“Once upon a time … there was a little red horse.”
That’s all about all I remembered of my beloved Hotspur, a book written in 1953. I checked the book out of the public library so many times I might as well have owned a copy. Only a few bits of the story had stayed with me: that Hotspur the toy horse lived in a small shop, that he wanted to see the world, and that he managed to escape the confinement against which he chafed.
Last week I reread Hotspur for the first time in nearly 50 years. Again I was enchanted by the bold paintings and pen-and-ink drawings of Hotspur in his world: his charming saddle with strap secured around his chest not his belly, his flaming red hide, his less-impulsive friends, his unruly and consistently wind-whipped black mane and tail.
When I delved into the heart of the story, I was surprised to learn that much of it was not as I remembered.
Hotspur did succeed in slipping away from the dusty toyshop run by an obviously aging and pedantic Mr. Twiddletwitch. Hotspur pulls off the escape despite the advice to the contrary given by his toy-horse colleagues. As he gallops the alley leading from Twiddletwitch’s, the horse’s heart swells with relief and possibility.
With opportunity comes risk, as Hotspur discovers in the big world. He encounters danger, he struggles with different worldviews than those of his trusted colleagues, and he yearns for the “sleepy old toyshop” as he never thought he would.
Over the years I’ve lived with the notion that Hotspur ended happily. In fact the conclusion, which I won’t divulge here, may have seemed cheerful to my 8-year-old self. Now, however, as I read my favorite book again (which is now only available at rare and out-of-print book vendors — Library of Congress Catalog Number 53-6728), I find Hotspur sad beyond measure. I doubt the author-illustrator Mariano intended the book to sound a note of melancholy, but to me it does. Without giving away the ending, I can only say Hotspur left me feeling sorry for the little horse. It also left me wondering what I can still learn from him, as a reader who has seen more of the world than my 8-year-old self ever thought possible.
There is always more to learn from literature, even those books we read only once every 50 years. Hotspur’s journey has reminded me of important elements of my own walk through life.