Did You Ever Hear of a Talking Horse?

After a reread intended simply to jump-start a post about humans learning from horses, I can’t stop coming back to C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy. Last time I reacted to the errors in the horse’s instruction of the boy, which spun off into a riff on the deplorable depiction of the Talking Mare, Hwin. That horrifies me more every time I think about it.

Lately I’ve been chewing over the question of horses (and animals in general) and human speech. I never liked talking-animal stories, but I never really understood why. Now I believe I do.

One of the keystones of human exceptionalism, along with the big brain and the “dominion over the animals” principle, is that humans have language. Animals, allegedly, do not.

Well, actually… prairie dogs. And dolphins. Just for starters.

None of these creatures, parrots and similar birds aside, has managed the complexity of human speech—and whether parrots actually realize what they’re, so to speak, parroting, has been a matter of long and heated debate.

I am not going to get into that debate, nor the one about animal language in general. What I’m focusing on here is the issue of animals speaking like humans. Just like them: in human voices, with human thoughts and feelings. Winnie the Pooh and his friends, the rabbits of Watership Down (and the earlier Peter Rabbit), Toad and company, all the way to the huge genre of cartoon and comic critters and the ineffable Mr. Ed.

In Narnia, animals come in both varieties: normal nonverbal and specially blessed and Aslan-approved Talking species. The latter were given human speech and thereby raised above their normal relatives, a fact of which Bree is all too well aware. He frets constantly about getting beneath himself by acting like an ordinary horse. Talking Horses must be different. More noble, less bound to their physical needs and desires.

And that is a problem. Not only that Bree is an insecure and boastful bully—that’s intentional, and he’s meant to receive a big comeuppance from Aslan himself—but that animals are deliberately alienated from their original stock by the imposition of the King’s English. This is supposed to be an elevation, a blessing from the Jesus-lion. They began as lowly beasts and were transformed into civilized beings.

But is that an improvement? By turning animals into humans in fur suits, is Lewis doing them any favors? Or is he demonstrating that not only is he racist and sexist, he’s speciesist as well?

Bree and Hwin among the Calormene horses are distinctly out of their element. Bree survives because he’s an arrogant twit. Hwin shrinks into a shadow of her proud and queenly self. Neither has anything to say to, or learn from, the non-Talking horses with whom they live and work. All their focus is on getting back to their own, proper, English-speaking kind.

From the point of view of someone who knows horses, this is a horror story. Not only the abduction and the hostage drama, but the imposition of human speech on horses.

Horses function perfectly well without speech. (And how do Talking Horses do it with equine vocal apparatus? Seriously? It’s really not designed for the finer points of human speech…) They have their own culture and complex social structure, and a wide range of means by which they communicate with each other and the species around them, including (very much) the human.

Humans miss a great deal of the nuances of equine communication. We just don’t have the senses or the sensitivity to detect it. It’s a combination of body language—most of it extremely subtle—with movement, position relative to one another and the environment, facial expressions (ears, eyes, nostrils, mouth/lips/chin), and what I can best describe as energy manipulation: projection and absorption of mood, emotion, invitation and compulsion, and so on. The vocal aspect is a minor component, and compared to the rest, it’s extremely broad and unsubtle.

Now along comes an oversized predator who announces that he’s going to give some horses (but by no means all) the “gift” of human speech. Horses already have a fair degree of verbal comprehension—smart ones are up there with smart dogs, as in, border collie level—so words are not an alien concept for a horse who has been raised around humans. They also have an amazing memory. The scientific jury is still out on the finer points of equine intelligence, but they’re definitely not as dull or stupid as legend—and Lewis’ book—makes them.

Giving a horse speech in itself is not necessarily a terrible thing. Consider Mr. Ed, who seemed quite content with his situation, though he was a bit long-suffering when it came to Wilbur’s less than stellar intelligence. On the other hand, giving a horse the mores and cultural assumptions of an early twentieth-century Briton can be…unfortunate.

I doubt very much that Lewis realized he was constructing a metaphor for colonialist oppression of indigenous peoples. Talking Horses have been robbed of their native language, believe their non-Talking cousins are inferior, and cannot bear to associate with them, let alone learn from them. When Bree succumbs to his natural equine inclination toward a good roll, he’s mortified. What if “real” Talking Horses think it’s just not the done thing? Rolling around in the dirt, how vulgar.

Bree and Hwin have reasons for their character flaws: they were both snatched away from their culture as foals and deprived of the education that they would have received among their own people. But has speech done them any real good? They’re not superior to any horses of my acquaintance. Bree is a what horse people call a royal snot, and poor Hwin needs serious rescue and rehab. My mares would kick him into next week, and mother her till she found her way back to something resembling confidence.

In the real horse world, words are a distraction. They get in the way of clear communication. They can be useful in teaching, to help humans understand concepts that are often only roughly translatable. The horse exists in air and earth the way a dolphin does in the ocean. For humans, with their fixation on hands and their emphasis on words, much of what the horse is saying is well below the radar. It’s a rare human who is even aware that there’s anything going on.

Humans can be grand exceptionalists. Lord over the beasts, that’s man. If he can’t see/hear/smell/taste/touch it and then hang a word on it, it doesn’t exist.

Aslan might manifest as a lion, but he’s a thoroughly human, and a particularly twentieth-century British upper-level academic idea of what a lion ought to be. His conception of a superlative gift is to make an animal talk like a human.

A horse might not think that’s such a wonderful thing. Greater speed and strength, freedom from any and all predators, even more subtle communication with other horses, a less tricky digestive system—now those are gifts a horse can appreciate. Not having to submit to humans, too, but to have the choice to work with them or to refuse. To be equal partners rather than master and servant.

The Talking Horses of Narnia do get that last one, and real horses would approve of it, but the talking thing? It’s like the old line about the fish and the bicycle. Nice thought, Aslan, but why? If humans really want to know what horses are saying, let them learn to understand horse language, rather than turning horses into big, hairy, malformed humans with a nasal accent.

Top image: Mr. Ed (1958-66)

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed spirit dog.

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