by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Regular Contributor)
In the attack on The Wall of the North in Game of Thrones, giants ride on the backs of mastodons, striking terror in the hearts of the Sworn Brothers of the Knights Watch.
A History of Exoticism
Ever since the Roman Empire, western travelers to distant lands have been fascinated by elephants and attracted by their power. Elephants were an outsized, intelligent, living force that could be harnessed to serve the ambitions of men. The Carthaganian commander Hannibal’s voyage over the Pyrenees and the Alps with an army accompanied by elephants became a tale that stuck in the imagination of every schoolchild. And European travelers to Asia in the first waves of exploration for trade and the expansion of political power wrote letters home that were full of descriptions and illustrations of these marvelous animals.
The Explorer, the Prince, and the Elephants
One of these was a French physician and man of science named François Bernier. In 1665, he accompanied the Mughal Prince Aurangzeb and his court on a long trek into the beautiful and remote valley of Kashmir. Bernier prided himself on cool, objective reporting of everything he observed. But when it came to elephants, he was lyrical. Elephants carried large, curtained structures on their backs, transporting the ladies of the court, which added to the mystery and intrigue that Bernier associated with the sight of them. But on this voyage, as Bernier wrote, the spectacle turned to tragedy:
“A strange accident cast a gloom over these scenes and dampened all our pleasure. The King was ascending the highest of all the mountains, followed by a long line of elephants, upon which sat the ladies … The first elephant, appalled, we suppose, by the great length and steepness of the path before him, stepped back upon the elephant that was moving in his track, who again pushed agaisnt the third elephant, the third against the fourth, and so on until fifteen of them, incapable of turning round or extricating themselves in a road so steep and narrow, fell down the precipice. Happily for the women, the place where they fell was of no great height; only three or four were killed; but there were no means of saving any of the elephants. Whenever these animals fall under the tremendous burden placed on their backs, they never rise again even on a good road. Two days afterward we passed that way, and I observed that some of the poor elephants still moved their trunks…”
For Bernier, the loss of the elephants was more traumatic and touching than the loss of the people they were transporting. Bernier’s travel narratives may have influenced his friend La Fontaine, writer of animal fables, who argued that animals, like humans, are possessed of a soul. Other readers would respond to his elephant story as a morality tale, warning against the excesses and inevitable fall that follows human pride.
For further reading:
Francois Bernier’s description of a voyage to Kashmir in Beyond the Three Seas: Travellers’ Tales of Mughal India. Random House, 2007.