If there’s one thing horses do for humans, it’s teach them things. Sometimes in the sense of Learning Experiences, i.e. School of Hard Knocks (and Falls and Crashes and Financial Disasters), but many times in the sense that if a human studies the horse, she can learn a great deal about how to live and let live. It’s always been true, but in this time of global pandemic and universal fear and all-around awfulness, it’s more relevant than ever.
Now I understand why the regulars from the Comments section urged me to read Knave of Dreams while I’ve been checking out Norton’s earliest published novels, notably The Prince Commands. Knave of Dreams is a relatively late entry, from 1975. There are forty years of novels and stories between the two, and whole worlds discovered and created. And yet the roots are the same: the Ruritanian Romance that was so much in vogue when Norton was a brand-new writer.
Young Andre played her fanfic straight: setting The Prince Commands in the classic imaginary European country. Mature Andre had been writing fantasy and science fiction for decades, and had a wide array of storytelling tools to choose from. Knave of Dreams is a Ruritanian adventure in the sense of the royal impostor from America swept away to the foreign kingdom and thrown headlong into complicated court intrigue. It’s also an alternate-worlds story and a kind of portal adventure.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen for surviving in this dystopian hellscape is to do all the things to maintain social distance, avoid infection (both coming in and going out), and Take This Thing Seriously—but don’t give up on going outside. If you can get out in nature at all, safely and without endangering the public health, do it. Your body and mind both will thank you.
Even just looking up at the sky from your window or yard or balcony can help. There’s something about that movement that takes you out of yourself. It gives you a different perspective.
For horse people, the new normal is both much the same as the old normal, and replete with new challenges.
The full and glorious title of Andre Norton’s first published novel (1934) is The Prince Commands: Being Sundry Adventures of Michael Karl, Sometime Crown Prince and Pretender to the Throne of Morvania. Tor in its 1983 reprint truncated the title to the first three words, which is a real shame, because the original moniker has the retro exuberance of the book itself. It’s a Ruritanian Romance, a wildly popular genre that was rather tapering off by the Thirties, but it never went away. It’s resurrected itself frequently ever since, taking new forms in the process.
Probably the best-known example of the genre these days is Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), but Norton refers in the book to another imaginary kingdom which spawned a whole series, George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark. In short, The Prince Commands &c. is fanfic, and joyously and forthrightly so.
Last time, I went deep into the heart of being a horse person. It was pretty intense. There may have been tears. As horse trainers know, a horse does best if he follows a high-intensity session with a lighter one. So this time, let’s have some fun.
When horse people watch TV, and movies, too, we watch for the horses. Sure, we notice the human actors, but mostly we’re looking to see if they know how to ride. We become very, very sad when favorite actors turn out to be sacks of equestrian potatoes.
Andre Norton’s 1962 sequel to Ride Proud, Rebel! is a tribute to the golden age of the Western in print, film, and television. I’m just old enough to remember my father and grandfather watching the many examples of the last. Bonanza. Gunsmoke. Rawhide. Maverick. Wagon Train. Have Gun, Will Travel. And later, when it all went to camp, The Wild Wild West and Kung Fu. Westerns were everywhere in the late Fifties and through the Sixties. They faded in the Seventies, and dribbled away to nothing as the millennium ended, with an occasional attempt to resurrect the form. Young Guns, for example.
Mostly they seem to have mutated into other genres. Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Star Wars plays numerous riffs on the familiar stories. And of course there’s Firefly.
Deep-down, in it for the long haul horse people have a look to them. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they aren’t all leathery whipcord types in well-worn breeches or a cowboy hat that’s seen a thousand miles and expects to last a thousand more. But you can spot them. It’s the way they stand in a crowd, not making an effort to be visible, and probably not saying much; giving way when the crowd pushes, but not letting themselves be pushed. They have a core of quiet to them.
It’s the way they talk, too, when you get them to open up. It’s not easy if they don’t know you. Oh, they’ll happily talk horses for hours if you’ll let them, but that’s surface stuff. The real, deep stuff, they save for people they trust.
