by Andrew Root
“Hark to the tale of Adam swift
And his multitude of carriages!
His horses run without fatigue,
A life led by the quarter league”
So begins the acknowledged first printing of The Legend of Swift Adam, a lyric tale of a conflicted man with an intense—almost sensual, according to some translations—love of horses. First investigated in depth by noted scholar Joseph Campbell, the legend of Swift Adam (also popularly known as The Man Who Tamed Horses, The Eight-Footed Man, and Tengu Rides the Wind) can be seen to have developed in many different, geographically distinct cultures, occasionally interweaving narrative strands and leitmotifs between tribes and even nations. As such, some scholars believe that this is the first multi-ethnic folk tale. The legend grew most popular in a variety of horse cultures (the Mongols of Mongolia, the Scythian and Turkic nomads of Central Asia, the Native Americans of the Great Plains [although these retellings are difficult to trace to one particular origin, being an oral storytelling tradition], and the Celtic tribes of ancient England and Germanic Europe) for their extended sequences detailing the power of the horse and the extreme care and reverence with which their keepers tended them and their carriages. Swift Adam was a hero of the people, akin to Robin Hood or Johannes Buckler, although the tellings of his tales often portray him as a man of great means (or at least omit how a simple bandit could come to own and care for so many resplendent carriages and horses). The Legend of Swift Adam has grown and mutated over the centuries since the First Printing, changing perhaps beyond recognition, but modern audiences will hear echoes of that folk tale in the high-octane antiheroes of The Fast & the Furious film franchise, a series of films that has mystified some with its longevity. But the ease with which the films tap into popular culture is not accidental. This is a story that has been told for centuries.
THE FIRST PRINTING – “Swift Adam Doef Ride!”
“Victory is victory!” proclaimed the man. “T’cannot be rent by the measurement of one’s own finger. T’is known.”
The ocean’s roar would not approach the great clapping of hands that swelled like those selfsame waves but did not ebb. The sound, mighty and tall as Swift Adam himself, was pierced by the shrieking calls of the Lawman’s trumpets and the pilots took to their carriages and fled. Swift Adam, a daring escape did make over hill and glen, and found himself returned to his hall, a feast already undertaken. Adam made his captains feel the wrath of his abandonment.
“This counsel I hold as dear as mine own blood!” roared the man. “I am to be repaid thus? I, who have brought succor to thee and thine and cannot see aide’s ship on my own horizon? I shall keep my own counsel forthwith and shut the doors of my advisory.”
His chief advisers dismissed to grumble in their cups, Swift Adam kept two maidens close; the Lady Thea, for whom tales of Swift Adam’s adventures were like lifesblood that did course its way into her very center, and the Lady Margaret, who tended to virtue and study. They loved Adam in equal measure and he they, for he was himself a man fractured. Often he was found pacing at night, moaning over his crimes, pledging to align himself lawward. In such times, he was visited by the Lady Margaret who wished for him calm and peace of mind. But Adam was two men in one, and when the unlawful part grew, it was Lady Thea who would tend to its usage, joining him on many raids.
The Fast & the Furious series would split the character of Swift Adam into two—Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker)—to more clearly illustrate the complex duality of man contained in the original story, for the two were opposite sides of the same coin. The two women were kept in the more-or-less original forms of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Mia (Jordana Brewster). Devotion to one's beloved is a universally recurring theme in the various translations of the folktale, and many have pondered the meaning of Swift Adam's polyamory. That a level of complexity is granted to the hero of the tale, while the heroines are more straightforward, is a subject of much debate in academic circles regarding the limited roles of female characters in folklore. These issues are, generally speaking, an issue of societal expectations and are not limited to the stories themselves.
The First Printing saw Swift Adam releasing his unlawful side and returning to the ways of the law. He fled his home and made his way hither and yon, until he settled back into his old ways.
