“…there is no denying the wild horse in us,” says the hero of Virginia Woolf’s third novel, Jacob’s Room, “To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang…” From modernist fiction to internet memes, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Arthur Miller’s Misfits, the Rolling Stones and classic car brands, the “intemperately” galloping wild horse, at one with an epic landscape, is a handy objective correlative for freedom, innate, natural nobility and the rejection of man’s follies.
But our emotional western response to free-ranging equines is a relatively recent one. For most of history, wild horses were regarded as food, pests or a source of new tame animals. The remaking of the wild horse as an equine noble savage is a story taking in Romanticism, extinction, theatrical melodramas and near-naked ladies. And it begins with a grudge against a man named Mazepa in the 17th-century Polish court, and a disgraced poet.
For Literary Hub. (3rd November 2017)