Animals Riding Other Animals

Early-twentieth century illustrations by Artuš Scheiner (1863 – 1938) riding horse underwater

When I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was disturbed for an unlikely reason. It wasn’t the dystopian aspect of a world where humans were no longer top of the food chain. The resonant image for me was when the apes were riding horses.

I immediately checked myself. Why am I slightly repelled by the spectacle of apes riding horses? I mean, humans ride horses and we’re not much different from apes.

Yet humans sort of had to ride horses. If we hadn’t used horses at certain points in our history, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Jared Diamond writes about this in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, about how human evolution has favoured certain geographical groups over others.

THE DOMESTICATION OF WILD HORSES

First he points out that domestic animals including horses didn’t do well in Africa because of climate and disease carried by tsetse flies. For that reason, the horse only became established as far south as the equator, and only on the Western side of the African continent until A.D. 1-200, where they transformed warfare. Yet horses had long since become established in other parts of the world. In Egypt they also transformed warfare, starting around 1800 B.C. As soon as horses make their way into an area, humans use them to fight wars with.

Every domesticated animal has a wild ancestor. The wild ancestor of the horse, the wild horse of southern Russia, is now extinct, though a different subspecies survived in the wild to modern times in Mongolia. (This Mongolian horse is now rare and protected and survives in a protected National Park. But it is no longer ‘wild’.) Sheep, goats and pigs were the first wild animals to be domesticated. The most recent example of domestication is the camel.

Diamond draws a clear distinction between animals which can be tamed (e.g. elephants) versus animals which can be domesticated. ‘Tamed’ simply means to become less dangerous to humans, whereas to be domesticated, a wild animal is ‘selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors, for use by humans who control the animal’s breeding and food supply’. Some animals can be domesticated and others cannot. For instance, no one has ever domesticated a zebra. You simply cannot put a saddle on a zebra, and you can be sure people have tried. We know that zebras tend to bite you and not loosen their bite. But horses don’t do that. I know from reading Lonesome Dove that horses can bite you badly in the shoulder and also bite off your toes, but horses don’t keep hold of your flesh like zebras do. Horses can therefore be broken in.

Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars He jumped, he reared, he kicked, he plunged, he wriggled, he whinnied
Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars. “He jumped, he reared, he kicked, he plunged, he wriggled, he whinnied.”

Why can you put a saddle on a horse and not on a zebra (or on elk or eland)? Three factors:

  • Horses aren’t as skittish and nervous. You can keep them in captivity.
  • They are herd animals who don’t mind company
  • Horses first developed a firm social hierarchy between themselves. Humans utilised this natural hierarchy and position themselves at the top. (Normally it’d be the top ranking female horse.)

Domesticated horses have therefore been vital to humans, first in warfare, next in agricultural and in transportation across long distances.

Fairytale book published in 1982 by Vladimir Kovarik, illustrated by Daniela Benesova (27 september 1929, Tsjechië)
Fairytale book published in 1982 by Vladimir Kovarik, illustrated by Daniela Benesova (27 september 1929, Tsjechië)
Feodor Rojankovsky (Frog Went A-Courtin', written by John Langstaff, 1955)
Feodor Rojankovsky (Frog Went A-Courtin’, written by John Langstaff, 1955)
'Pinocchio in the Moon' Illustration by Corrado Sarri, 1924
‘Pinocchio in the Moon’ Illustration by Corrado Sarri, 1924
Leonard Leslie Brooke (English, 1862-1940)
Leonard Leslie Brooke (English, 1862-1940). If we could saddle a kangaroo that would be fun. The way they jump is amazing. Pretty sure kangaroos wouldn’t welcome the development, though.
Molly Brett (1902–1990) riding
Molly Brett (1902–1990).

RIDING CREATURES THAT FLY

Sivka-Burka, Russian Folk Tale Illustrator Igor Yershov, 1960s
Sivka-Burka, Russian Folk Tale Illustrator Igor Yershov, 1960s

Since we are used to seeing humans riding horses, it’s no great stretch of the imagination to witness them riding flying horses (pegasuses). Though when a human rides a bird, the human has probably been through some sort of shrinking process. Flight is one of the main wish fulfilment fantasies, especially in children’s literature. The experience of riding a horse is very much like flying, and we use the word ‘fly’ to describe rapid, smooth movement, even across ground.