THE SECOND PRINTING – The Swift Man’s Rage
Adam mounted his Quarter Horse. “Tch!” was the cry of his opponent, sat upon an Arabian of size. The nostrils of the great beast flared and Hell’s Trumpets sounded at its bellow. The man knew his Quarter—though sprightly and gay—was outmuscled by the Arab, but as any horseman will tell, it is the man as much as his steed which runs the race.
One of the “Lesser Swifts” according to scholars, the second printing of the legend is filled with lavish descriptions of longer, more complex races but fails to develop Adam as a character. Many scholars feel that without his more unlawful persona, Adam is bland with little to distinguish him from the host of other riders introduced in this printing. As one noted professor states, “A good man without law is less amusing than an unlawful man who does good.” It’s widely believed that this chapter of the legend was a minor folktale (most likely Black Fitz’s Cart, popular in a region now known as Estonia and nowhere else) that retroactively had the title of Swift Adam glommed on.
This printing features fewer rousing speeches in favor of a focus on the comradery between Swift Adam and his band of compatriots. The Second Printing is notable for introducing several characters who would prove significant in Swift Adam’s further adventures; Clavius, a Roman soldier who was apparently meant to offer some form of comic relief, though many felt he fell short in this regard; Luther Bridges, a veterinarian and horse breeder who organized many illegal horse races; and Floria, a deceptive character who (like Adam) played both sides of the law (all of whom would make appearances in the Fifth Printing). Although the Second Printing is only two pages longer than the First, most scholars note that it feels far, far longer.
THE THIRD PRINTING – The Eastern Windriders or Quick John of the South
An edition of The Legend which has gone through many iterations and translations, the Third Printing has a curious and circuitous history. Printed and widely available after the Second Printing, this edition was later discovered to be a separate tale, set years after the events of the canonical legend. A particularly difficult text to translate, it was assumed for many years that the mantle of Swift Adam had been passed to another who called himself Quick John. The text was akin to the previous Printings in form and content, though different enough that many readers of the time were confused (one recovered original copy was found annotated “is there to be no tale of a horse that is not given to Swift Adam?”). Though Quick John and Swift Adam shared many similarities (a muted antiheroic nature, and an uncanny ability to rally a band of outsider followers) it became widely agreed that the horses were the lifeblood of The Legend, regardless of the setting.
A journey tale, The Eastern Windriders saw Quick John banished from his homeland and venturing to the Orient where carriages are seen to “dance upon the very air.” There he becomes embroiled in a local conflict between the son of a warlord and his men, and is introduced to the character of Katsumi, a confident, magnetic young carriage driver (in a confusing chronology, readers of the time had already been introduced to Katsumi in what is now known as The Fourth Printing, and many attribute his presence in this printing to be a compensation for the relatively charmless Quick John). Scholars remark that the clash of cultures was fairly predictable—even for the time—and the ethnic twist on the established carriage racing motifs was not enough to overcome the bland characterization of Quick John. The brief appearance of a character who bears a striking descriptive resemblance to the original Swift Adam further complicated matters. As such, the Third Printing is noted as a curious appendix to The Legend, connected thematically and included in most omnibus collections.
THE FOURTH PRINTING – Swift Adam & The Hooded Man
Destroyed by grief, Adam became two minds. Loss drove him to seek revenge on both sides of the law, for he saw the slain Lady Thea’s face in every ray of sunlight and her pain tortured him.
Endlessly he relived the night Thea’s carriage was run down, her heart pierced by a crossbow’s bolt and in so doing, pierced his own. But there would be time for grief when Thea’s killer lay dead and bloodied. Adam stood in the road, motionless to those who could not see the quick movements of his mind, like that of a thousand tiny tinkers beating plate steel into weapons of deadly vengeance. He bent and examined a hoof print, beaten into the dust. The print was large, the horse that made it not built for speed, but ridden as though it were.
“Lord, give me the strength to damn myself to Hell for what I must do.”
