My Toy Collection for a Horse: Gender Roles and Comparative Mythology in Nella’s Pony Epic
“Epic, epic things worthy of Odyssey or Proust or something”
The child’s mind, when left to its own devices, can make the grandest of tales. Unbound by the rules self-imposed by so many adult writers, the limits of a child’s story are pushed beyond pure reason by an “untrained” mind, exploring psychic territories beyond what is expected of most fantasy. It was thus with great interest that I watched the Pony Epic created by the young Antonella Inserra, a terribly underappreciated figure in the “Nostalgia Chick” series.
The full tale can be experienced here:
The story, passed down to us through the oral tradition as all epics once were, is a deceptively simple fable of a tyrannical ruler fighting a virtuous woman, causing a conflict so grand the gods themselves must intervene.
I don’t necessarily think that the story is comparable to The Odyssey or À la recherche du temps perdu as Nella suggests, not in quality mind you, but in form. Her work is probably more akin to the allegories of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, or perhaps the fabulations of Charles Perrault, that spinner of tales that has had such a hold on the psyche of modern youth through his often adapted fairy tales.
Being as this is such a recently spun tale, scholarship on it is severely lacking. But no longer, as I have chosen to delve deep into the symbolism inherent in this tale of pony pride and prejudice, discussing the major motifs and characters and finding their mythical lineage. In doing so, one finds a modern post-feminist epic, rife with the gleeful subversion of established myths.
Ponies: The Steed in the Stable
The story is set in Ponyland, a fictional nation of Hasbro brand horses. One can find literary ancestors to Ponyland in Jonathan Swift's Houyhnyhms, one of the nations visited by Gulliver. However, Swift's horses were meant to satirize civilization. Here, their society is played tragically straight.
It is not uncommon for fables of this kind to anthropomorphize animals to suit dramatic needs. Here, the majority of the characters are ponies, that is, they are small horses.
The horse in many tales plays a subservient role to the main, human characters. Thus, while the likes of Red Hare, Sleipnir and Pegasus are immortalized in song, it is their riders (Guan Yu, Odin and Bellerophon, respectively) that remain the champions.
Still, the horse plays an important role in folklore - the engine of motion, a role it has taken in myths from the shamanistic cults of Asia minor up to the lore of the American Old West. Horses pull the chariots of the gods, and drive the wheels of progress. As such they can be said to represent freedom of the individual spirit, carrying mortals from the cthonic plane to the celestial and back. To borrow a passage from Shakespeare, "When I bestride [a horse], I soar, I am a hawk. He trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes."
Horses also represent the free spirit, the wild. As horse riding was often a rite of passage for youths entering adulthood in both nomadic Mongol culture and feudal European culture, the horse can also represent sexual maturity. Research into what this meant in relation to the culture of young American women was hampered by the fact that I didn't want to put "sexual mature girls horses" into Google.
In Nella's Epic, we see a reversal of this notion. The horse is now a civilized beast with a central ruler and system of education. The symbol of freedom is tamed here, immediately establishing a tyrannical environment and solidifying the primary theme of the tyrant versus the people which will later serve as the primary conflict. The population is stabled, and yearning to break free.
The Clydesdale: Male Dominance in a Mare's World
The story is set in a decidedly male-dominated society, as Nella quickly establishes. This is clearly an allegory for the largely male-dominated world that she grew up in. The ruler of Ponyland is a Clydesdale, a particularly large breed of horse, connecting size to power. This is an artistic practice going back to Egypt, when hieroglyphs would depict the pharoah as being just as large as the gods.
What is particularly interesting about the ruler of Ponyland is his means of rule. King's of Europe claimed rule by Divine Right, claiming that God had appointed them. Other leaders claim the justification of the rule by strength, wisdom, or in modern America, popularity. The Clydesdale claims the right to the throne through his ability to drink the "watery horse-piss that passes for beer".
The connection between beer and masculinity has ties to pre-Christian Irish tradition, where beer, as brewed by the Gaelic god Gobniu, was considered the drink of kings and warriors. Mead, by contrast, was a drink for gods and the priest class. Beer was often consumed in great quantities at festivals celebrating the harvest by the greatest Irish warriors.
It should be noted that Nella equates beer with horse piss. It is not uncommon for the symbolism of holy drink to be explained in ritual - the Christian belief in transubstatiation that occurs during the ritual of the Eucharist equates the ritual wine that is drunk with the blood of Christ. Granted, the body fluid in Nella's ritual is not blood, but it still provides a similar function in the ritual. Remember that it is referred to not just as piss, but "horse piss". Keeping in mind that the characters are horses themselves, we see in this ritual the act of self-preservation. Much as the royal families tried to maintain a pure royal bloodline, the Clydesdale's ritual of drinking equine waste products is an attempt to create a closed system, purifying his body and therefore his rule.