Harry Rountree,  The Doings of Furrymouse,  1919 chincilla riding crow
Harry Rountree, The Doings of Furrymouse, 1919.

WHERE RIDING GETS WEIRD

The illustration below is clearly a play on the English word ‘to ride piggyback’. The phrase refers to anything riding on the back of something else, metaphorically or literally.

L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940)- “This Little Pig cried 'Wee, wee, wee! I can't find my way home!'" from “Ring O’ Roses, A Nursery Rhyme Picture Book,” Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1922
L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940)- “This Little Pig cried ‘Wee, wee, wee! I can’t find my way home!'” from “Ring O’ Roses, A Nursery Rhyme Picture Book,” Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1922

The history of this word has nothing to do with pigs:

Piggyback is a corruption of pickaback, which is likely a folk etymology alteration of pick pack (1560s), which perhaps is from pick, a dialectal variant of the verb pitch.

Wikipedia
Frank-Beard-American-1842-1905-Illustrator-and-cartoonist.-22What-may-happen-when-little-boys-play-leap-frog-too-much.22
This slightly uncomfortable Frank Beard illustration comes out of America. “What may happen when little boys play leap frog too much.”

RIDING FISH

It is surprisingly easy to find old illustrations of humans and other animals riding fish and fish-people.

Chinese Firecracker box label man riding fish
Chinese Firecracker box illustration. A man has gone fishing and ends up riding the fish.
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson
Alan Aldridge illustration 1973 for The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast riding
Alan Aldridge illustration 1973 for The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast
Mermaid Riding a Sea Serpent (Hans Christiansen, 1897, a  magazine cover)
Mermaid Riding a Sea Serpent (Hans Christiansen, 1897, a magazine cover)

The flippers on the horse in the illustration below are a particularly resonant detail.

Erich Shutz, Austrian (1886-1937) 1930 riding
Erich Shutz, Austrian (1886-1937) 1930 riding

Looking at art as a corpus, it seems modern audiences no longer look at a fish and imagine riding it, like, at all. Maybe sometimes, in something absurdist. But the illustrations below make me think that in pre-aeroplane times, people were just as likely to imagine fish as birds when conceiving of a flight contraption.

Albert Robida (1848-1926), Le Vingtième siècle aka The Twentieth Century, 1883
Albert Robida (1848-1926), Le Vingtième siècle aka The Twentieth Century, 1883

THE ‘SIDE SADDLE’ VERSION OF RIDING ANIMALS

Sidesaddle riding is a form of equestrianism that uses a type of saddle which allows a rider (usually female) to sit aside rather than astride an equine. Sitting aside dates back to antiquity and developed in European countries in the Middle Ages as a way for women in skirts to ride a horse in a modest fashion while also wearing fine clothing. It has retained a specialty niche even in the modern world.

Wikipedia

The sidesaddle tradition goes way back and can be seen on Greek vases. It exists because the rubbish concept of virginity exists, in which the hymen must be preserved so men can marry their daughters off well. As they clearly knew even then, a wide variety of normal activities can stretch the hymen (hymens do not break), but they did not then come to the conclusion that the hymen and penetrative sex have little to do with each other. The natural conclusion was that women’s movements must be further restricted.

None of this comes into children’s picture books, of course. Unless we do a count up of girls with their legs closed versus boys with their legs astride; girls being carried to safey, boys more active in their own travel and rescue.

The Wizard Of Oz- 1944 flying monkeys, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
The Wizard Of Oz- 1944 flying monkeys, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
One of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Fairy Tales (1916) by Hans Christen Andersen
One of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Fairy Tales (1916) by Hans Christen Andersen
This illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite is interesting because normally witches are depicted sitting astride their broom, and this looks mighty uncomfortable indeed. But if witches have the power to make broomsticks fly, why wouldn’t they also have the ability to stand on them like this?
American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett riding tortoise
American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett died tragically young of TB at the age of 30.
The Green Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang with illustrations by H. J. Ford, 1906 riding
The Green Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang with illustrations by H. J. Ford, 1906.

THE RELATED TROPE OF THE RIDING BITCH

This trope describes the situation in which a female character rides on a bike (motorised or otherwise) while a man steers.

