of the earth. I give thee flight without wings."

These famous words from Bedouin legend bring the horse prancing into time. And since the main reason I write historical fiction is because it contains horses rather than cars, I thought it fitting to write my first post about their place in history.

My personal definition of history is any society that uses horse power. That gives me quite a lot of years to plunder… from the first time someone climbed on a horse’s back (or, even earlier than this, harnessed up a horse to a chariot) right through to World War One, in which horses were still used in battle, as dramatised recently by Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. I know horses did not vanish entirely after that. The police still use them for crowd control, and you can find working horses in other parts of the world. But you can write a book set in contemporary times without mentioning a single horse, whereas if you tried writing something set in the 18th century without so much as a horse-drawn carriage this would seem rather strange. I actually wonder if there will be horses around in 100 years’ time, or if they will be as much a myth to our descendants as the Bedouin legend is to us. Already, they have vanished from my locality, the riding school I remember as child being replaced by smart barn conversions for second home owners - I find this a bit sad.

So I must plunge back in time to find my horses. And since I am also a fantasy author (I write fantasy for the horses, too!), I’m never happier than when I can mix magic, history and horses in the same story, which I managed to do in several of my Seven Fabulous Wonders books, although by the time I reached the building of the pyramids I had lost the horses. For my next book, I journeyed forward a bit to 300BC and had enormous fun writing “I am the Great Horse”, telling the story of Alexander the Great from the horse’s mouth. There isn’t as much fantasy in the pages of that one as you will find in my other books, but I still managed to squeeze in a magical “horse bond” between Alexander, Bucephalas and his groom Charmeia, also a few amazon warriors, and several ghosts (both human and horse!)

A few years ago, I proposed a novel about the first ridden horse and drew this timeline to show how horses entered history (it's not very neat – I don’t do neat when I am in a creative mood – but if you click on the picture to enlarge it, I hope you can see how it might inspire a story.)

What I find interesting about this sketch is that there are two distinct strands:
1. Historical - where the first horses (a small, tough, wiry breed) lived on the plains of central Asia and were tamed, probably in the Bronze Age, by the ancestors of Genghis Khan.
2. Mythical - where God takes a handful of the South Wind and creates the beautiful Arabian, which (so the story goes) he then gifts to Abraham’s son Ishmael, who has been driven out into the desert to start his own tribe.

The historical strand is based on archaeology, not terribly interesting to a fantasy muse, which might be why that book never got written... it eventually mutated into a book about Genghis Khan, which never got published. But if you want to read a beautiful historical novel about the steppe horses, then try I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by by Diane Wilson, a young adult novel set in the time of Kubilai Khan.

The Bedouin legend is much more romantic, and appeals to me as a fantasy author because it has a spiritual/magical basis. I even started writing that book. My publisher didn’t like the idea, however, so it is only half a manuscript at the moment. Should I finish it? Even I can see it would not be an obvious best-seller. On the other hand, it contains my three passions so might make a half decent story… one day.

In the meantime, which strand of my diagram is right? History or myth? The Arabian (and all our modern breeds) have two fewer chromosomes than the wild Przewalski's steppe horse. What happened to those two chromosomes? Did the Przewalski horse mutate at some stage? Was the Arabian the result of selective breeding and environment on the early steppe horse? Or a completely different type of horse altogether, perhaps the horse of the desert mentioned in the Bedouin legend? The Arabian is undoubtedly more beautiful than its northern cousin, and nobody seeing the two side by side could possibly mistake them for the same animal:


Przewalski's horse

As with so much historical research, it seems we need to look in more than one place to root out the true origins of the horse. I turned to the Bible, certain I'd find at least a couple on Noah's Ark. But no, horses are not mentioned that far back. Donkeys, yes... but donkeys are a different animal. (A challenge for you: where is the first mention of the horse in the Bible?)

From my reading of Genesis, it would appear that myth and history agree, and somewhere between 2,000BC (the approximate date of Abraham) and 1,500BC could indeed be about right for when the horse first entered into partnership with man and gave us “flight without wings.” Which means my period for historical novels lies anywhere between 2000BC and the First World War… hmmm... better get back to the writing!


Caroline Lawrence said...

I know the answer: the first mention of horses in the Bible is Genesis 47:17, where Joseph's brothers trade livestock for grain. Do I get a gold star? lol. BTW, both my periods, the Romans and the Wild West are horse powered, but I cannot get on with horses. So I'd love a blog about how you do practical research with them!

adele said...

Well done Kath for a truly fascinating post. I was going to cudgel my brain about Biblical horses so I'm grateful for Caroline's comment. Lots of horses in Greek myths etc. Phoebus Apollo etc and the Horses of the Sun. Also all over Homer, naturally. Hector's body being pulled along behind Achilles' chariot etc. I sat on a horse once when I was about 11 and was so terrified that I've never gone near one since...but I love the IDEA of them! Thank goodness for books...and Westerns.

adele said...

Please mentally delete at least two of the 'etcs' above!

Mary Hoffman said...

yes, thanks, Caroline, for letting the rest of us off the hook!

And thanks to Katherine for what I knew would be a fascinating post. I have a deep respect and admiration for horses (I used to ride as a young teenager) but am rather afraid of them.

So I appreciate their beauty from a distance now.

And I am The Great Horse will always be one one my favourite books. (Glad to think there woudl be plenty of horses in Arthur's time!)

catdownunder said...

And now please could you do the same for us cats?

Katherine Langrish said...

