SFF Equines Revisits the Classics: Walter Farley’s Black Stallion Books
All the drama surrounding this year’s Kentucky Derby inspired me to re-read my favorite horse racing fiction. Of course, I had to rewatch the Black Stallion series, the first dozen volumes of which I read when I was a teenager and a teenager. I can’t say I outgrew them because the rest of the series appeared in the 70s and early 80s – I was still and always irresistibly drawn to the horse books – but I had moved on to other authors and genres.
Through the magic of e-books and the glories of instant gratification, I picked up a handful of later volumes: The revolts of the black stallions, The black stallion challenged, The black stallion and the girl, and The Legend of the Black Stallion. My memory of previous entries is surprisingly clear, considering how long and how many books I’ve read in between. Both movies, The black stallion and The Return of the Black Stallion, contributed to this, but I never forgot the offspring. Satan, Black Minx, Bonfire the harness racer… they are an integral part of my personal myth.
And let’s not forget the Island Stallion, Flame, whose saga intersects with that of Le Noir. I’ve already written about him here, because Farley delved into science fiction in the second volume, Island Stallion Races. This book is partly responsible for my tendency to write weird genre-mixes.
My original reason for returning to Farley was to see if I remembered correctly that he often wrote about the behavior and misbehavior of stallions in and around racetracks. The Black, his hero-horse, was essentially feral, rescued from a desert island by the boy Alec. The horse was originally domesticated and eventually stalked by its owner, but all of its natural instincts tended towards wild and free. The only thing that connects him to a domesticated life is his bond with Alec.
Much of this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Only a registered Thoroughbred horse may race in Thoroughbred races, including the three Triple Crown races. The Black, a desert Arab, can originally only run match races against famous Thoroughbreds – he can’t be entered into formal races – but after a few pounds Farley stops worrying at this subject. The Blacks’ thoroughbred Arabian son Satan wins the Triple Crown and his daughter Black Minx wins the Kentucky Derby. I guess the reasoning is that the main founding sires of the Thoroughbred breed were Arabians; why can’t the black continue the tradition?
I only recently learned that Walter Farley had written The black stallion in high school and published it in 1941 while in college. It’s not just a boy’s adventure story in the classic mold, it was written by someone around the same age as its protagonist.
Farley would never become a great prose stylist, and his plot and characterization were pretty basic. It is not a great literary talent. But it doesn’t need to be. From the start, he knew how to tell a story. Above all, he knew the horses.
The story he told in twenty volumes was a variation on a few themes. The boy and only the boy can handle the stallion. The stallion lives to run. He is the fastest horse in the world. Sometimes he runs for glory. Other times, especially in later volumes, he runs for the farm his earnings have bought. His offspring also bring money and fame to his humans.
In every book, there is an antagonist. Sometimes it’s a financial or personal crisis. It is often a rival for the title of fastest horse in the world for blacks. It’s often both. Usually there is a race that determines the fate of the horse and the farm.
The Black is a super horse. He is gigantic for an Arab, and growing with each pound, until he is well over seventeen hands. It’s even huge for a thoroughbred.
And yet, it is not a machine. In The revolts of the black stallions, he mentally slams under all the pressure he’s under. So much so that Henry the trainer sends him across the United States with Alec for a rest break at a friend’s ranch. But of course, this being a Walter Farley novel, the potential vacation turns into a whole new set of traumas. The plane carrying the boy and the Black crashes, and the Black escapes into the wild and Alec suffers a head injury that causes amnesia.
It’s actually pretty hard to read that the Black has become a feral stallion and that Alec has no memory of his name, background, or horse. I couldn’t wait for them to be reunited. It’s how powerful the bond between them is, and how well it shines through in book after book.
After a series of twists and a villain or two, Alec and the Black are reunited in a high-stakes race. During the race, Alec’s memory returns, just in time to save him from being arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. But that’s not as important to him, or to me as a reader, as the fact that the boy and his horse are finally reunited.
