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Elska by Catherine Hapka is the first entry in a series of young reader books called Horse Diaries and takes place, as the back cover tells us, in “Iceland, circa AD 1000.” The first thing I want to make clear is that the series title of Horse Diaries is exceptionally, perhaps surprisingly, literal: this book is written from the first-person perspective of an Icelandic horse in the year 1000.
If this description makes the book sound bizarre, I assure you it is. But we have to keep in mind here the target audience (readers from ages 8-10, probably) which to some extent explains why Elska, despite being a horse from a millennium ago, narrates her story like an Icelandic tour guide, dropping facts about geography and fjords (one of the first things she tells the reader is how the Icelandic seasons and day-night cycles differ from the weather in temperate climates, because of course a newborn horse knows these things). But this generosity of information on her part is why it’s also so interesting that Elska never really explains the workings of the medieval human society with which much of the book is concerned.
A digression: Icelandic horses are a particular and highly specialized breed, due to Iceland’s geographical isolation. They are gaited, which means that in addition to the normal strides of a horse (the walk, trot, canter, and gallop) they have an additional pace called the tölt, which looks weird as hell. This is not something they’re trained to do, but something they do naturally. I just felt you should see that.
The events of the book encompass probably a decade in the span of 100 generously spaced pages, which make it an exceptionally brisk read. It begins at the moment Elska is born while her herd is wandering the Icelandic wilderness during the spring and summer months. Eventually, the tribe of humans to which her herd belongs come along to gather them for the rettir, the annual Iceland sheep round-up. The word rettir is used extensively and never explicitly defined (if you discount the short appendix of “Iceland Facts” at the very end) which is a pretty good illustration of how, while the book obligingly drops information about Iceland’s climate and the differences between varying horse breeds, it remains intriguingly vague about how or why the humans do anything they do.
Elska is part of a herd owned by a family with a young daughter named Amma, whose immediate fondness for our narrator sets up the arc of the plot. We know how this story goes: a child and an animal have a special bond, they are arbitrarily separated by an unjust force, they pine for one another, and after some strife are eventually are reunited. In this case Amma discovers that Elska is a very fast horse and perfect for racing, which catches the eye of the son of Alfvaldr, a neighboring farmer. Due to some nebulous debt owed to Alfvaldr by Amma’s dad, Elska is given to the former as a gift, confusing Elska considerably. That night she jumps the fence at the new farm and runs home.
Amma is overjoyed, of course, but when Alfvaldr and his son come calling there are surprisingly dark shades to note. Alfvaldr thinks Amma stole the horse, and her father asks her, “Are you trying to cause a blood feud between Alfvaldr and me?” Amma’s father manages to placate Alfvaldr by regifting Elska plus a few other livestock, and Elska, upon her return to Alfvaldr’s farm, is informed by her new herd that staying with them is in the best interests of Amma. I want to take a moment to consider the casual drop of the “blood feud” here, which, like rettir, is never explained or defined (and in this case, doesn’t even show up in the appendix).
Elska mentions a couple of times that she does not understand human language, which of course raises a whole host of questions about how she is telling her story in human language and recounting entire conversations between humans that she apparently doesn’t understand. Such niggling is pedantic, of course, but what’s curious is that within this narrative device — a non-linguistic narrator — Hapka seems to reproduce in a small degree the narrator’s lack of language by presenting the reader (again, an 8 to 10 year old child) with a society whose laws and customs are never explained. So a child reading this book is probably not going to know what a “blood feud” is particularly, but they sure as hell are going to know that it sounds bad, even though Elska herself doesn’t think much of it. Similarly, the other horses’ intimations of the consequences of Elska returning home a second time suggests to her and the reader obliquely the horrifying potential of the “blood feud.”
It seems perhaps inevitable that a story about a horse and its interactions with humans would be about biopolitics, the way life and death and the things that live and die flow and are funneled through the channels of the social apparatus. Elska’s significance to the humans is as a racer, as an object for trade, and so on; they use her as a mediator for social situations she barely comprehends or does not care to understand (she mentions several times that while she loves to race, she apparently just likes to run fast — there’s no sense she’s particularly competitive in the way, say, Alfvaldr’s son is). Simultaneously, Elska’s distance from these customs provides an identification point for the (presumably human) reader, positing her as someone who doesn’t understand or necessarily need to understand how human life in Iceland was lived, 1000 years ago, from the inside out.
This is why Elska, I think, provides so much knowledgeable about issues of climate and geography but shows little interest in unpacking social discourse: as an animal she’s aligned with the natural world, a natural world taken to be the “same” Iceland as in the reader’s own time, with geysers and glaciers and so forth, while human society is revealed as highly historically contingent in its particular forms. In other words, Elska the Icelandic horse functions for the young reader as a locus of a kind of transhistorical affect, allowing them a space to think through the past by alternatively aligning them with her incomprehension of history (‘who cares what a rettir is’) and ironically estranging them from that incomprehension (‘Elska doesn’t know what a blood feud is, but I know it sounds dangerous for that little girl’).