Growing up in the 80s, my bike was different from my brothers’ bikes. My top bar was heavily angled. When I asked why, my father told me it was so I could get onto the bike wearing a skirt, which seems ridiculous even for the 80s, except I was required to wear full school uniform to school all through the 90s, so I mostly was trying to pull down my summer tunic as the wind caught it, and constantly trying to keep my winter kilt out from the back wheel. (I didn’t succeed.) Honestly, the nuisance of a horizontal top bar would’ve been the least of my concerns.

Inverse examples of the riding bitch in children’s stories are rare. However, you will occasionally find them, in which case the female character is coded deliberately as a ‘take charge’ sort of girl.

Are women’s bikes still built differently? Yes, but in a way that accommodates for average differences in build rather than from some outdated idea that women are still mostly riding skirts on bikes, and are incapable of mounting bicycles featuring horizontal top bars.

Honestly, if women are athletically capable enough to ride a male top bar like pig Josephine below, we have always been sufficiently capable of riding a bike as it was meant to be ridden — using an actual damn seat.

There’s a good reason why female characters rarely give male characters rides like this. If you’ve ever tried it you’ll know that it’s very difficult and requires a substantial differential in size and strength. Girls are simply smaller.

colour plate from A Book of Old Ballads illustrations by H.M. Brock, Hutchinson & Co. 1934 Thomas the Rhymer
Colour plates from A Book of Old Ballads illustrations by H.M. Brock, Hutchinson & Co. 1934, “Thomas the Rhymer” and his riding bitch.

The illustration below disturbs me, as it is meant to. We see acts of violence meted out to people of all genders, of course, but there’s something utterly vulnerable about the violence meted out in this one, in which the riding bitch trope intersects with male violence against a woman. The torture (rather than the finality) of the event is given primacy. The image is even more disturbing if you’ve studied the history of the witch craze.

Images of tortured Jesus are also disturbing, though perhaps rendered less so because of the ubiquity of Jesus on the cross. We rarely see Jesus from this angle. A near ‘upskirt’ angle is specific to femme characters. Notice how even on her way to hell, this tortured witch does not ride astride a horse. She’s still some dude’s riding bitch.

Robin Jacques' iIlustration from ‘Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain,’ Reader's Digest, 1973 showing the soul of a witch being taken to Hell
Robin Jacques’ iIlustration from ‘Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain,’ Reader’s Digest, 1973 showing the soul of a witch being taken to Hell

Header illustration: Early-twentieth century illustrations by Artuš Scheiner (1863 – 1938) riding horse underwater

Town Musicians Of Bremen

The Musicians of Bremen, John Parr Miller, 1954

“The Town Musicians Of Bremen” is a folktale that goes by various similar names. Its plot structure is so strong that many storytellers writing series for children borrow this story at some point.

The “Town Musicians of Bremen” tells the story of four ageing domestic animals, who after a lifetime of hard work are neglected and mistreated by their former masters. Eventually, they decide to run away and become town musicians in the city of Bremen. Contrary to the story’s title the characters never arrive in Bremen, as they succeed in tricking and scaring off a band of robbers, capturing their spoils, and moving into their house. “The Town Musicians of Bremen” is a story of Aarne–Thompson Type 130 (“Outcast animals find a new home”).

Wikipedia

I like the art in the version below, based on the scarier (non-bowdlerised) story collected by the Brothers Grimm.

Continue reading “Town Musicians Of Bremen”

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban

Bread and Jam for Frances original cover

Bread and Jam for Frances is a picture book written by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, first published in 1964 as a part of a series about a girl in the body of a badger, who lives in a middle class house and has access to all the spoils you’d expect of 1960s middle class Westerner.

I never came across this picture book as a kid, but a book with a similar plot must have really affected me because it was probably read once in class, yet I remember it profoundly: The book I’m talking about is Mrs. Pig’s Bulk Buy, one of the Pig Family picture books by Mary Rayner. This family of pigs might be considered the 1980s follow-up to the Hobans’ Frances stories. (I’ve taken a close look at Garth Pig and the Ice-cream Lady on this blog.)

In Rayner’s 1981 version of Bread and Jam for Frances, the mother pig of the Pig Family gets utterly sick and tired of her piglets hoeing into the tomato sauce so she feeds them nothing but tomato sauce until they crave a more varied diet.

No matter how carefully she flavored the stews or spiced the puddings, the piglets always squealed for tomato ketchup. She had always tried to stop them from having it, and make one bottle last a week, but it was always gobbled up by Monday and then the piglets would grumble until she went to the supermarket again.