A welcome tonal shift, the Fourth Printing eschews many of the flashier motifs in favor of a more lyrical style, populated by moments of stillness and depth. When Lady Thea, Swift Adam’s unlawful companion, is slain by a henchman of The Hooded Man, Adam goes on a murderous rampage to avenge her death, putting his very soul at hazard. Much beloved by contemporary readers and by scholars alike, this printing shows the most complex rendering of the hero to date as he is seen wrestling with himself over his own morality. The hidden identity of The Hooded Man thrilled readers, and the reintroduction of Adam’s religious nature was universally well received. Many vignettes took the time to show Adam praying over food and giving thanks for his skill with a horse. Scholars believe it is this deeply felt dedication to faith and family that made Swift Adam an enduring character, even after the thrills of the horse races had faded (though many more thrills were to come).
It is revealed later in the story that The Hooded Man is a notorious bandit and wine thief, and Adam attempts to negotiate clemency for his own crimes in exchange for aiding in his capture—after he runs down the henchman who murdered Lady Thea, naturally—but his attempts to be lawful were foiled by a rigid justice system which refused to overlook his lengthy roster of horse related crimes.
Here, we are truly introduced to Katsumi as a member of Swift Adam’s band, though later printings would attempt to retrofit mentions of travels to the East in an attempt to make sense of the chronology. Many scholars feel that the jumbled chronology of The Legend adds a sense of melancholy to the figure of Katsumi, who would meet his untimely end in The Eastern Windriders. This printing also sees the transition of Swift Adam into a full-fledged criminal, abandoning his lawful pursuits in favor of a kind of personal code, in which he realigns his system of ethics to protect his band of outlaws. Morality begins to exist on a sliding scale as Swift Adam’s band targets those who are seen to be “less lawful” while protecting the lives of those with similar interests. Many saw this as a flawed system, as it relied on vetting morality in every individual instance, while many others saw Swift Adam as an empowered figure; judge, jury and executioner of his own fate—a role that many readers saw as appealing.
THE FIFTH PRINTING – Swift
The Cardinal was a large man, bold of face and brimming with righteous purpose. His tunic drawn tightly about him, his orders were sharp, clear and to be obeyed unquestioningly, for his was a Holy mission, handed down from the Father Almighty. In hushed tones, the Cardinal was said to be in the very cups of fanaticism, steeped in duty, marinated in method, for his quarry was pursued with the ruthless doggedness of a slathering hound on the tail of a hare. Cardinal Roque attracted a cadre of most devout neophytes and together—driven by the Strength and Will of Divine Command—they gave chase to Swift Adam.
In a masterstroke, the Fifth Printing introduced the character Cardinal Roque to the Legend; the figure of Swift Adam had strayed considerably from his early days of conflicted persona with one foot in law and order and the other in crime and misdeeds. Even casual readers could see that there was no law in this man. The addition of the righteous Cardinal—himself an adept rider—breathed new life into the Legend as readers found him to be a compelling foil to Swift Adam and his band. Somewhat improbably however, the Cardinal briefly switched sides to give aid and succor to Swift Adam, one of the many troubles with the Fifth Printing, as readers and scholars tend to agree that Cardinal Roque is far more charming than Swift Adam.
Well-liked for his charisma and decisiveness, as well as his handiness with a turn of phrase, Roque’s inclusion is unfortunately one of the only positive attributes of this printing, which many felt was beginning to beef up tired themes. Many minor passages are included which reference religion and the importance of family, but these are placed in equal importance as daily meals which are never depicted (keen readers will recall that the banquet passages in the First Printing were fundamental to establishing these themes, but are here treated flippantly). Scholars point out that only paying lip service to these themes weakened the piece overall.
Additionally, some scholars pointed out that this printing’s quick pace was constructed in an effort to dazzle and bewitch readers into ignoring the massive number of plot holes and logical inconsistencies which went hand in hand with the ever-increasing scope of the original printings. Many wondered if these tales were even about horses any more. For example, Lady Margaret, established early on as carrying Swift Adam’s child, is seen riding a horse in many death-defying scenarios which would have been catastrophic for a woman in her condition. The inconsistencies of action and overwrought character depictions are all examined in detail in a popular contemporary printing, “Wherefore Was This Printed?”
