On Heroes, Heroines and Horses

For Love and Money went through a number of reorganisations before it was ready be submitted to a publisher. The following is an offcut which didn't make it into the book and which is too short, and too lacking in a central argument, to be published in an academic journal. I have polished it a little and posted it here, however, in the hope that it will be of interest.


It has been observed that "the equestrian statue or portrait has been favoured over the ages for honouring men, and occasionally women, of great fame, status and achievement, from mounted Roman emperors to mounted Boer War generals" (Johns 22-23) and this is because

The association of royal or aristocratic power with horses enabled the monarch or the lord to appear more “erect,” more potent, more the rational and the spiritual master not merely of his own flesh, nor simply of its various analogs in political and natural worlds, but of death itself. In its origins, this association almost certainly was related to the martial distinction between those who fought on horseback and those who served in wars as conscripted foot soldiers. Military prowess, which signified mastery of death by virtue of one’s ability to inflict death upon others, was the measure of virility. (Schwartz 657)

In literature, “From the epics of Homer to the Légende des siècles of Victor Hugo, the hero needs two things: a sword and a horse” (Longstaffe 239). It was perhaps the strength of this association which, in the course of the Middle Ages, led to Perseus's acquisition of a horse of a suitably mythical nature:

Ovid has Perseus fly down on winged sandals, but even though the winged horse Pegasus is associated with Perseus’ exploits (he is born, Ovid tells us, from the blood of slain Medusa) he does not serve as the hero’s means of transport or figure in the rescue of Andromeda. According to classical legend Pegasus belonged to Bellerophon, but at some point in the Middle Ages, as early perhaps as the ninth century, there began a literary and iconographic tradition which mounted Perseus on Bellerophon’s winged steed. This mistaken association of Perseus and Pegasus becomes quite common in late medieval treatments of Andromeda’s rescue. (Javitch 97-98)1

Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion contains a rather more recent literary figure who comes riding to rescue a lady from an unpleasant fate; he makes an indirect appearance in Joanna Maitland’s Bride of the Solway (2007) after the military hero of this HM&B romance has rescued his lady from an unwanted marriage by effecting a horseback abduction and then marrying her himself:

the ballad that his faithful valet was singing – and that his helplessly laughing wife had encouraged – was Sir Walter Scott’s Young Lochinvar.

‘So light to the croupe the fair lady he swung,’ Fraser carolled [...]. ‘So light to the saddle before her he sprung! She is won! We are gone [...] So daring in love, and so dauntless in war, Have ye e’er heard of gallant like young Lochinvar?’ (295)

Unlike Lochinvar, Maitland's hero had also saved his lady from a watery doom; at the beginning of the novel he rescued her before her bolting horse could carry her into “the Solway with its quicksands and unpredictable tides” (15) and as a result she considers him “a knight in shining armour to a damsel in distress” (67).2

In Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) it is a cowboy who plucks a schoolmarm from a partially submerged stagecoach: “a tall rider appeared close against the buried axles, and took her out of the stage on his horse so suddenly that she screamed. She felt splashes, saw a swimming flood, and found herself lifted down upon the shore” (73). When the narrator describes them as an “unrewarded knight” and “his lady” (84), however, he reveals the older literary convention underlying this scene set in the American West.

Fay Weldon, writing about HM&Bs, has commented that “The notion [...] of ‘one day my knight will come,’ seems to be hard-wired into women. Strong and powerful, he gallops out of the forest in shining armour and offers us true love.” Although horseback rescues of heroines are not very common in the modern romance genre and would not often be practical or even possible in contemporary-set romances, the idea that such an act is the quintessence of heroic behaviour persists, as demonstrated by the many romances which refer to the hero as a knight in shining armour.