This theme of purity is the driving force in the Clysdale's character. His portrayal is that of the tyrant, unaware of his limitations. His archaic male-dominated views are also portrayed to be in direct opposition to the more communal values of the other figures. The Clydesdale's attitude towards perceived weakness displays a very masculine philosophy of dominance, exemplified by the warrior class ritualism, and by purity of the body. Indeed, in many overtly male-oriented societies, combat is favored over community, with the weak being discarded and considered unfit for survival.
Whore with a Heart of Gold: Female Power in the Role of the Educator
The nemesis of the tyrannical Clydesdale is the more nurturing Teacher with a Heart of Gold, a prostitute who is also an educator. We see in her a contrast to the warrior nature of the Clydesdale with a more traditional caretaker role for the main female protagonist.
This role is traditionally one of female empowerment. Nella draws a parallel between the Whore with Mary Magdalene, but an older example may be a better comparison. In the story of Gilgamesh, the character of Shamhat is both whore and educator. A temple priestess, she is the one who tames the wild man Enkidu by showing his physical love for a week. In Abrahamic tradition, we can see this role in Eve, who gave Adam the fruit of knowledge and thus opened his eyes to a newfound wisdom.
In the Pony Epic, we see the whore-educator (hereon shortened to "whoreducator" for aesthetic reasons) giving enlightened wisdom not to men, but to children. Children have been considered symbols of innocence, and therefore the objects of fairy tale, as they are shown here. The teaching of children in the ways of a belief are very common across cultures, including ours. Christ's teachings state that, "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein" (Luke 18:18). The mind of the "impressionable" child is used here to show the nuturing viewpoint of the whoreducator as the pure, innocent philosophy, and thus the most wise. Thus, the role of the whoreducator is meant to show a benevolent and decidedly feminine ideal of community, balancing an acceptance of female sexuality with a respect for a woman's wisdom, and the recognition of the role that she plays in the passage to maturity.
The Great Lunar Bear: The Feminine as Savior
At the end of the tale, we recieve a deus ex machina in the form of the Great Lunar Bear, who comes down from the celestial plane and brings peace to the warring factions.
The lone deity named in this cycle poses an interesting subversion of the conventional image of a savior deity. The Great Lunar Bear, upon examining the symbolism of its existence, can be seen as a female Messiah.
This may seem strange to most readers, since bears, at least in most popular lore, tend to be associated with male aspects.
But in fact, the deity has more female aspects than male.
First let us look at the deity's associated sphere: the moon. In Western lore the moon has long been associated with the female, since both were thought to be the guardians of mysteries, in addition to the similar monthly cycles that both go through.
Perhaps the best known moon goddess is Artemis, protector of women and goddess of the moon, who stands in contrast to her twin brother Apollo, a solar deity. While she is more commonly associated with the deer, she is just as often connected to the bear; myths of Artemis have her disguised as a bear, she has turned foes into bears to be hunted, and at one time Athenian girls on the cusp of maturity were sent to a secluded temple to worship the goddess where they became known as arktoi, or "she-bears."
Now, eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the Lunar Bear himself is in fact a polar bear, and not the brown kind that would have been known to the Greeks. Fascinatingly enough, the polar bear is also given lunar attributes in Alaskan and Siberian myth. The moon was linked to the bear because both disappeared in winter and returned in spring, according to the shamans of the Arctic Circle.
So with that it mind, the Lunar Bear would seem a relatively conventional god figure. It wasn't all that uncommon to have a female deity act as a deus ex machina either - the last act of Homer's Odyssey had Athena descend from Olympus to create a peace between Odysseus and the families of the slain suitors, much as the Lunar bear does here. However, two words uttered by the author take this deity of the conventional and into the realm of the subversive:
This superficially states that the Lunar Bear is a Savior figure. The Great Lunar Bear certainly shares Christ's message of forgiveness - even the Clydesdale's long suffering wife forgives him for his constant abuse. This allusion becomes complicated when one realizes that Christ, traditionally, has been a male solar deity. He is referred to as "The Son", he dies and is resurrected much in the same way that the sun "dies" each night and is "reborn" the next day, and most depictions of him show a very solar light emanating from his head.
Thus, in having a female/lunar deity take on a male/solar role, the final act of the Pony Epic shows the power of the feminine and the need for equality between the sexes. It is through the feminine that we can look at others and see "who they are" rather than "who we want them to be."
Having examined the subtle flourishes in this fictional world, Nella's childhood fantasies offer a look into a world view that is subversivly idiosyncratic, yet mythopoeically satisfying. Indeed, as the Nostalgia Chick says, it is beneficial to create your own fantasy, but still, I think this corner of the subculture is grateful to Nella for sharing hers with us. Still, this story is only a glimpse into a larger ideaspace, with endless possibilities for expansion. You have given us your Hobbit, Nella, and I look forward to your Lord of the Rings.
- Oancitizen has just embarrassed every college professor he's ever had.