Richard Adams is best known for his landmark children’s novel WATERSHIP DOWN, but to me, he’ll always be the voice of Traveller.
Adams passed away in the final week of 2016 at the age of 96. He was a World War II veteran and served for a year as the head of the RSPCA, an animal welfare charity in Britain. Most of his obituaries mention WATERSHIP DOWN and other books, but not TRAVELLER, which is reportedly out of print.
As Adams’s Traveller might say, that’s a durned shame. Yet, I also understand.
So will you, if you haven’t figured it out already.
Why TRAVELLER now?
The book TRAVELLER is a fictional Civil War memoir told by Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse.
After Adams passed away, I decided to revisit the book. I first read the novel soon after its hardcover release in 1988. I hadn’t read it since.
Almost thirty years later, with Adams’s passing, I wondered how I’d view the novel now, especially at the end of the tumultuous 2016.
When I first read TRAVELLER, I was a general assignment reporter for a Connecticut daily newspaper but less than ten years from Kentucky where the Civil War both simmers and haunts. Since then, I left print journalism to travel as well as branch off into digital journalism and fiction.
We all view information and entertainment through the lenses of our experiences. As a novelist myself, would I find the novel’s pacing slower? Now that I ride regularly, would the horse behavior ring true? Also, how would the Confederate Army-centric story ring — even resonate — in the tumultuous and contentious 2016?
I purchased Kindle edition to find out..
Black Beauty meets Huck Finn at War
The book opens with Traveller in retirement after the Civil War. He’s stabled at what was then Washington College where Lee served as president. The war horse tells his story in flashbacks to the barn cats. Adams adds historical inserts for perspective and clarity because the we see the Civil War through the eyes and perspective of a horse.
Speaking of … here are a few things to remember about Traveller’s narration because it can be difficult to keep characters and events straight for the following reasons:
He tells his story in southern dialect with phonetically spelled words.
The inserted historical passages offering perspective are written in standard English.
In this century, writing in dialect is considered risky, if for no other reason than it’s too easy to mess it up. We modern writers are expected to document regional speech through diction and sentence structure.
I didn’t struggle with the rural southern idioms because I grew up hearing them and, frankly, reading a similar voice in Twain’s novels.
But that’s not the most problematic.
The story spends a lot of time with Confederate soldiers, so you can guess which one. I’m not sure which shocked me more, the graphic battle scenes or the use of racial epithets, especially That Word.
For the record, Traveller doesn’t use The Worst Word while telling his story unless he quotes someone. More about that soon.
I wanted to mention that right off the top, so you know I’m not ignoring it. I do have more to say on the matter and will soon.
His nicknames for other generals
“Marse Robert” is self-explanatory. But “Jine-The- Cavalry” and “Cap-In-His-Eyes?” Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and Gen. Stonewall Jackson may not have introduced themselves by name to Traveller, but he knows the names of their horses Skylark and Little Sorrel.
He thinks the South won the war and Lee is the President.
Traveller adores his “Marse Robert,” and the admiration is mutual, even though Traveller wasn’t an easy horse to ride and even badly injured Lee in a spook during the middle of the war. Still, they became something of a celebrity pair, especially among Virginians, so much so that Traveller’s tail took a bit of a beating because devoted fans would pluck hairs as souvenirs.
Before we continue …
I realize a lot of you have hackles raised and jangling. That itself may explain why TRAVELLER is out of print except for ebook. Hang in there. My thoughts on that soon. Moving on …
Traveller still can’t wait to get to that wonderful war he’d heard everyone looking forward to
He never loses his naivete, even after the terror and horror of the battles, even as his fellow war horses try to wise him up. To Traveller, the battlefields were chaotic and scary diversions on the road to the war.
Life as a cavalry horse
Modern readers will recognize the signs of post-traumatic stress in Traveller in his nightmares, flashbacks, and tension. He uses his military experience to suggest rodent elimination tactics for the barn cats.
Lee’s patient yet in-charge horsemanship served him well both in the saddle and in command. Of the three horses Lee took to war, his original charger Richmond died of colic early in the war. The general’s most docile mount was the mare Lucy Long, but “the bangs,” as Traveller calls artillery noise, made her tremble in fear, which promoted Traveller to the general’s primary horse.
“I knowed I’d rather be with Marse Robert and do jest what he wanted me to do — I’d rather be with him than even save my life.”
And later, when Traveller explains the situation to the barn cat Tom:
” … a horse has to have — what can you say? — he has to have faith in his man ‘fore he can be brave himself.”
Traveller fretted when his friends left, either for sale or battle or just as part of life. Throughout the book, the young Traveller keeps reminding himself of an observation made by his early groom Zeb:
“Horses is like black folks — ain’t got no say-so. Forever sayin’ good-bye.”
From around the Internet
History Net has an article on Traveller and Lee. If you decide to read the novel, you may want a printout of the article to keep the history straight as Traveller shares his memories.
Chris of the Emerging Civil War blog talks about TRAVELLER after Adams passed away.
And from 1988 is this Los Angeles Times book review of TRAVELLER with a summary of the plot.
TRAVELLER is a risky book to read, let alone blog about, and probably was a risky book for an English author of children’s books to write even in late 20th century.
Think about it: a historical novel of the American Civil War told from the viewpoint of Robert E. Lee’s most famous horse, complete with period sensibilities and language, all written by an Englishman. As the book’s Notes & Acknowledgements section says, Adams researched the Civil War, Lee, Traveller, equine behavior, and regional speech.
Artistically, TRAVELLER is a tour de force. That it’s out of print, except for the ebook version, doesn’t surprise me.
Schools continue to ban HUCKLEBERRY FINN because of That Word, which is also in TRAVELLER. Another problematic feature of the novel is the characterization of various Confederate officers and soldiers as southern states struggle with remnants of Confederate symbolism.
Despite That Word and the cultural divide Traveller trots through, the book still manages to show we’re all the same, blood and bone and heart and soul whether we trod the earth on four legs or two.
TRAVELLER is a book that will haunt you and won’t leave you alone.
You will never forget it.
My memory has racked up twenty-eight years and counting.