As a child reading in a bed surrounded by acres of horse-less fields, I was completely taken up by the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley. Marooned survivors of a shipwreck, city kid Alec Ramsay befriends an untameable stallion, whom he calls “Black.” In taming Black, Alec is able to survive in the wild. He returns to the West as the jockey and child-trainer of a championship racehorse who changes the landscape of the field. I still have almost all twenty of the volumes on my bookshelf–though no one in our household seems inclined to pull them down lately.
It is still nice to wander mentally through those paper fields, even today as a city kid. Nostalgia is an acceptable past-time, I think–and it is my memory of The Black Stallion that came back to me recently when reading Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles.–a book I argued last week was, like C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, a strong myth retold. My sudden recollection of Alec as a child horse master may seem a bit incongruous as it occurred during the first encounter with Chiron the Centaur in Miller’s Greek myth retold–but bear with me.
In Miller’s myth, two princes–the divinely touched hero Achilles and the exiled Patroclus–suddenly encounter Chiron, the legendary teacher and teacher of legends. The Centaur’s presence, knowledge, and invitation to ride disturb our narrator, Patroclus, who describes his first ride upon the Centaur in detail:
Beside me Achilles bowed his head. “Master Centaur,” he said. “I am sorry for the delay. I had to wait for my companion.” He knelt, his clean tunic in the dusty earth. “Please accept my apologies. I have long wished to be your student.”
The man’s—centaur’s—face was serious as his voice. He was older, I saw, with a neatly trimmed black beard.
He regarded Achilles a moment. “You do not need to kneel to me, Pelides. Though I appreciate the courtesy. And who is this companion that has kept us both waiting?”
Achilles turned back to me and reached a hand down. Unsteadily, I took it and pulled myself up.
“This is Patroclus.”
There was a silence, and I knew it was my turn to speak.
“My lord,” I said. And bowed.
“I am not a lord, Patroclus Menoitiades.”
My head jerked up at the sound of my father’s name.
“I am a centaur, and a teacher of men. My name is Chiron.”
I gulped and nodded. I did not dare to ask how he knew my name.
His eyes surveyed me. “You are overtired, I think. You need water and food, both. It is a long way to my home on Pelion, too long for you to walk. So we must make other arrangements.”
He turned then, and I tried not to gawk at the way his horse legs moved beneath him.
“You will ride on my back,” the centaur said. “I do not usually offer such things on first acquaintance. But exceptions must be made.” He paused. “You have been taught to ride, I suppose?”
We nodded, quickly.
“That is unfortunate. Forget what you learned. I do not like to be squeezed by legs or tugged at. The one in front will hold on to my waist, the one behind will hold on to him. If you feel that you are going to fall, speak up.”
Achilles and I exchanged a look, quickly.
He stepped forward.
“How should I— ?”
“I will kneel.” His horse legs folded themselves into the dust. His back was broad and lightly sheened with sweat. “Take my arm for balance,” the centaur instructed. Achilles did, swinging his leg over and settling himself.
It was my turn. At least I would not be in front, so close to that place where skin gave way to chestnut coat. Chiron offered me his arm, and I took it. It was muscled and large, thickly covered with black hair that was nothing like the color of his horse half. I seated myself, my legs stretched across that wide back, almost to discomfort.
Chiron said, “I will stand now.” The motion was smooth, but still I grabbed for Achilles. Chiron was half as high again as a normal horse, and my feet dangled so far above the ground it made me dizzy. Achilles’ hands rested loosely on Chiron’s trunk. “You will fall, if you hold so lightly,” the centaur said.
My fingers grew damp with sweat from clutching Achilles’ chest. I dared not relax them, even for a moment. The centaur’s gait was less symmetrical than a horse’s, and the ground was uneven. I slipped alarmingly upon the sweat-slick horsehair.
There was no path I could see, but we were rising swiftly upwards through the trees, carried along by Chiron’s sure, unslowing steps. I winced every time a jounce caused my heels to kick into the centaur’s sides.
As we went, Chiron pointed things out to us, in that same steady voice.
There is Mount Othrys.
The cypress trees are thicker here, on the north side, you can see.
This stream feeds the Apidanos River that runs through Phthia’s lands.