As a final, curious note, found on the reverse side of the final page of the Fifth Printing is the phrase “Lady Thea lives!” which baffled many readers at the time, as it was not known how this was in any way possible.
THE SIXTH PRINTING – Hell Rides on Four Hooves!
The waves of Styx gushing from their banks could not unseat the terror that was the massive war horse as it burst forth from the wagon. Great blasts of steam were its breath as its armored rider hurled flagons of burning oil upon the earth. Hell itself had come to Adam, but the man cared only for Lady Thea.
The cries of the unfortunate were silenced forevermore under the pounding hooves of the war horse. Luther, Clavius and Katsumi—noble warriors, O—gave chase. Wind swept them, fire enveloped them, but the warriors three, steady as hope, could not be faltered. Wise Luther, brave Clavius, and sober Katsumi rained arrows upon the beast, fitted with lines of strong twine anchored to their own steeds, but the tide could not be slowed and Katsumi’s woman was lost.
Swift Adam—blind to all but the light of Thea—saw his lady’s grip loosen and was filled with a power that overcame thought. Adam became a bird and on his wings was Thea’s salvation.
“Overwrought” is the word that most aptly describes the Sixth Printing of The Legend. Scholars who have studied the original manuscripts report that the ink appears to have been applied to parchment with great force, as though written with a clenched fist. Again, the themes of family and loyalty are pushed to the forefront, and the descriptions of the horses are embellished to an almost ludicrous degree. Scholars felt that perhaps the character of Swift Adam had lost his original humanity as many passages describe situations that were frankly un-survivable, and the character’s seeming invulnerability lowered the dramatic stakes considerably. Readers at the time of printing however seemed not to mind.
The curious note regarding Lady Thea that was printed (seemingly as an afterthought) on the back of the Fifth Printing is given a cursory and somewhat unsatisfying explanation here. To wit: Lady Thea was not slain, but rather was thrown from her horse and suffered a loss of memory from a blow to the head. Although this entirely undermines the action of the Fourth Printing, readers were pleased by the return of Lady Thea’s brash personage now that Lady Margaret was set to the business of raising Adam’s child.
It bears mentioning that although there are an uncharacteristically high ratio of female-to-male characters in The Legend (i.e. The Sixth Printing features a 4:6 female:male ratio in Swift Adam’s band, where comparable texts of the time were more likely to feature a ratio of 1:6), the women of The Legend do not always get their fair due. In a paper titled “The Loss of Katsumi’s Woman” (see passage above) a team of researchers from Brown University attempting to uncover more details about the character of Katsumi’s inamorata found that although traces of her have been found in many printings, few if any readers were able to recall her name. Historically, she is remembered as “Katsumi’s Woman” or “The Slender Rider,” a character of unrealized potential who never got to share in the wit and depth of development of the male characters. This, in spite of the fact that even Clavius, a character who regularly missteps and adds little value to the legend, is given a featured role.
The Seventh Printing (titled The Horses That Fly) upped the stakes once again in terms of action and plot, but struggled to further mine the familiar thematic territory, the pattern which saw The Legend spiral into an eventual decline. It’s theorized that over the centuries, between the different regions and cultures in which Swift Adam found his adventures told, the storytellers found their audiences more willing to attend to tales of derring-do. These tales, although admittedly thrilling, are exhausting to tell over and over, and it was only a matter of time before narrative fatigue took hold. Academics suggest that new printings of The Legend of Swift Adam are being uncovered almost constantly, and that readers and scholars alike should expect that the tale eventually will be handed to new storytellers. The modern silver screen adaptations of The Legend owe a debt to their iron shod forebears, but only time will tell how this story ends.
Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.