H. A. Byrd

Rocinante and Dapple

Photo by Diane Jhueck

Those who bond with animals develop a strange estimation of their transcendent abilities. And who can blame us? I’m certain that my old grey tabby understands every word of English. Last night at ten-thirty he demonstrated this once again.

“Catfish,” I whispered to him as he was curled and sleeping, “You’ve neglected your nine o’clock duties.”

He looked up at me bleary-eyed, shook his head, and stood up. Still glancing at me he hopped over to his usual position on the ottoman, where he sits at nine and stares until I eventually rise to serve the canned catfood.

Painting by Cesare Agostino Detti

We ascribe human qualities to animals because of our clouded view of them. Since they can’t communicate in human speech we tend to forget that they think very differently. And that mysterious nonverbal part of them is connected with the spirit of nature in a way that we lose after our own infancy.

Our humanization of animals has a powerful place in stories. And nobody makes more fun of this than Cervantes.

Has there ever been a horse more fabulous than Rocinante? I’ve learned through years and travels that work animals are not pets, and this was certainly the case in early 17th century Spain. But due to reading far too many knightly romances, Don Quixote's obsession with chivalry causes him to elevate his nag and rename him Rocinante. The horse of a knight-errant commands respect. And the spirit of Rocinante, the horse who is more than he actually is, lives on through the centuries.

The squire Sancho, along with his donkey Dapple, represent humility and realism. Together, they take the brunt of much of the results of Don Quixote’s idealism. Sancho uses Dapple as a metaphor for himself and thus avoids confronting his master.

Book illustration by Gustave Doré

Don Quixote and Sancho share an exalted view of Rocinante. After the four suffer a beating, this time due to a farmer’s rage after the horse attempts to mate with his herd of mares, Sancho implores his master, “See if your worship can make shift to rise, and then we will give some assistance to Rocinante, tho’ it be more than he deserves; for, he was the principal cause of all this nasty rib-roasting: never could I believe such a thing of Rocinante, who, I always thought, was as chaste and sober a person as myself: but, this verifies the common remark, that you must keep company a long time with a man, before you know him thoroughly.”

Don Quixote and his squire humanize their animals. Yet there is balance in all things. Idealism and realism are both important in our lives. While not the same as us, the creatures of our world experience life in many of the same ways that we do. We relate to them on a very deep level.

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Copyright © 2020 Harriet Arden Byrd