“But things will be different soon,” thought Mother Pig happily. She reached down one of the big jars and emptied it into a huge soup tureen.

My mother was frequently complaining about the family using too much tomato sauce as well, which is probably why the story stuck with me. (Criticism was mostly directed at our father, though, who used sauce not only for flavour, but to cool hot food to a more scoffable temperature.)

DIDACTICISM AND FOOD PREFERENCES

Do these stories do what they intend, that is, to encourage children to eat a more wide and varied diet? One Goodreads reviewer of Rayner’s picture book said, “I read this to my daughter in the hopes of encouraging her to eat less ketchup, but all it did was make her want ketchup sandwiches.”

I doubt these stories work as intended. I do remember Rayner’s story, but I don’t remember going easy on the tomato sauce. They appeal to adults for didactic reasons, and to children for the carnivalesque element. Eating nothing but your favourite food is peak carnivalesque fun. The ending of both stories doesn’t resonate; doesn’t count.

Parenting culture has changed since the 1980s and certainly since the 1960s. For better or for worse, modern parents hand more food choice over to their children. I know plenty of kids who’d be quite happy to eat nothing but white bread and jam for weeks on end, possibly forever. Some of them have sensory issues around eating, which is the first thing I thought about Frances as she described and personified her eggs.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES

PARATEXT

Frances is a fussy eater. In fact, the only thing she likes is bread and jam. So she’s delighted when Mother and Father grant her wish and give her bread and jam at every meal. This endearing story of how Frances faces unlimited bread and jam is a classic that will continue to be gobbled up by children, picky eaters, and parents everywhere.

marketing copy

Frances is also described as ‘America’s favourite badger’. (Frances is about as badger as Olivia is pig.)

SHORTCOMING

Frances has food preferences (possibly for sensory reasons) but she is a member of a family who have no tolerance for people who don’t eat what’s going.

Frances is disgusted by the egg.

DESIRE

Frances wants to eat bread and jam instead of eggs.

OPPONENT

Mother.

Is the school mate a plan or an ally. I find him insufferable. “Well, goodo for you,” I wanted to tell him, and, “I don’t remember asking for all those details about your damn lunch.”

PLAN

The mother has a secret plan, and we see it play out. The mother is basically a trickster, and I guess this is why she appeals to many mother co-readers; trickster mums are rare in children’s books.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Frances grows more and more tired of bread and jam. When the mother serves Frances the same dinner as the rest of the family is having, Frances is so keen for something different that she eats it up without complaining. Mother has won this battle.

ANAGNORISIS

Frances realises that a varied diet is an interesting diet.

NEW SITUATION

Frances is eating a varied school lunch.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

We extrapolate that Frances is permanently fixed and that she’ll never look at bread and jam in the same way again.

RESONANCE

I was prompted to read Bread and Jam for Frances after seeing the following image memed around the Internet. It’s actually an abbreviated version of the relevant page, and almost functions as a tagline. In abbreviated form, without any context, this image is perfectly suited to modern meme culture. Perhaps it encapsulates our collective existential loneliness.

FURTHER READING

  • The Evolution of Breakfasts in Fiction. In the 1960s, America was in the middle of switching over from cooked breakfasts to breads and extruded cereals. Frances in this story has clearly been influenced by the modern Continental breakfast (probably from ads on the TV) but her old-school mother resists.
  • Egg Symbolism. I wonder how many humans across history have found eggs disgusting. Until battery farming, eggs were a hard won delicacy and an important element of many diets.
  • The idea that all of the other kids will get something, and that you, due to your own moral shortcoming will miss out, was utilised by Beatrix Potter in Peter Rabbit, and in many stories after that, including Little Golden Books’ super popular The Poky Little Puppy. But can you think of any modern picture books which use this kind of punishment plot, withholding food from children? This was certainly how I was brought up. But I suspect it’s had its day.
  • Russell and Lillian were married Americans who moved to England together in 1969. However, Lillian moved back to America about a year later. Russell stayed in England and married someone else in the mid 1970s. They each continued to have a full and varied career in children’s books, independently. Russell died in 2011. Lillian died in 1998.
  • See also my collected notes on The Mouse and His Child.
“Children benefit from jam,” Soviet advertisement, 1950
“Children benefit from jam,” Soviet advertisement, 1950