Wonderful, poetic post, Katherine! And Caroline,
Susan Price recently wrote a great piece on her blog about suffering in the interests of historical research as she took a riding course to get a better insight into the reiving Sterkarm clan...

Katherine Langrish said...

(or is it spelled 'rieving'?)

Katherine said...

Caroline, you DO get a gold star! And a bit later in Genesis 49:17 Joseph's father Jacob mentions the first ridden horse in his last words to his sons, when he compares Dan to a snake at the side of the road "that strikes the horse's heel so its rider is thrown off backwards". So clearly Jacob's family were familiar with the concept of a horse and rider (Having met the Ishmaelites, maybe?)

Yes, Adele, there are lots of fabulous horses in the Greek myths... which also end up in some of my books!

Thank you, Mary... sadly "I am the Great Horse" has just gone out of print in the UK, but it is still in print in the US.

Thanks, Kath - yes, I can recommend Susan Price's fabulous Sterkarm post about riding for research. I didn't need to do this, having worked in horseracing before becoming an author. (I used to ride three horses a day, six days a week, sometimes on the gallops - muck them out, groom them, take them to the races, plait their manes, get kicked by them, fall off them, love them, curse them, and cry when they fell and had to be put down... quite enough research!)

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for my gold star, Katherine, and for pointing me in the direction of Susan Price's priceless blog about the thousand natural shocks that horse-riding is heir to. I did a few days on a dude ranch in Arizona last November, (research of course), and my ribs were stiff for three months after! Ouch!

Catherine Johnson said...

Until fairly recently - twenty years or so ago - there were plenty of horses in London. You would see kids riding in London Fields or Victoria Park. Tower Hamlets even had a council bark chip riding area tucked in between an estate in Stepney. I learnt driving from one of the last Spitalfields draymen and would have loved to have a pony and trap instead of a car.
Absolutely everywhere has been built on and there is no free space anymore. Which is sadder for all of us.

Katherine said...

Catherine - Riding on London Fields reminds me of a great adult horse book I read recently... THE HORSE DANCER by Jojo Moyes.

A girl keeps her horse under an old railway arch, and when it is sold to pay off debts she sets out on an epic ride from central London to the historic riding school Le Cadre Noir in France, where her grandfather used to perform the "airs above ground". There are gypsy trotting races held on the dual carriagways, and a mad midnight chase across London...

The book is a romance involving the adult characters who care for the girl, but horses are at its heart, and history people might be interested in the Cadre Noir

Catherine Johnson said...

Yes I know Jojo's family. Her dad still lives round the corner, and I know that she kept her horse behind Hackney town hall! Small world! xc

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh wow, I want to read this! Le Cadre Noir was part of my dream world as a horse-mad little girl - along with the Lippizaners!

And Katherine, you win the prize, hands down, for the most beautiful title yet on the History Girls!

Katherine Langrish said...

By the way, three K/Catherines posting comments...!

Katherine said...

Four! Don't forget catdownunder... sorry there were no cats among all those horses.

And here's a question I don't know the answer to:
What is the first mention of a cat in the Bible? (not a lion... that's cheating!)

Anonymous said...

Wow. Well, first thanks to Michelle Lovric and 'book of human skin' for introducing me to this site...and Katherine Langrish for the book rec -- going down to the local library postie hastie. What can I say...history, dubious medical practices, skinning, trolls, horses, magic, mystery...better than fresh roast crickets dipped in honey and a sore temptation over writing my PhD transfer report.

Soo...horses for a reasonably interesting scholarly tome you might like: KELEKNA, P. 2009. - The horse in human history. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. I wasn't surprised about the bible 'problem' given that the horse is a northern eurasian animal and took a while to get to the southern med., whereas donkey and onagers belong to that area. I think it a bit unfair to compare przessies to arabs. That's a bit like comparing ... no, I'll get myself in trouble there...we'll stay with horses...pit ponies to thoroughbreds. They've both had their own different inbreeding environments which you can see in many species, particularly those effected by human manipulation. I'd certainly be the first to agree that mythic/mystic discussions of the origins of the horse and its relationship with us are often more appealingly worded. There's some excellent similar quotes from the Mongol/Altaic traditions. But I must object to archaeology not being considered conducive to a fantasy muse... oh, it is, in so many ways and in both directions.

I do love your time-line! There are 2 generations of fans of your books in our house, with the younger a another Kat for your collection.

pj cross

p.s. I'm afraid I'm behind in the blogging thing, so don't know the proper profile...hopefully this works.

Anonymous said...

Sorry - didn't really say that right, about the Prz and arab. What I meant to say is I think it's better simply to think of them as similar beasties in different situations, like bankers and miners. Neither is really superior to the other. They've both got their problems and advantages.

I realise, I'm in danger of getting tedious. The PhD is horse- and archaeology-oriented and I'm afraid you become a bit obsessed. So I'll just stop with a bit of horse and fantasy trivia that you might find of interest or amusement...

The centaur - a creature fused from man and horse and one of those odd and tricksy words. Nothing of the horse (or man, directly) is contained in that word. And modern re-users have many times taken the 'taur' and added it to other words to indicate other horse hybrids. Though 'taur' means bull and cen means 'goad' or perhaps 'whip.' Centaur could probably be best translated today to mean 'cowboy'.

pj cross

Katherine said...

Hello pj. Bankers and miners... hmmm... I suspect the bankers would think themselves superior to most other beasties, even if the miners have secret caves full of gold!

Great to know there are two generations of fans in your house, and how interesting to be doing a PhD that is horse and archaeology based. I must apologise for my unicorn-muse, who thinks digging things up is boring. He likes your centaur, though.