The Man Who Traveled in Elephants
by Robert A. Heinlein

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

written 1948

Saturn, October 1957
as "The Elephant Circuit"

collected in —
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag
  (sometimes titled 6 X H)

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein March 2004

Circus elephants

My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.
W. B. Yeats
"The Circus Animals' Desertion", lines 6-8
The Poems, Second Edition

When I was very young, my father Wilfred R. Franson would take me to the circus whenever such a traveling show arrived in Eugene, Oregon. Watching the huge circus tents being set up was almost the main treat, a glimpse outside-the-scenes of a world at once exotic and workaday. One day a circus train was unloading at the fairgrounds, and a handler was walking a couple of elephants along the road. My father bought a pastry for me to feed to an elephant, which it liked.

"That elephant will remember you," my father said, and we agreed on that.

Returning home after any visit to a circus, my railroader grandfather George E. Howe would ask me with a smile, "Did you see the elephant?"

And of course, I had.

Traveling in elephants

Years later, as a teenager reading my way through all the science fiction by Robert A. Heinlein that I could find, I also found his fantasies. There only are a handful of these, all strange, and strange in different ways. The lightest and slightest of these is a short story, "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants".

A thin, very elderly woman leaned across the aisle and said, "Going to the Fair, young man?"

He started. It was twenty years since anyone had called him "young man." "Unh? Yes, certainly." They were all going to the Fair: the bus was special.

"The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" is a kind of gentle love poem to America, the country of the Open Road, of county livestock fairs and parades down Main Street, of cities which all are distinctive and interesting to those who travel with open eyes. The tone is very like many of Ray Bradbury's stories, an escape to the nostalgic world of a childhood America barely out of reach in the past, but which really does lie just outside the circumscribed scenes we live in every day.

When I first read the story (I was quite young) I couldn't shake the false presupposition that a man who traveled in elephants should sooner or later climb into a hollow one on big wheels, rather like the Trojan Horse.

Later I learned that traveling salesmen who carried a line of goods might say that they traveled in their products, be it as humble as shoes or spoons or as fancy as steam calliopes. So the narrator and his wife are retired, but to maintain the feeling of a profession they always tell folks that they "travel in elephants". They continue thus on their beloved American Open Road, criss-crossing the country; rather as the Stone family are enterprisingly footloose in their expansive home territory, the Solar System, in Heinlein's great science-fiction "juvenile" The Rolling Stones.

Seeing the elephant

Proverbially, while going to the circus was grand, seeing the elephant was rated the peak experience of the circus. J.R.R. Tolkien uses this sense of seeing the elephant in The Lord of the Rings; elephants are not monsters to the countryman gardener Sam Gamgee, but a natural wonder.

Seeing the elephant was an expression found handy in the 1850s by travelers West across the Prairie and over the Rocky Mountains to Oregon and California. Taking the Overland Trail was not a stroll to the corner grocery but the endeavor of a lifetime. "Pike's Peak or Bust!" was painted on some covered wagons, and sometimes (on the way back) "Busted, by Gosh!" In the title phrase of David Wagoner's novel, the journey is The Road to Many a Wonder. Like struggling out of Earth's gravitational field is today, a hard and dangerous and exhilarating challenge. In this sense of peak experience, John Philip Reid fondly titles his historical study, Law for the Elephant: Property and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail.

These American usages of seeing the elephant go back at least to 1835; and as Mathews' Dictionary of Americanisms points out, the still older English proverbial equivalent (listed in the OED) is "to see the Lyons", dating from when lions were kept in the Tower of London, the ultimate attraction.

Or as William Blake says at the end of his list of "Proverbs of Hell" in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "Enough! or Too much".

Creating & conveying wonders

There are infinite Wonders both natural and man-made. Heinlein's works overflow with them. In the long perspective, Robert A. Heinlein may come to be seen as the Twentieth Century's premier creator of wondrous Elephants, best combining characteristic American traditions of invention and travel beyond the horizon.

Spider Robinson writes affectingly of talking with Heinlein at the 1976 Worldcon in Kansas City, telling Heinlein that "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" is his all-time favorite of Heinlein's stories:

"That," [Heinlein] says slowly, "is my own personal favorite — and no one's ever had a nice word to say for it until now."

Spider Robinson

Robert A. Heinlein
edited by Yoji Kondo

For Spider Robinson's theme anthology of little-known favorites, The Best of All Possible Worlds, Robinson included "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants". As a companion piece to his own, Heinlein picked Anatole France's story "Our Lady's Juggler". As we know from Heinlein novels from Beyond This Horizon to Red Planet to Stranger in a Strange Land to Job: A Comedy of Justice, Heinlein's vision of the universe suggests many subtle mansions.

The Revivalist bus line

The bus that Heinlein's narrator is riding at the beginning ("They were all going to the Fair") is of the same Revivalist bus line that C.S. Lewis uses in his Christian fantasy The Great Divorce (this title is in opposition to Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) to take his viewpoint character to a rather surprising afterworld, truly solid rather than ethereal. And similarly — we may think it a destination closer to Heinlein's and Bradbury's than Lewis' — Conrad Richter has his narrator travel home in The Waters of Kronos.

Creativity may begin with an impulse to escape (as in so-called escape fiction) and mature quickly to a desire and necessity to build anew and beyond, to travel in elephants. To build on new foundations with the best of strong traditions and new ideas, sweet and bitter memory fueling fresh creation beyond the horizon. Even great Troy fallen and burnt to ashes is not the death of man's endeavor. Heinlein would find a recurrence of inspiration to build some wondrous New Troy for himself and others. (Or Troynovant, as we may call it.)

What is the reward for creators and re-creators anyway, what is their ultimate satisfaction? This is the riddle of the maker that the great philosophers long have wrestled with. In my own motto: They who make, may find.

For before the wonderful creations, we have the creators. This story's belated magazine title of 1957, "The Elephant Circuit", conveys part of our fascination with Wonders, but only a passive part. Sure, maybe the travelers' circuit is there anyway, the circus even with elephants, and the Big Parade in which friendly elephants are the stars that every one wants to see. But that's not enough. We should not forget the eye of the maker, the dyer's hand, the creator and demiurge: Robert A. Heinlein, The Man Who Traveled in Elephants.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

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