This saviour-hero has a threatening counterpart, “the dark, estranged antihero [...] the dangerous lover” (Lutz ix). He too may appear suddenly, accompanied by a horse or horses, but his arrival is more likely to signal the forced abduction of the heroine than her rescue. The dangerous hero of E. M. Hull's The Sheik (1919) is on horseback as he rides after Diana Mayo and captures her:

the fiery chestnut that the Arab was riding crept up nearer alongside. She would not turn to look again, but glancing sideways she could see its small, wicked-looking head, with flat laid ears and vicious, bloodshot eyes, level with her elbow. For a moment or two it remained there, then with a sudden spurt the chestnut forged ahead, and as it shot past it swerved close in beside her, and the man, rising in his stirrups and leaning towards her, flung a pair of powerful arms around her, and, with a jerk, swung her clear of the saddle and on to his own horse in front of him. (Hull 44)

Hull's sheik is certainly not the first of the dangerous mounted lovers. As I have stated in For Love and Money "many romance plots are [...] derived from myths and fairytales" (75), including "the tale of Persephone (echoed in a thousand stories involving a woman being carried off by a mysterious, powerful male who is in turn enthralled and brought to his knees by her)” (Krentz 113). Persephone (also known as Proserpine) was abducted by Pluto, who ruled over the dead in the underworld and, having been “caught and snatcht into the Chariot” (Claudian 47) drawn by four “cole black” (34) steeds, she became his bride.3

In Claire Thornton's Raven's Honour (2002) the reader is introduced to the hero, Major Cole Raven, in the opening scene when the heroine, Honor, is at risk of drowning in "the angry, fast-flowing waters of the River Heubra" (7):

She was numbed by the heat-sapping cold. Blinded by the stinging water. Choking and drowning ...

She slammed up against something hard and unyielding. What little breath she had left in her body was knocked out of her. A strong arm plucked her unceremoniously from the water to lie across the high pommel of a Hussar saddle. She was draped face down, like a sack of corn, her breasts pressed against a muscular leg. [...] She was lying across a tall black horse, her body resting on the hard thighs of its rider. (9)

While Cole is "her rescuer" (9), the dark colour of his horse and the comparison between Honor and corn may recall Pluto's abduction of the daughter of the corn goddess, Demeter. This ambiguity is inherent in the type of romance hero "known in the trade as the alpha male. These males are the tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes that are at the heart of the vast majority of bestselling romance novels" (Krentz 107) and, according to Jayne Ann Krentz, he "must be part villain or else he won't be much of a challenge for a strong woman" (108-109).

Although Honor is aware that Cole and his horse could be dangerous, she does not believe they will harm her. She says of the horse that “He’s a great big dangerous beast who could stomp me into the ground if he wanted to – but he’s not going to. He’s always been a complete gentleman whenever we’ve met” (60) and even when Cole is at his most furious she believes much the same about him: “Honor was nervous, but she wasn’t frightened. Cole had never hurt her, and even now she felt safe in his arms” (136). Cole's horse, Corvinus, clearly functions in the novel as his alter ego: “He and the stallion were so closely attuned to each other they almost seemed to be two parts of a single entity” (55). Almost as soon as the horse is mentioned he is compared with his owner: “She knew this stallion. Even from her limited viewpoint the horse was unmistakable. But then she’d known from the first moment the identity of her rescuer – and the horse possessed the same fierce courage as his rider” (9). The stallion’s name, Corvinus, is derived from corvus, the Latin for raven, which is his master’s surname, and he embodies the powerful, dangerous, dark qualities so often ascribed to romance heroes.

In addition to the military and political power associated with the figure of the horseman, his position “also identified the proper relationship of the family patriarch to his wife and children. [...] Attainment of the idealized image of the submissive, obedient wife required that women be ‘broken’ like wild horses” (Schwartz 657-58).4 Cole himself, although he does not wish to break Honor of “the fierce independence he’d always admired in her” (199) believes that “Like a man taming an unbroken horse, he must coax her to submit to his will without breaking her spirit” (199-200).

