A horse by any other name …
Hi guys, and many thanks for your kind wishes last week. I’m pleased to report that I have now defeated the evil cold virus and am ready to set out once more on my journey through the fierce and unforgiving lands of Fantasy. And what better way to do it than on horseback? Never mind that I’ve only ridden a horse once in my life, and that was when I was about twelve. I mean, how hard can it be? You just stick a saddle on it and away you go, right? After all, everyone else is doing it.
See, the horse is to fantasy what the gondola is to Venice or the hoverboard is to Back to the Future II: the only real way to get around. Visit a fantasy world at random and you have at least a 95 percent chance of encountering a horse. Which may seem odd, given how inventive worldbuilders can be in other areas: magic systems, for instance, or social hierarchies, or any creatures that are dangerous rather than functional. The number of variations I’ve seen on your basic dragon could fill an encyclopaedia. Yet a horse is always a horse. Why?
One reason is probably the bicycle effect. Writers tend to treat horses rather like bicycles: they’re a convenient device to get a character from A to B, but other than that they’re not relevant to the plot.* You wouldn’t stop in the middle of a children’s book to explain exactly what kind of bike Jimmy is using to get away from the local bully; likewise, you wouldn’t stop in the middle of a fantasy to describe the horse Jimi is using to flee from the giant fire-breathing lizard. In short, there’s no point in wasting invention on something that’s essentially part of the scenery.** Readers aren’t interested in how the hero gets around. They’re more interested in the peril that’s bearing down on him as we speak.
A second and more fundamental reason is that there are two schools of thought when it comes to naming things in fantasy. One says, ‘Ohmigosh it’s all unfamiliar and exciting and mystical, so I’d better call everything by some obscure-sounding name to make sure my readers know this is, like, another world. A horse? No! Call it a mynnor. And check out these awesome calatznis I’m wearing.’ To which the other replies, ‘We all know it’s a horse, OK? It looks like a horse. It behaves like a horse. It certainly smells like a horse. So stop making up random combinations on your keyboard.’ And in most cases, it’s the pragmatic side that wins.
See, if we really are dealing with another world – that is, it’s completely separate from our own, without being an alternative history or involving inter-world travel – then its inhabitants clearly aren’t going to speak English or Russian or Hindi. Everything we read on the page has essentially been translated from another language anyway. So why call a horse a mynnor if a tree is still a tree? Because in fact, if you think about it logically, a fantasy horse isn’t really a horse at all. How can it be? Nothing in such a fantasy world can possibly be related genetically to anything we have here.
Basically ‘horse’ is just a shorthand, a way of referring to the animal that fills the horse-shaped gap in that particular world. And unless the author has a worthwhile and valid reason for giving it scales and six legs – which is going to necessitate a whole rethink of the evolutionary system in that world and throws up other problems as a result, like why the other ‘mammals’ don’t have six legs too if that’s such a smart survival move – it’s going to be pretty darn similar to our horses.
For me, that’s a good enough reason to call a horse a horse.
* That is, of course, apart from all those horse-loving plains-dwelling societies that seem to proliferate in a certain type of fantasy. But let’s not even go there.
** This is probably also why fantasy characters eat so much stew.
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