Another exciting reunion is between the Black and the island stallion, Flame. These two stars of the Farley universe met during another crazy adventure when Black and Alec were separated by a plane crash, this one in the Caribbean, but Alec doesn’t know the studs met. He also doesn’t know Flame’s human, Steve Duncan, until Steve sends Alec a fan letter.
In the letter, Steve asks for Alec’s help in enrolling Flame in a major race in Florida. Steve needs the winnings to buy Flame Island from the British government. Alec gives her advice on how to qualify for the race, but doesn’t really expect anything to come of it.
Not only does Flame qualify, but he proves to be a serious challenge to Black supremacy on the circuit. He’s just as fast and just as wild – and Black hates him. Alec doesn’t like it and isn’t very happy with Steve either. He’s not used to having a real rival in the racing world.
I think Farley wrote himself in a bit of a corner here. He didn’t want any of his equine stars to lose a race, and he clearly wanted Steve to buy his island and allow Flame and her herd to live there, forever free. The Black is injured, which somehow escapes the stakes of a real head-to-head between the stallions, and Flame gets his victory and his money.
Money has been an issue throughout the series. The need for this twists both people and horses. Steve makes his aim, but then continues running, until Alec asks him if that’s what he wants. Will he keep looking for racing scholarships, or will he decide he’s earned enough, and let Flame return to her life of freedom?
Alec faces the same problem with the Black. How long can he keep running? How long should he keep running? The black likes to run; he lives for it. But he begins to break down physically. Still, the farm needs its earnings to keep running.
These realities run through later books, along with the fantasy of the perfect horse and the romance between the horse and his boy. A more human romance surfaces in The black stallion and the girlin which an authentic Manic Leprechaun Dream Girl appears at Hopeful Farm and applies for a job. Traditionalist Henry is adamantly opposed to women in racing, but Pam has a knack for horses. She can even handle the Black, and in the end, she not only rides, but runs him.
It’s an interesting book, truly an artifact of its time: it was published in 1971. It comes out in favor of women in racing and gives Alec a real human love interest. Of course, he would fall in love with a date. And of course the Black would love it too.
One thing that stands out from this book is the physical strength needed to ride a top racehorse. It’s not just balance and basic fitness. This is upper body strength. A jockey must be able to control the speed of his mount, which means a firm grip on the reins, which at full gallop is like trying to hold back a runaway train. The horse is bound and determined to run faster than anything else on the track, and the jockey must gauge its speed, guide it through the pack, and convince it to slow down and stop when the race is over. This is by no means an easy task, and for many years the racing world did not believe that a woman could do it.
By 1970, female jockeys were beginning to prove they could. Farley embarks with his version of the story and offers him the greatest gift: the chance to run with the Black. After thirty years of being a boy’s dream horse, the Black finally has a girl.
At this point, it seems Farley had no more stories to tell about Alec and the Black. In The Legend of the Black Stallion, he does what writers have long known how to do when they get tired of it. For Sherlock Holmes, it was the Reichenbach Falls. For Alec and the Black, it’s the girl’s fricking (on her way to Vienna to see the Lipizzans – which is particularly poignant for me) and the actual explosion of the planet. Alec flies West with the Black, ends up in Arizona – as he did when he had amnesia – and he and his horse become the fulfillment of a Native American prophecy. And then a swarm of earthquakes shatters the world.
It’s a way to ensure that there will be no more stories in this universe. I would have liked to see Alec and the Black in the post-apocalyptic world, but that would have been a completely different kind of series. Farley could have killed them, but even if he could have forced himself to kill the Black, his fans would have revolted. So he broke the world instead.
It just seems right. All things Considered. Le Noir is an epic hero, and he deserves an epic ending.
He’s also a fairly accurate representation of a dominant stallion, and when he runs he mostly does so according to the book (except for the part where he’s not a thoroughbred). Generations of horse children in the United States learned the basics of horses and racing from the books of Walter Farley. Even as they moved on to other books and authors and other breeds and types of horses, they still remember what it was like to dream of riding the fastest horse in the world.
Judith Tarr has always been passionate about horses. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as e-books. She wrote an introduction for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Art of Doing It Right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, with a herd of Lipizzaners, a host of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.