Although this is what happens to Diana Mayo, the heroine of Hull's The Sheik, many modern romances reverse the gender dynamics of this taming. Jay Dixon has observed that “In Mills & Boon novels [...] it is the hero who is constantly compared to an animal” (77-78) and she suggests that “These references [...] have obvious connections to the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, a strong motif in Mills & Boon novels. Just as Beauty tames the Beast, so does the heroine turn her alien lover into her hero” (78). Jayne Ann Krentz compares the Beast-hero to a wild horse:

Any woman who, as a little girl, indulged herself in books featuring other little girls taming wild stallions knows instinctively what makes a romance novel work. Those much-loved tales of brave young women taming and gentling magnificent, potentially dangerous beasts are the childhood version of the adult romance novel. (109)

The sexual symbolism in the relationship between girls and horses in "the immensely popular pony book genre novels for girls which flourished particularly in the post-war years" (Cunningham 66) has been noted by Gail Cunningham, who argues that

the pre-pubescent girl's yearning for a horse or pony symbolises a desire for independence - even dominance - coupled with the traditional 'feminine' traits of caring and nurturing. A girl on a horse, as these books repeatedly demonstrate for their impressionable female readers, can link her skills of application, care and patience to the equalising power of the horse itself. She can at once love and dominate a creature bigger and stronger than herself which satisfies a latent sexuality unavailable to her future adult self. (66)

It is, however, available to modern romance heroines and the gradual change in Honor and Cole's relationship can be traced through their sex scenes. Placed exactly at the centre of the novel and initially described through military imagery, the first takes place in Spain at a transitional moment as Cole, who has “spent his entire adult life in the army,” (155) is attempting to come to terms with an imminent return to life as a civilian, “running the family estates” (148). Honor is “trembling and submissive beneath his passionate onslaught” (150) while Cole, “Impatient to claim his full victory” (150) and “intent on conquest” (150), “wanted to hear her cries and moans of surrender” (151). Matching the forthcoming shift from the military to the bucolic, Cole suddenly realises that he “was looming over Honor like an avenging warrior” (151), and on becoming aware of her “apprehension” (151) “Remorse and frustration slammed through him. He didn’t want her frightened surrender, he wanted to touch her soul, the way she’d touched his” (152). What follows suggests a move towards a more equal sexual relationship as Honor “matched him thrust for thrust, as demanding and wild in her need for him as he was in his need for her” (154).

The second sex scene takes place against the backdrop of an English Arcadia. The peaceful nature of their surroundings is reiterated: “She loved this peaceful place he’d brought her to [...] He wanted this night with her, in peace and solitude” (224). Given this setting, the sex scene is appropriately devoid of military allusions and the sexual position Honor assumes is a “reversal of what she’d expected” (236). This “reversal” may recall the earlier prominence of the image of the high mimetic warrior hero astride his stallion because in a “bawdier use of the horse/rider metaphor and its connotations of male dominance [...] to ‘mount’ and ‘ride’ a woman works both literally and metaphorically to exert control over the imagined disorder presumed to result from the ‘woman on top’” (Boose 199). In this pastoral setting Corvinus has been left in Lisbon until Cole’s servant can arrange to have him brought home (174), the former warrior has been unhorsed and Cole “moved on to his back, and lifted her to straddle him” (235). The physical “reversal,” like Corvinus’s absence, is only temporary but it establishes that the sexual balance of power has shifted permanently. By placing Honor “on top” Cole has relinquished a hyper-dominant role: he is now her tamed stallion and she thus becomes “not just the recipient of Cole’s desire, but an active participant in their mutual arousal and ultimate satisfaction” (235).


1 Reeves discusses cases of Perseus appearing mounted on Pegasus in a sixteenth-century text by George Peele and in a number of seventeenth-century texts by Thomas Heywood. Steadman suggests that some references to Perseus as the rider of Bellerophon’s horse, including at least one of those discussed by Reeves,

may have been influenced by pejorative interpretations of the Bellerophon myth. His tragic fall from his winged steed in attempting to scale heaven had made him a conventional symbol for ambition and overweening arrogance [...] Comparison with Bellerophon could confer no credit on a horseman. Hence Jonson, Shakespeare, and Peele - utilizing the Pegasus allusion as a tribute to horsemanship - tactfully avoided any reference to this hero. (409)

2 Lochinvar is also mentioned in Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion (1953) by a secondary character with “a taste for romantic fiction” (39) who quotes at length from the poem:

‘[...] “He staid not for brake, and he stopp’d not for stone, He swam the Eske river where ford there was none! [...] For a laggard in love and a dastard in war, Was to wed the fair Ellen of brave Lochinvar! [...] One touch to her hand, and one word in her ear, When they reached the hall door, and the charger was near; So light to the croupe the fair lady he swung, So light to the saddle before her he sprung!” (70)