2020 is a difficult year for reading novels about the American Civil War. The old comfortable myths, the familiar interpretations of history, have developed serious fractures. The romance of the Confederacy has given way to the dismantling of Confederate war memorials. The election of an African-American President represented both the power of cultural change and the vehement, even violent opposition to it.
Andre Norton published Ride Proud, Rebel! in 1961, in the midst of the Civil Rights era. Her science fiction novels took care to depict a future that was not all or even mostly white, and she tried hard to write Black and Native American characters with respect and understanding. And yet she chose this material for a foray into historical fiction.
Last time, I talked about how there is a horse for every rider, and every rider has a preference as to what kind of horse is their dream horse. Commenter wlewisiii asked an interesting question about “horses for bigger people.”
Where do draft horses fit in as riding horses? Say a nice big Belgian?
Or for that matter a mule?
There are two tiers to the question. One is about horses for larger riders, and the other (actually twofold) is about draft horses and mules as riding animals. The questions are related, but they’re not exactly equivalent.
Of all the Norton books I’ve read so far, Ralestone Luck has both delighted and horrified me the most. According to the introduction to The Andre Norton Megapack, this was her first novel, written while she was in high school, though it didn’t appear in print until about a decade later, in 1938, as her second published novel.
I had no idea what to expect, except that it would not be science fiction and would probably have a historical bent. It turns out to be a contemporary, set in the Thirties, but it’s steeped in history. There’s a very old family with very old secrets, a crumbling castle that’s purportedly haunted—in the Louisiana bayou, no less—and a series of mysteries to solve. Also, pirates. And the Crusades. And rogue oil drillers.
Horseman’s wisdom says, There’s a horse for every human and a human for every horse.
Horses, like humans, are individuals. They have likes and dislikes, quirks and foibles, and particular ways of dealing with the world. When they interact with humans, they may get along splendidly. Or they may clash on every possible level. Or anywhere in between.
I like to say, “My horse is perfect—for me!” He may be your worst nightmare, but he’s my dreampony.
For the most part I’ve been reading and rereading Andre Norton’s solo novels. She wrote so many, and there are still quite a few left to go. Once in a while however I’ll pick up one of her collaborations, to round out a series or to satisfy my curiosity about what she intended to happen next.
Quag Keep has a typical abrupt Norton closing, and it’s typically open-ended as well. The adventure is finished but the adventurers from our world are still trapped in the world of the game. There are clear pointers toward a sequel, but Norton never got around to finishing it.
Jean Rabe’s posthumous collaboration answers quite a few of my questions about What Next.
If you want or need to write about a character riding a horse, or are a reader curious about what riding actually feels like, the best way to find out is to do it. But that isn’t always easy to make happen, and even if you do, there’s a big difference between a first ride and a hundredth or a thousandth. With riding, experience really does count.
There are some parallels with other and maybe more familiar sensations. Riding a bike or a motorcycle requires balance and attention to the details of steering and terrain. Driving a car or truck over rough roads asks some of the same things of your body as riding a horse will—staying in your seat, balancing as the vehicle shifts. Riding in a boat can give you some idea of what riding a horse is like: a really good canter is remarkably like navigating a series of waves, and a trot can remind you of a sharp chop on a lake.
There’s something quite satisfying in a historical sense about reading an Andre Norton novel based on Dungeons and Dragons and published in 1978, just four years after the game’s first box appeared in the world. It was so new that the novel uses the general term wargaming rather than calling it D&D as we would now. New, already expanding in popularity, but not the cultural icon that it’s become.
The world of fantasy wargaming, late Seventies style, is seriously in Norton’s wheelhouse.
Just being with horses is a deep pleasure for a horse person. For some, it’s all they need. Even the smell of a horse can be enough. That distinctive and slightly pungent odor, to the true horse aficionado, is the sweetest fragrance in the world.
But humans are busy creatures, and they like to be out and about and Doing Stuff. This is as true of horse people as anyone else. The horse in the pasture is a lovely thing, but the horse in hand is even lovelier. [Read more]
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