Achilles twisted back to look at me, grinning.
We climbed higher still, and the centaur swished his great black tail, swatting flies for all of us.
Chiron stopped suddenly, and I jerked forward into Achilles’ back. We were in a small break in the woods, a grove of sorts, half encircled by a rocky outcrop. We were not quite at the peak, but we were close, and the sky was blue and glowing above us.
“We are here.” Chiron knelt, and we stepped off his back, a bit unsteadily.
In front of us was a cave… (ch. 8).
The image I had from The Black Stallion was Alec’s unusual riding style. Having learned to ride the wildest of Arabic horses bareback, Alec never fully submits to using the reins and stirrups. He tucks his feet back, leaning forward into Black’s mane–bridling Black with subtle movements of his body and voice rather than leather, steel, and whip.
How different to ride a Centaur with a human torso and horse’s body! One could not lean in and hold the mane like Alec did. The only place to hold on would be the naked body of the chimerical man-horse before you.
And a Centaur, of course, is not merely an untamable beast: he is a free person, not to be tamed by hands human or divine.
I thought immediately of Alec and Black when I read of Patroclus’ awkward ride upon Chiron. In this encounter with a Greek Centaur, however, I should have thought first of Narnia–a tale full of mythic creatures who, when the need is great, submit to carrying humans on their backs as Black does for Alec in the wilderness and as Chiron does for Achilles and Patroclus on the first day of their tutelage.
In the Narnian chronicle, The Horse and His Boy, the Talking Horse Bree must teach the unschooled slave-boy, Shasta, to feign horse mastery while actually giving Bree the rains. While Bree rejects horse tack because the boy is his and he is not the boy’s (as we see in the title)–and because Bree desires to be, or least to become, a free Narnian–it is also a practical affair. Shasta has never learned to ride, and all horses know–even if their humans do not–that reins in the hand of an untrained rider do more harm than good.
Bree patiently teaches Shasta to ride (mostly an affair of Shasta falling off enough times to learn how to fall well and only when necessary), but tells him to never use the reins and absolutely forbids the use of spurs. Bree wants to be in full control:
“[A]s I intend to do all the directing on this journey,” Bree says to Shasta, “you’ll please keep your hands to yourself. And there’s another thing. I’m not going to have you grabbing my mane.”
Shasta sees the problem immediately.
“But I say,” pleaded Shasta. “If I’m not to hold on by the reins or by your mane, what am I to hold on by?”
“You hold on with your knees,” said the Horse. “That’s the secret of good riding. Grip my body between your knees as hard as you like; sit straight up, straight as a poker; keep your elbows in (ch. 1).
Lacking Alec’s advantage of leaning into the horse’s neck or Achilles’ strong grip on Chiron’s torso, what is Shasta to do? There are still the knees–forbidden by Chiron but used by Alec to learn to ride Black in their shared wilderness and also the key to a good human-foal to the Narnian Talking Horse.
In The Magician’s Nephew, the first of all Narnian Flying Horses, Fledge, is more generous than Bree the Talking Horse–though we must admit that the physiology of a Flying Horse may make it easier for unbridled humans to ride bareback. We have few details about how Digory and Polly positioned themselves in the first Narnian horse-flight. And yet, the image is the most powerful one in my childhood memory of Narnia.
We do see Digory leaning forward against Fledge’s neck (like Alec on Black) and Polly holding tight to Digory’s waist (like Achilles of Chiron). A long flight, we learn, is like a long ride, leaving horse and rider hungry and stiff and tired. Falling off of Bree is painful but educational for Shasta; falling off Fledge in flight, however soft the new Narnian pastures might be, is a somewhat different affair. It is also a challenge to mount any horse without stirrups–even when your steed is not the father of an entire race–though Chiron and the youthful Greek heroes navigate the problem well enough.
While it is perhaps not so grand as riding the first Flying Horse, Eustace and Jill’s adventure in The Silver Chair is crowned with a singular honour: the invitation to ride a Centaur.
