Gulliver’s Travels

by: Jonathan Swift

The Houyhnhnm Master

In the midst of this distress, I observed them all to run away on a sudden as fast as they could, at which I ventured to leave the tree, and pursue the road, wondering what it was that could put them into this fright. But looking on my left hand, I saw a horse walking softly in the field, which my persecutors having sooner discovered, was the cause of their flight.

Gulliver observes a pack of wild, hairy, filthy animals frighted by an approaching horse. Gulliver soon learns the horse belongs to a race of wise, talking beasts called Houyhnhnms, who dominate the wild animals called Yahoos. Gulliver is also a Yahoo, but it takes him and his new equine master some time to realize this fact.

I was ordered to speak the few words I understood, and while they were at dinner, the master taught me the names for oats, milk, fire, water, and some others: which I could readily pronounce after him, having from my youth a great facility in learning languages. When dinner was done, the master horse took me aside, and by signs and words made me understand the concern he was in that I had nothing to eat.

Here, Gulliver describes the Houyhnhnm’s efforts to get him to eat while Gulliver is hiding his hands in his pockets for fear of discovery as a Yahoo. The horse offers hospitality in the manner of the most gracious and noble people. Though Gulliver just arrived, he already recognizes the horse’s superior qualities. At first, the Houyhnhnm functions as his host and language teacher; soon he will become Gulliver’s hero.

The curiosity and impatience of my master were so great, that he spent many hours of his leisure to instruct me. He was convinced (as he afterwards told me) that I must be a Yahoo, but my teachableness, civility and cleanliness, astonished him; which were qualities altogether opposite to those animals.

As usual, Gulliver begins his sojourn in a new land by finding someone to teach him the language. He refers to his equine host as his master, a word with the connotations of teacher, boss, and spiritual guide. To the Houyhnhnm, Gulliver exists as an amazing rarity: a Yahoo with the power of reason. Once again, Gulliver’s character operates as both an observer and an object of observation.

And I remember, in frequent discourses with my master concerning the nature of manhood in other parts of the world, having occasion to talk of lying and false representation, it was with much difficulty that he comprehended what I meant, although he had otherwise a most acute judgment.

Gulliver recounts trying to explain deception to the Houyhnhnms, who only know how to speak the truth. Gulliver’s equine master feels puzzled by the concept of lying. When Gulliver attempts to explain humans to the horse, he exposes human errors and weaknesses. The Houyhnhnms’ superior moral righteousness renders them incapable of empathy towards a flawed race.

I took a second leave of my master: but as I was going to prostrate myself to kiss his hoof, he did me the honour to raise it gently to my mouth. I am not ignorant how much I have been censured for mentioning this last particular. Detractors are pleased to think it improbable, that so illustrious a person should descend to give so great a mark of distinction to a creature so inferior as I.

Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master bids him farewell with a touching gesture, the closest the usually undemonstrative horse comes to real emotion. In Gulliver’s obsequious relationship, the horse does him a great honor. The reader, however, observes Gulliver worshipping a horse. The Houyhnhnm might be wise and noble, but Gulliver remains a gullible fool.