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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses described in the last part of Jonathan Swift's satirical Gulliver's Travels.

Houyhnhnms contrast strongly with the Yahoos, savage humanoid creatures: whereas the Yahoos represent all that is bad about humans, Houyhnhnms have a stable, calm, reliable and rational society. Gulliver much prefers the Houyhnhnms' company to the Yahoos', even though the latter are biologically closer to him.

Interpretation of the Houyhnhnms has been vexatious. It is possible, for example, to regard them as a veiled criticism by Swift of the British Empire's treatment of non-whites as lesser humans, and it is similarly possible to regard Gulliver's preference (and immediate division of Houyhnhnms into color-based hierarchies) as absurd and the sign of his self-deception. In a modern context it can be seen as presenting an early example of animal rights concerns, especially in Gulliver's account of how horses are cruelly treated in his society and the reversal of roles, and a possible inspiration for Pierre Boulle's novel Planet of the Apes.

Book IV of Gulliver's Travels is the keystone, in some ways, of the entire work, and critics have traditionally responded to the subject of whether Gulliver is insane (and therefore just another victim of Swift's satire) or not by questioning whether or not the Houyhnhnms are truly admirable. Gulliver loves the land and is obedient to a race that is not like his own. The Houyhnhnm society is based upon reason, and only upon reason, and therefore the horses practice eugenics based on their analyses of benefit and cost. They have no religion and their sole morality is the defence of reason, and therefore they are not particularly moved by pity or a belief in the intrinsic value of life. Gulliver himself, in their company, builds the sails of his skiff from "Yahoo skins." Examples of the Houyhnhnms' lack of passion surface mainly during their annual meeting. A visitor apologises for being late to the meeting as her husband had died shortly before and she had to make the proper arrangements for the funeral, which consists in burial at sea. She eats her lunch like all other Houyhnhnms and is not affected at all by her loss, rationalising that gone is gone. A further example of the lack of humanity and emotion in the Houyhnhnms is that their laws demand that each couple produce two children, one male and one female. In the event that a marriage produced two offspring of the same sex, the parents would take their children to the annual meeting and trade one with a couple who produced two children of the opposite sex. This latter part was viewed by some Swift scholars as his spoofing and or criticising the notion that the "ideal" family produces children of both sexes.

On one hand, the Houyhnhnms have an orderly and peaceful society. They possess philosophy and have a language that is entirely pure of political and ethical nonsense. They possess, for example, no word for a lie (and must substitute a circumlocution — to say a thing which is not). They also have a form of art that is derived from nature. Outside of Gulliver's Travels, Swift had expressed longstanding concern over the corruption of the English language, and he had proposed language reform. He had also, in Battle of the Books and in general in A Tale of a Tub, expressed a preference for the Ancients (Classical authors) because their art was based directly upon nature, and not upon other art.

On the other hand, Swift was profoundly mistrustful of attempts at reason that resulted in either hubris (for example, the Projectors satirised in A Tale of a Tub or in Book III of Gulliver's Travels) or immorality (such as the speaker of A Modest Proposal, who offers an entirely logical and wholly immoral proposal for cannibalism). The Houyhnhnms embody both the good and the bad side of reason, for they have the pure language Swift wished for and the immorally rational approach to solving the problems of humanity (Yahoos); the extirpation of the Yahoo population by the horses is very like the speaker of A Modest Proposal.

In the shipping lanes he is rescued by a Portuguese sea captain, a level-headed individual albeit full of concern for others, whose temperament at one level looks like a medium between that of the calm, rational Houyhnhnms of Houyhnhnmland and the norm of corrupt, European humanity, which Gulliver no longer distinguishes from Houyhnhnmland's wild Yahoos. Gulliver can speak with him and though now disaffected from all humanity has a residual sense he would have esteemed him. Gulliver is returned to his English home and family, finds their smell and look intolerable and all his countrymen no better than "Yahoos", purchases and converses with two stabled horses, tolerating the stable boy, and assures the reader of his account's utter veracity.

See also

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