Saturday, 22 October 2011

In praise of chariots

Queen Jadis rides a London cab with style. Illustration
by Pauline Baynes from "The Magician's Nephew" by C.S. Lewis

A chariot is a vehicle travelling fast and light, often over unknown terrain; a lone traveller who may be on a scouting mission or just revelling in the joy of speed. A chariot is full of the spirit of adventure. Its wheels turn always toward the unknown. I originally wanted a flying carpet but my friends tell me I need to be more grounded, so a chariot it is.

You can accessorise a chariot. For instance: an Indian chariot has a large parasol to shelter a passenger from the elements, making it possible to be both indoors and outdoors at the same time. If you want, you can fly a flag above the parasol. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s flag hosted the spirit of Hanuman the monkey hero and when the chariot speeded up you could hear the flag screaming in the wind to frighten his enemies. I don’t think I need to do that, but it’s a nice idea. Boadicea had viciously long knives strapped to her wheels, all the better to mow down Romans with: again, not strictly necessary. My own chariot will have many little bells on it so you will hear my approach from a distance, like a shimmering mist. Then anyone who wants to run away and hide will have ample warning!

Chariots can also be used for exercise. On campaign, Alexander the Great would ride alongside his men, jumping on and off his chariot constantly, like a hyperactive six year old. He did it to keep himself fit, but I imagine it also cheered his weary troops to see someone working harder than them. On one occasion when they had been marching through a desert for days, water had nearly run out and morale was at an all time low. The thirsty men collected together what was left of their water ration and presented it to Alexander in a helmet, but he poured it onto the sand in front of them, saying he would not drink when his men could not. They did find water fairly soon so it all worked out okay, and he became even more of a legend. Who knows whether his behaviour displayed clever management skills or a genuine concern for his men? Maybe both. My own chariot will be able to fly through the air or speed across the surface of the ocean, so it will not support that “one of the lads” image, but Alexander would still have liked it for the ostentatiously embossed metal armouring I intend to clutter the bodywork with.

Such a chariot will need the right kind of horses, possibly the kind you could steal from a Russian fairytale. For instance, in "The Firebird", a hunter called Ivan is trying to discover what is eating all the Tzar's best apples when he finds a brightly shining tail feather, ringed with flames. His horse (the kind you really need if you are to survive a story like that) warns him not to pick it up but, having no sense of self-preservation, he does. The horse then gets him out of every sticky situation he insists on getting himself into and upstages him completely, but Ivan is the one who gets all the credit.

Another useful mount would be the fire breathing chestnut coloured horse whose left ear you can climb into and right ear you can climb out of to be completely improved in looks, strength and personality. A poor boy (called Ivan again, I think) captured the heart of a princess and made his fortune by having this makeover. Such a horse could be a constant source of revenue at fairs, or in a booth at Covent Garden, perhaps.

Or, while I was in Russia, I could lie in wait for the three horses that herald the changing times of day. If you happen to be in the right place, and if you stay very still, you can see them pass: the white horse of dawn, the red horse of midday and the black horse of darkest midnight. Of course, they are already ridden by silent but rather grim looking horsemen so you would have your work cut out pilfering one.

I have considered Scheherazade’s one-of-a-kind mechanical flying horse that made off with an Arabian prince on a test run and then landed him in enemy territory facing a three month hike home, but you could never really trust such a thing. It did redeem itself later on and his journey was the cause of great good fortune in the end, but still…

In Greece, Helios and Selene used good old horses to draw the chariots of the sun and moon across the sky. Those horses sound perfect but their absence would be quickly noted and who wants the Greek gods on their tail? Helios and Selene sound fairly easygoing but they were later identified with Apollo and Artemis: enough said. 