3 The hero's superior position, sitting high above the world, is not always secure.  Longstaffe observes that “heroes start falling off their horses in French literature at the time when aristocracy is rocked off its pedestal by the Revolution, the order of chivalry is replaced in the social order by the Third Estate, and in the world of letters, tragedy, with its noble protagonists, yields pride of place once and for all to the novel, the pre-eminently bourgeois genre” (239). It is also the case that the novels she examines tend towards the “pole of verisimilitude” (Frye 52) rather than towards the upper reaches of the high mimetic mode, and it seems appropriate, therefore, that their protagonists should fall off an animal which is so closely associated with the heroes of myth and legend.

To the heroes described by Longstaffe one might add Charlotte Brontë’s Mr Rochester, first glimpsed on “a tall steed” which then slips on a “sheet of ice,” (114) bringing down both horse and rider. Rochester’s appearance is likewise unheroic, and Jane Eyre is in fact reassured by this: “Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will” (115). It is, however, important to note that although Jane may have considered his looks unheroic, “In his combination of qualities – his age and social superiority, his dark and threatening features, his unhappy experience with other women, and his violence of mood – Rochester is the ancestor of all contemporary romance heroes” (Cohn 51). When Charlotte was writing her novel, however, “The superiority of the handsome young gentleman was embedded in tradition” (Cohn 53). The physical characteristics expected of a romance hero may alter, but the association between heroes and horsemanship would appear to have persisted.

4 The metaphor of women as horses which had to be broken was given literal form in the scold’s bridle which was used as a punishment for “Loquacious, scolding, swearing women” and consisted of “an iron cage, locked upon the head and armed with a cutting blade positioned to prevent the offender from moving her tongue” (Schwartz 658).

Works Cited

Boose, Lynda E. “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42.2 (1991): 179-213.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. London: Penguin, 1994.

Claudian. The Rape of Proserpine. Trans. Leonard Digges. 1617. Ed. H. H. Huxley. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1959.

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988.

Cunningham, Gail. "Seizing the Reins: Women, Girls and Horses." Image & Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Sarah Sceats and Gail Cunningham. New York: Longman, 1996.

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Oxford: Princeton UP, 2000.

Heyer, Georgette. Cotillion. 1953. London: Pan, 1966.

Hull, E. M. The Sheik. 1919. London: Virago, 2002.

Javitch, Daniel. “Rescuing Ovid from the Allegorizers.” Comparative Literature 30.2 (1978): 97-107.

Johns, Catherine. Horses: History, Myth, Art. London: British Museum P, 2006.

Krentz, Jayne Ann. “Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 107-14.

Longstaffe, Moya. “The Hero’s Fall from Grace: From Lucien Leuwen on a High Horse to Hector de Gribelin A Cheval.” The French Review 68.2 (1994): 239-250.

Lutz, Deborah. The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.

Maitland, Joanna. Bride of the Solway. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007.

Reeves, John D. “Perseus and the Flying Horse in Peele and Heywood.” Review of English Studies ns 6.24 (1955): 397-99.

Schwartz, Peter Hammond. “Equestrian Imagery in European and American Political Thought: Toward an Understanding of Symbols as Political Texts.” Western Political Quarterly 41.4 (1988): 653-73.

Steadman, John M. “Perseus upon Pegasus’ and Ovid Moralized.” Review of English Studies ns 9.36 (1958): 407-10.

Thornton, Claire. Raven’s Honour. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2002.

Vivanco, Laura. For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. Tirril, Penrith: Humanities Ebooks, 2011.

Weldon, Fay. “Mills & Boon Exhibition And Then He Kissed Me Shows How Women Yearn for the Dark Stranger.” Times 4 June 2008.

Wister, Owen. The Virginian. 1902. Ed. Robert Shulman. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998).


The photo of the "Balmoral Hotel and the statue of Wellington on his horse from outside Register House on Princes Street" was taken in Edinburgh on 3 November 2011 by Kaysgeog. It was made available for use by Kaysgeog under a Creative Commons (attribution, non-commercial, no derivative works) licence. It may only be reused or distributed according to the terms of this licence.