A lot of contemporary ecocriticism would take issue with the way the story implicitly suggests the eternity of Nature outside the variable human social order (and makes ‘history’ signify solely the latter), and I’d be inclined to agree, but a book for young readers is not the place to wage this particular battle. Instead, I’m interested in pondering how this particular kind of animal narrative provides children with an avenue for slipping outside a purely human historiography altogether. As I’ve said, we all know how this story goes: animal and child are separated, there is pining, a moment of strife, and after a heartfelt and dangerous situation, a reunion. The same applies here: Elska acclimates to Alfvaldr’s farm over the years (which is not inordinately different from the last farm — we escape the trope of the cruel secondary owner here) and eventually, after several years, goes out on rettir with Alfvaldr and his sons.
Here she once again meets Amma, who has grown older. One day, Amma slips away from the others to hang out with Elska and decides to ride her for old time’s sake. However, when Alfvaldr’s sons spot her they think Amma is once again stealing the horse; she panics, hops off, and runs away — straight into a river.
This is not the best idea. Amma is swept away and Alfvaldr’s sons immediately start flipping out, without any clue what to do. Elska, however, sees Amma grab onto a rock, and in her recognition that Amma is in trouble, wades into the river and allows Amma to climb onto her back. “We horses are the bridges of Iceland,” she informs the reader. (Aside: this is actually a common saying in Iceland, since historically there are so many rivers that bridges cannot be built for all of them, and so horses were often used for travel even as they fell out of fashion elsewhere.)
The final chapter jumps forward some indeterminate amount of time, where it is revealed that Elska is once again living with Amma on her family’s farm. After the incident in the river, it was proved sufficiently that Elska and Amma have a special bond, and he gifted the horse to her. Things are progressing along with the seasons, and it’s revealed that Elska herself is pregnant and due to foal in the spring. The human social realm and the natural realm are once again linked together in a kind of cyclical, biopolitical harmony.
I don’t know if a horse ever actually has or ever actually would care enough about a human being to pull them out of a river. A savior dog I would buy, but having spent some time around horses I have a hard time imagining one going for saving someone over munching on some nearby grass. To an extent, many animal-human narratives that climax in moments like this rely on some kind of sentimentalization, an anthropomorphosis that suggests a fundamental correspondence between how humans feel in and about the world and how things in the world feel about us.
We expect this from children’s stories, and being the cool and rational adults that we are, we recognize the narrative frippery for what it is. This is a nice story to tell your kids, we might say, but it’s something you grow out of. We have to realize, at some point, that horses don’t really feel this way about us, that they really are, after all, animals and tools to be used for racing, for exchange, for farm maintenance.
Elska and by extension the entire Horse Diaries series takes its generic cue from an earlier work, as Elska’s epigraph indicates:
“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is….”
This quote is from Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty. You’ve probably heard of it. What you probably don’t know, unless you’ve read it — and the above quote does nothing to indicate this — is that the entire novel is, like Elska, narrated in the first person by a horse. Furthermore, though we might consider Sewell’s novel something appropriate for children, it is (and was published as) a “real” novel for general audiences, though it has been historically aligned with the deeply gendered field of sentimental (read: women’s) fiction.
Like many “sentimental” novels of the nineteenth century, Black Beauty has a particular social consciousness; specifically, it aims to draw attention to animal welfare on the one hand and the rough living and working conditions of London cabbies and their horses on the other. And so Elska’s epigraph is Black Beauty himself speaking, and the full line is this:
“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is, and how it keeps a good mouth and a good temper, they surely would not chuck, and drag, and pull at the rein as they often do.”
The point here is fairly obvious: don’t treat your horses like crap. Don’t hurt them. They don’t like it. They have inclinations, wants, feelings.
It’s extremely telling that Sewell’s novel, a bestseller in its own time, is today thought of (and has mostly left its mark on) children’s fiction. When I say the horse offers an opportunity for transhistorical affect, then, aside from the complicated baggage of a fully stabilized and naturalized idea of Nature, I mean to suggest that both Black Beauty and Elska embody, in their own ways, something that “falls out” of the normal progressive notion of history as one of increasing technical sufficiency, social literacy, and a maturing (and masculinized) human creature whose primary privilege is to instrumentalize the world and the other creatures that exist in it.
Just as Black Beauty aims to paint a world of greater respect and cohesion across boundaries of social class and species, Elska offers the reader an opportunity to contemplate a historical basis for the fondness they almost certainly feel for horses. Though we might expect them to grow out of it, the continued existence of these stories suggests something about the affect we tend to expend on animals, which in turn suggests it is we humans — not the horses — who are trained out of it. But maybe we don’t have to be.