Other options present themselves. Why horses? Well, because anybody harnessing cats to their chariot would be very disappointed. I wondered briefly how many kittens you would have to use, as they are infinitely more loveable, but imagine parking a thousand kitten power chariot and feeding them and all that. It’s just not doable. To think nothing of the furballs. Griffins, winged lions as depicted in the Book of Kells, wolves or wild boar: the list is endless. A chariot pulled by a phoenix? Think of the health and safety implications. Flamingos? Too showy. And there’s no point looking to the Indian deities for guidance as they have even less discrimination than western  gods. The goddess Durga has four lions pulling her chariot, the goddess Saraswati, swans, and Lakshmi lies on the back of a gigantic cobra called Shesha. I even saw a picture of the goddess Ganga on a crocodile. I ask you!

Dogs? Now, that is a distinct possibility. On the road into Cambridge from Trumpington I once saw a kind of bicycle-rickshaw thing pulled by two dogs. They were straining at the leash, their faces quivering with joy. The women riding the contraption was not even pedaling; she smiled at me as she thundered past, certain in the knowledge she had the city’s coolest ride. It made me want a dog, just so I could take it for runs tied to my bike. It’s not cruel to ask a dog to pull something: it gives it a chance to be important and elevates its status to the indispensability that all dogs long for. I suggested to my brother that he make a little cart for his dog Macha, so she can help him when he goes shopping, but he said she would run away with it and catching her could take hours. I think if he put heavy enough items in the cart or attached little brakes to the wheels like on the bottom of a large wheelie bin so she could be parked on the pavement outside, practising her resentful look, the problem would be solved, but he remains unconvinced.

And what about huskies? Hardier than horses in a cold climate, more intelligent than reindeer; should I wish to ride my chariot across the desolate wastes of Antarctica (with sledge attachments over its wheels, of course) a husky or eight would be just the thing.

There is much to consider. Perhaps our choice of steed gives some indication of our inner nature.  If so, I suspect that my chariot will be pulled by a selection of creatures in a daily relay. It would be really exciting not to know what was going to pull you each day! I could probably handle the kittens for a short while, for example, or the wild boar, but not for too long. This way, each day could be a pleasant surprise. So I am starting my journey with whatever presents itself, fair or foul, heavy-duty or lightweight.

Forward, upward, inward! The imagination-chariot must be trusted to know how best to proceed; only then we can gallop (or slither or wing) toward our goal at full speed.


  1. WOW
    this is a fabulous post. this is absolutely something that should be considered, perhaps on a yearly basis. and have you *made* such a contraption, yet, i ask? ahem. even a miniature? really.
    i especially like the idea of different steeds for different days--i often feel as if i am being led just so, and anyway, then you sometimes *are* in for a magic carpet ride, right?
    did you see the old satyr-driven ones at the biblioddysey blog? very much worth a peek. i will try to post a link here, we'll see:

    if it doesn't work, he called it "satyr taxis."

    and what a great name for a dog, macha.

  2. Thanks Zoe, what a nice endorsement! I do have a chariot, actually, but as it is currently active only in the inner worlds it does not have to incarnate in one particular form and can change constantly, the lucky thing. If it did have to have one shape it would probably be quite Indian in appearance as I'm really shockingly conservative in many ways. I suppose the human body is the ultimate chariot for the physical plane, but don't we all feel like a change at some point? I had a dream once where I was a huge ball of flame speeding fiercely and joyfully across the surface of the earth a few miles up, trailing a sound I can only describe as operatic, but with a core of complete silence. That's much more like it!

    I just had a look at the satyr taxis (which are brilliant, thanks for pointing them out) and I don't know what this says about me, but my first thought was how on earth did all those creatures agree to work together? If you ask an administrator to find a load of satyrs, nymphs, harpies etc who will all pull together happily in the same direction, you will receive a pitying look and a long-suffering sigh. Perhaps the pictures depict their willing participation in the same Weltanschauung? Can you share a Weltanschauung, or is it only one's own? Just read your today's blog (which I shall comment on as soon as I can get my brain cells to concentrate on it's multifacetedness and stop processing restaurant stuff like making patisseries and cashing up) and I am taking the first opportunity to use the word : )