“We are all Centaurs and Centurides”: Professor Francisco LaRubia-Prado
Professor LaRubia-Prado enjoys being an equestrian as well as researching the impact horses have on society. (Photo: Claire Callagy)
By Gabrielle Matthews
Georgetown professor of Spanish Francisco LaRubia-Prado
takes a uniquely comparative approach when studying the relationship between literature, culture, and nature with a comparative approach. In his forthcoming book, LaRubia-Prado explores how horses have helped shape cinematic and literary representations of the frontier. The genesis of his interest in the interaction between human and horse began several years ago when he led a graduate seminar about the historical, philosophical and psychological perspectives of the idea of the “frontier.” During the discussion of the material for this course, the bond between “frontier heroes” and their horses impressed him. He was further inspired by characters like Jack Burns (played by Kirk Douglas) in the 1962 movie “Lonely Are the Brave.” The main character, a loner, one of the last cowboys in a modern world, relies on his horse for his sense of place in the world as much, if not more, than the horse relies on him for survival. LaRubia-Prado was awed by the portrayal of the connection between the man and the horse and the sacrifice the main character made in order to stay with his equine companion.
LaRubia-Prado notes that many groundbreaking authors and filmmakers including Leo Tolstoy, Edgar Allan Poe, Akira Kurosawa, and John Huston all created important equine-centered work. He argues that even if the specific circumstances and issues developed in these works are different, there is a shared reason why horses are central to all.
LaRubia-Prado suggests that the impulse for authors throughout time to make the horse central to resolving specific aesthetic and philosophical issues is deeply rooted in the human psyche and in history. He postulates that horses have played a larger role in cultural development than any other element—from their contributions to the growth of economic systems to the advance of Western languages following the conquest of Western Europe by mounted Indo-Europeans.
Another factor, LaRubia-Prado notes, is the human need to find symbolic images in nature that contribute to our self-understanding as a species. The epic story of Seabiscuit and how he became a symbol of hope for many Americans during the Great Depression illustrates the powerful connection between humans and horses, as does national attention focused on the drama of the champion thoroughbred Barbaro, who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby only to die of racing related injuries sustained two weeks later. He also notes how the recent appearance of the book Horse Soldiers near the top of the New York Times bestseller list exemplifies contemporary fascination with human-horse interaction.
“Based on their role in human life in the empirical world, and, of course, on their symbolic role in literature and film, it is as if we had allowed horses to ‘look’ back at us and help us construct our own self-image as humans. In these ways, I believe that we are all centaurs and centaurides,” explained LaRubia-Prado.
LaRubia-Prado cites El Cid, the only complete surviving Spanish epic poem from the Middle Ages, as another example of the importance of horses in literature. El Cid, the hero of the poem, is exiled from the kingdom by the king of Castile. Money, jewels, or weapons are not appropriate gifts to garner favor from the king, only horses are the symbolic equivalent of honor and the suitable gift in El Cid’s world.
“Gifts in the European Middle Ages—and other pre-industrial societies—were supposed to carry the soul of the giver and they needed to be reciprocated by the receiver with something of equal or superior value,” said LaRubia-Prado. “In the Middle Ages, the horse was conceived of as the animal chosen by God to bring, along with the knight, virtue back to the world.”
LaRubia-Prado suggests that it is because of this gift of horses that El Cid and his followers obtain the royal pardon. However, the poem transcends the personal adventure of the hero and his efforts to recover his lost honor; it is also about the construction of a national identity. The recovery of balance in the relationships between the king and the hero happen in the text through the mediation of horses.
“The poem ends, not as a private adventure of the hero trying to recover his honor, but as a true epic poem where a great alliance is formed to strengthen Castilian identity and expand the kingdom and Christianity—an alliance between a wise king, a great hero, and a horse worth a kingdom,” said LaRubia-Prado. “Without horses, and especially Babieca (El Cid’s horse), the king and the hero would have never reconciled or created a strong bond as the pillar of the Castilian kingdom. Horses make possible the Poem of the Cid and they also make possible the Middle Ages as we know them.”
LaRubia-Prado explains that texts where horses are central, even ones written decades or centuries before, are relevant to modern, everyday life. He believes that writing about horses can shed light on the disconnection between people and nature and the people themselves, a situation that has made us lose some sense of “our place on earth.”
LaRubia-Prado’s current book is part of a larger body of ecocriticism, and he plans to continue this exciting work in future projects as it relates to other aspects of the connection between culture and nature. Since beginning this project LaRubia-Prado has taken up horseback riding.
“I went to a riding school in the Washington area, and, once I got on a horse, I could not, metaphorically speaking, get off the horse,” said LaRubia-Prado. “Since then, my fascination with these animals has only grown. They not only provide glorious hours of riding and connection with nature, but they are an inspiring force in different ways.”
If you were not a professor, what would you be doing? Probably a chef. Instead of being the professor who cooks, I'd be the chef who reads books.