A whirlwind is the beginning. . . . And in a whirlwind is the end. Yet the seed is in the whirlwind, and in the kiss of snow.
Some books are part of your inner life; I’ve said this before, writing about Elizabeth Goudge. Unlike Goudge, who I seem to have known since before my earliest memories, I do have a faint dim memory of my first meeting with the writing of Elyne Mitchell. I was seven or eight and it was a library book called Silver Brumby Kingdom. I borrowed it because I was already a voracious reader, and I liked horses, not realising it was the fourth in a series or anything about it other than the alluring cover by Annette Arthur Onslow.
Even now, that cover has the power to move me, to remind me of the effect the book had on me as a child reader. I’d read horse books before, but most of those were really about children (usually girls from a rather higher social class than me). I’d read animal stories. But none of those books were remotely like this one. Looking back, the only other book that gave me that same feeling, that same step into a real and meaningful difference was Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. This book—this pony book—was the first time in my life that I had really been immersed in the head of an Other.
It was not that I was unaware of difference. I read a lot, about children from all sorts of different backgrounds and places and in books that weren’t all by white British writers. School geography lessons were about the lives of children in other countries, of other faiths and cultures. What Mitchell did, though, which none of these books or lessons had done before, was take the step across to put me, as reader, into something utterly outside my experience.
The protagonists of the Silver Brumby series (having found one, I rapidly found the others and saved up to buy the Armada paperbacks) are all horses. They are wild; humans, who are only in some of the books, are present only as a threat and all blend into each other. The characters behave, by and large, more like horses than like horse-shaped humans. They inhabit a world shaped by needs and expectations and fears that are not human. And Mitchell, writing them, stays almost continuously within what they would recognise and need and fear. The mountains they live in are described in terms of what can be eaten, what is shelter, what is exposed, what is hard to run on. The reactions they experience are, in the main, more equine than human. They are not us, but they are real, significant, important, and, yes, heroic. Mitchell took me deep into their world and made me feel with them the panic of a bushfire, the fear of isolation, the delight of running. Somehow, without sentiment or anthropomorphism, she made their stories important, meaningful, necessary.
I am not, in general, a fan of anthropomorphic animal books, and the main reason is that, all too often, the characters are basically just differently shaped British or American people but with added sentimentality. Even Black Beauty talked, in his eponymous story, like a teacher or a grown-up on television. Mitchell’s characters—Thowra, Kunama, Baringa, Ilinga—did not do that. In some of the books, there is no speech at all: the characters communicate via touch and scent and movement. In others, they speak, but what they say is limited to what those nonverbal communications imply—“Where are you?”, “I’m pleased to be with you,” “Here I am.” They have associations with meaning—and Mitchell does a fine job of putting across the possessiveness and acquisitiveness stallions express towards the mares of their herds without going into details which the editors of her main period of writing (the 1950s and 1960s) might have felt inappropriate for children and without making these relationships seem lesser in any way.
Baringa, the main character of that first book, Silver Brumby Kingdom, and its precursor, Silver Brumbies of the South, was my idea of true courage and heroism for years because Mitchell made him real and admirable—and not at all human. It is a remarkable feat of writing and one which has stood the test of time. Even now, I can still feel the horror of the long dark day through which Baringa battled with the vicious chestnut stallion Bolder and both are left for dead; the fear when the mare Dawn is swept away in a flash flood; the joy and delight in Thowra and Kunama dancing on the frozen surface of Lake Cootapatamba; the sadness of the death of the wise Bel Bel. She made no allowances for the age of her readership: characters die and are maimed or captured from early on in the first book, and with none of the moralising of Anna Sewell. Characters lose and fail. Characters—including the heroes—kill.
There is something mesmeric about the Silver Brumby books, alongside a strong strain of the mythic and the wild. Mitchell is well aware that horses are intruders into her Australian setting and makes their lack of full adaptation to the environment compared with the other animals there clear. She is aware of the impact of white colonialism, too, and its effects on the land. A deep love of that land and a respect for it runs through all her work. Her books are not allegorical (with the exception perhaps of Moon Filly): the horses are hunted by men seeking mounts and animals to sell, but she does not push that metaphor beyond what it means to her characters. They are not overtly political, though all fiction encodes some of the political context of the writer: the wild horses are not a pattern for government, unlike the rabbits of Watership Down. They are elegiac. The horses’ lives are short, and filled with hazard, and their world is under threat from the expansion of men as well as the forces of weather and fire.
She winds hints of Australian colonial history through the place names she uses and the hints she gives of older myths and stories and rhythms. But she weaves her own myth through this: the story of the great cream stallion Thowra, the Silver Brumby of the first book in the series. Thowra is horse and myth in one, tied to the wind for which he is named and the snow in which he is born. The memories of horses are not like the memories of humans, and the characters know of him through his presence as the dominant male, his cleverness, and their awareness of his territories; the humans—rarely glimpsed—speak of him as a perhaps fictional ghost horse. And yet he is somehow part of myth: through the whole sequence we get glimpses of another landscape, an older one with deep roots and tales conveyed by birds and native animals and places, which are making Thowra and his line part of their narrative. (In opposition mainly to the white men who intrude and hunt and damage, but this interpretation may be inferring meaning which Mitchell did not intend.)
You may well say, at this point, But what have pony books to do with fantasy? It’s a valid question. In the hierarchy of books—and there is one, regrettably—horse stories may well be at the bottom, below even the much reviled, unfairly judged romances and other “girly” stuff. Yet they are part of our genre history, along with swashbucklers and historical novels and adventure stories and all the other animal tales (many of which are happily included as at least allies of our genre). For women writers, in particular, horse books were the first place where they encountered female agency—and in which female agency is normalised and expected, which is even now a pretty fantastical notion. An entirely unscientific poll of my female writer colleagues revealed that for nearly all those of us who are British or Australian, Mitchell is a key writer and an early influence. And then, there is her writing. Her writing is, quite simply, beautiful: expressive, economical, textured, redolent of that most science-fictional of flavours, sense-of-wonder. The Silver Brumby and its sequels create a completely immersive, completely believable, completely engaging alternative world, made up of real, valuable, believable characters who are not us, and are all more real, significant, and important because of that, and told with the same resonance and depth of an Alan Garner or an Angela Carter.
I’m pretty sure that if her characters had been Tasmanian tigers or dingoes or even kangaroos, she would already have her place alongside Richard Adams and Kenneth Graham as a major writer of mythic animal fiction. But she wrote about horses, and our gendered world relegated her to that lowly category, that feminised enclave, the pony book.
It’s our loss. She is one of our foremothers, and we are the less for losing her.
(I would like to thank all those who responded to my question about Mitchell on Facebook and initiated a wonderful and thought-provoking discussion of her and other writers of horse stories: you are too many to name, but I am deeply grateful to you all.)