If Narnia’s first Flying Horse is awesome and thrilling to ride and Bree’s sternness is intimidating to a liberated stable boy, Centaurs command a different kind of respect altogether–as we see in the Greek boys’ reaction to Chiron. Watching the Centaurs through the eyes of Jill and Eustace reminds us that, in all their gravity as a species, Centaurs do not carelessly lend themselves to humans as beasts of burden. It is worth quoting good portions of chapter 16 of The Silver Chair to get a sense of the gravity of the honour and majesty of Centaurs–and some hints at their physiology to supplement Miller’s image of Chiron:
“Ah! You’ve woken up at last, Daughter of Eve,” [Glimfeather the Owl] said. “Perhaps you’d better wake the Son of Adam. You’ve got to be off in a few minutes and two Centaurs have very kindly offered to let you ride on their backs down to Cair Paravel.” He added in a lower voice. “Of course, you realize it is a most special and unheard-of honour to be allowed to ride a Centaur. I don’t know that I ever heard of anyone doing it before. It wouldn’t do to keep them waiting.”
… Eustace was now up and he and Jill set about helping Orruns [the Faun] to get the breakfast. Puddleglum was told to stay in bed. A Centaur called Cloudbirth, a famous healer, or (as Orruns called it) a ‘leech’, was coming to see to his burnt foot.
“Ah!” said Puddleglum in a tone almost of contentment, “he’ll want to have the leg off at the knee, I shouldn’t wonder. You see if he doesn’t.” But he was quite glad to stay in bed.
Breakfast was scrambled eggs and toast and Eustace tackled it just as if he had not had a very large supper in the middle of the night.
“I say, Son of Adam,” said the Faun, looking with a certain awe at Eustace’s mouthfuls. “There’s no need to hurry quite so dreadfully as that. I don’t think the Centaurs have quite finished their breakfasts yet.”
“Then they must have got up very late,” said Eustace. “I bet it’s after ten o’clock.”
“Oh no,” said Orruns. “They got up before it was light.”
“Then they must have waited the dickens of a time for breakfast,” said Eustace.
“No, they didn’t,” said Orruns. “They began eating the minute they awoke.”
“Golly!” said Eustace. “Do they eat a very big breakfast?”
“Why, Son of Adam, don’t you understand? A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omelette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer. And after that he attends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the week-end. A very serious thing indeed.”
At that moment there was a sound of horse-hoofs tapping on rock from the mouth of the cave, and the children looked up. The two Centaurs, one with a black and one with a golden beard flowing over their magnificent bare chests, stood waiting for them, bending their heads a little so as to look into the cave. Then the children became very polite and finished their breakfast very quickly. No one thinks a Centaur funny when he sees it. They are solemn, majestic people, full of ancient wisdom which they learn from the stars, not easily made either merry or angry; but their anger is terrible as a tidal wave when it comes.
… To ride on a Centaur is, no doubt, a great honour (and except Jill and Eustace there is probably no one alive in the world today who has had it) but it is very uncomfortable. For no one who valued his life would suggest putting a saddle on a Centaur, and riding bare-back is no fun; especially if, like Eustace, you have never learned to ride at all. The Centaurs were very polite in a grave, gracious, grown-up kind of way, and as they cantered through the Narnian woods they spoke, without turning their heads, telling the children about the properties of herbs and roots, the influences of the planets, the nine names of Aslan with their meanings, and things of that sort. But however sore and jolted the two humans were, they would now give anything to have that journey over again: to see those glades and slopes sparkling with last night’s snow, to be met by rabbits and squirrels and birds that wished you good morning, to breathe again the air of Narnia and hear the voices of the Narnian trees.
… And when they had crossed they rode along the south bank of the river and presently came to Cair Paravel itself. And at the very moment of their arrival they saw that same bright ship which they had seen when they first set foot in Narnia, gliding up the river like a huge bird…. The children saw there would be no chance of reaching the Prince through all that crowd, and, anyway, they now felt rather shy. So they asked the Centaurs if they might go on sitting on their backs a little longer and thus see everything over the heads of the courtiers. And the Centaurs said they might.
A flourish of silver trumpets came over the water from the ship’s deck….
We get less detail here about the intimacy of riding Narnian Centaurs than Greek ones, but we also learn about the habits of this community of Centaurs. Unlike Miller’s Chiron, we see that a rider’s seat is an advantage for comfort–even if a long journey bareback on a Centaur is still a painful affair. In both cases, the Centaurs are teachers and guides, filled with wisdom and strength, grave and yet generous.
