José Saramago's "The Centaur" was first published in English in the collection Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer and published by Picador in 2004. Giovanni Pontiero translated the story from Portuguese into English. The short story was published earlier in Portuguese in Saramago's short story collection Objecto Quase (Almost an Object) published by Editorial Caminho of Lisbon in 1978 and 1984.
Like other stories by the author, "The Centaur" involves a blending of the fantastical with the everyday or mundane. In the story, a centaur, who is the lone survivor of the mythical species, roams the Earth evading capture and persecution by human beings. As he travels toward his home country, which he has avoided returning to for millennia, he struggles to reconcile the opposite needs of his two halves: he possesses the mind and upper body of a man and the lower body of a horse. In this tale, Saramago explores the universal themes of alienation, loneliness, dualism, and the human fear and hatred of the unknown.
"The Centaur" opens with descriptions of a man and a horse moving over a riverbed and looking for a hiding place to sleep in as the day breaks. As the description continues, it quickly becomes obvious that the horse and the man are one mythical creature, the centaur, whose body consists of the head and chest of a man and the body and legs of a horse. After pausing to drink from a stream, the centaur finds a good spot to rest and sleep among some trees. As the centaur lies down to sleep, it struggles, since sustaining a comfortable position for both the man and the horse throughout the night is not possible.
Although the horse half falls asleep right away, the man lies awake for a while before falling asleep and beginning to dream. At this point in the story, the narrative shifts to the past tense: the narrator describes how the centaur became the lone survivor of his species. The narrator explains that after fighting in several battles, the centaurs were defeated by Heracles in an epic fight. The surviving centaur managed to escape somehow, after witnessing Heracles crush Nessos, the centaur leader, to death and drag his corpse along the ground. Since that battle, the surviving centaur—who remains unnamed throughout the story—has dreamed every day of fighting and killing Heracles as the gods watch and then recede into the heavens.
The narrator goes on to say how the centaur also roamed the Earth for thousands of years. At first, he was able to travel without fear during the day "as long as the world itself remained mysterious." During this age, people welcomed the centaur as a magical creature, giving him garlands of flowers and entrusting their children to him. People at this time embraced him as a promoter of fertility, occasionally bringing him a mare with which to copulate.
The narrator explains, however, that at some point the world changed, and the centaur and other mythological creatures were persecuted and forced to hide from human beings. For several generations, the creatures, including unicorns, chimeras, werewolves, and other beings, lived together in the wilderness, but eventually they found they could not live there. They either disappeared from the world or found other ways to adapt to humans. The centaur alone remained, an obvious throwback to ancient times, roaming the Earth on his own. Although he traveled widely, he avoided going back to his native country, which is presumably Greece. He learned to sleep by day to avoid detection and to travel at night, sleeping only to dream.
At one point, during the millennia in which he travels alone, the centaur witnesses a man with a lance riding a scruffy horse fighting some windmills. After seeing the man tossed into the air, the centaur decides to avenge the thrown man. After leaving the windmills with broken blades, the...
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