One can learn much riding on the back of a Centaur–as we see in each of these Narnian and Greek scenes, but also as Harry Potter is rescued from grave danger in the Forbidden Forest by Firenze, a Centaur who is featured throughout the epic. Unlike Patroclus and Achilles of the Greek chronicles or Jill and Digory of the Narnia tales, Harry accepts a ride upon Firenze without knowing what a grave and unusual privilege it is. And, intriguing for the trend we see here, Harry approaches the invitation without answering the question of whether he is a trained rider.
‘Are you all right?’ said the centaur, pulling Harry to his feet.
‘Yes – thank you – what was that?’
The centaur didn’t answer. He had astonishingly blue eyes, like pale sapphires. He looked carefully at Harry, his eyes lingering on the scar which stood out, livid, on Harry’s forehead.
‘You are the Potter boy,’ he said. ‘You had better get back to Hagrid. The Forest is not safe at this time – especially for you. Can you ride? It will be quicker this way.
‘My name is Firenze,’ he added, as he lowered himself on to his front legs so that Harry could clamber on to his back.
There was suddenly a sound of more galloping from the other side of the clearing. Ronan and Bane came bursting through the trees, their flanks heaving and sweaty.
‘Firenze!’ Bane thundered. ‘What are you doing? You have a
human on your back! Have you no shame? Are you a common
‘Do you realise who this is?’ said Firenze. ‘This is the Potter
boy. The quicker he leaves this Forest, the better.’
‘What have you been telling him?’ growled Bane. ‘Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens.
Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets?’
Ronan pawed the ground nervously.
‘I’m sure Firenze thought he was acting for the best,’ he said, in
his gloomy voice.
Bane kicked his back legs in anger.
‘For the best! What is that to do with us? Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our Forest!’
Firenze suddenly reared on to his hind legs in anger, so that
Harry had to grab his shoulders to stay on.
‘Do you not see that unicorn?’ Firenze bellowed at Bane. ‘Do you not understand why it was killed? Or have the planets not let you in on that secret? I set myself against what is lurking in this Forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must.’
And Firenze whisked around; with Harry clutching on as best he could, they plunged off into the trees, leaving Ronan and Bane behind them (ch. 15).
There is significantly more to the life of Centaurs in J.K. Rowling‘s invented worlds, but we learn much here. Rowling deepens the grave choice for a Centaur to carry a human by making it symbolic of the Centaurs’ long oppression by the Wizarding world. Firenze choosing to carry Harry brings a sense of cultural indignity–even as Firenze is doing one kind of good in the moment. As Bree disdains being compared with a donkey, Potter-world Centaurs feel the sting of the same comparison. The insults against Firenze are deeper than mere insult, though. Given the Centaurs’ struggle for recognition (which heightens in the series as the Wizarding world flirts with different kinds of authoritarian regimes), readers will know how deep the wound of “mule” goes, given the half-breed nature of our common, infertile beast of burden.
Later in the Harry Potter series, Firenze becomes a Hogwarts teacher, drawing wisdom from terrestrial and celestial signs much like the Narnian Centaurs. Firenze is different in character than Roonwit the Centaur in The Last Battle, and Rowling’s racial (species) struggle is a keen one. Regardless, the Centaurs in both worlds share similar arts and sciences and, as a race, carry themselves with a certain dignity and grandeur.
I have never doubted that the grave, thoughtful, clannish, and mystical centaurs that live near Hogwarts in Harry Potter are drawn from the same ancestry as the Narnian Centaurs. And yet there is more to these links than I first thought. Whether it is human perspectives about their chimeric physiology, the art of riding, the grave dignity of the creature, or the teacherly wisdom Centaur’s yearn to share even as they are tight-lipped and reticent, there is a shared Centaur tradition in our pages–despite different storylines and an open debate about whether humans are easier to train as riders than to retrain. Madeleine Miller’s Chiron–with perhaps a literary nod to Narnia that Rowling’s Potterverse shares–reminds me about how the stories go back and back, ever feeding imaginative writers and readers and myth-speakers with evocative images of these greatest of untameable creatures.
It is interesting, isn’t it, how memory and story work?