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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hawkeye, Moses and the Right Stuff

Glancing at my bookshelf a couple of evenings ago, my eye fell upon a great American literary classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. It set me to thinking about the moral compass of such narratives. For all his ups and downs, Hawkeye, Fenimore Cooper’s existential frontiersman, strives to ‘do the right thing’ in the situations in which he finds himself. At certain moments in the narrative such striving lifts him to heroic stature, and his example lifts us up with him.

The moral compass of this work and other such titles as John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old man and the Sea, or even Mark Twain’s [1]The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is never in doubt. Their central characters, however embattled through circumstances, remain basically good and decent. Indeed, guided by his own moral compass, Hawkeye moves mountains in his attempts to affect a rescue of the story’s victims of kidnap. 

Now let’s take Fenimore Cooper’s protagonist and place him on a very different frontier. Could we imagine Hawkeye willing to kill a child, or handing over a young girl in his care to be raped, or overseeing a massacre of women and children? If the answer is ‘no’ – and it has to be – then what makes such possibilities, not merely unlikely, but in the minds of we the readers, completely out of the question? We take our lead from the narrative itself, which gives us every indication of Hawkeye, not just having decent moral standards, but of adhering to those standards. In short: he lives by his own innate code of moral values.

My eye travels to another title on my shelf. Four of its characters we already have encountered in [2]posts on this blog. Could we imagine these characters being prepared to kill their own children, or offering their own daughters up to be gang-raped by a mob, or directing a massacre of defenceless women and children? The answer has to be ‘yes’- because all these events actually take place within the narrative. The characters are respectively Abraham, Jephthar, Lot and Moses, and the book is of course my own copy of the King James Bible.

Now we are confronted with a paradox. On the one hand we have Hawkeye, the frontiersman with the moral right stuff. On the other, we have four names whose moral compass is clearly awry – at least when compared to those of our frontiersman. How is it then possible that these names are held up as examples of ‘doing the right thing’: in this case, of being obedient to God’s will? Abraham is prepared to kill his own son. Jephthar actually does kill his own daughter. Lot actually does offer his two virgin daughters to a street mob to be raped. Moses actually does command his men to kill many defenceless women and children whose lives had previously been spared.

The question has to be: why do we not condemn these four, whose actions are so clearly reprehensible, even inhuman? Why, against all reason, does an aura of virtue apparently cling to them? There is only one answer which presents itself: because they are in scripture. Hawkeye, on the other hand, has to make do with a secular context. And yet all our instincts tell us that, were there ever to come a hypothetical face-off between, say, Hawkeye and Lot, then the frontiersman would view the Sodomite as being worthy of nothing but his contempt, as flawed in his values as the treacherous Huron Magua from his own world, who, like Lot, was fully prepared to betray the trust which others had placed in him.

There might be someone, somewhere, who can clearly explain to me the reasons why the moral compass of such characters from scripture is worthy and exemplary – and indeed, why God’s also is, if these actions were in his name. There might be, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, I’m happy enough to take Hawkeye, the embattled frontiersman with the moral right stuff, as being more worthy of my emulation and more deserving of my respect than such flawed scriptural luminaries as Abraham, Jephthar, Lot and Moses.

[1] I seem to have chosen four American authors as my examples. You can probably think of as many British, European and other authors whose characters exemplify moral decency. Heck, I can even think of the characters in Bram Stoker’s classic gothic tale Dracula – Jonathan and Mina Harker, John Seward and Abraham Van Helsing – whose moral decency drives them to strive their utmost in their struggle against the notorious Count. Would Van Helsing have offered his own daughter up to be raped? Just saying.

[2] If you wish to independently check for yourself that the Bible really does say what I claim for it here, these posts together with their chapter-and-verse citations are:
For Abraham: Abraham, Isaac and a Stressed Out Ram, (Genesis 22:1-18).
For Lot: Lot and His Daughters: The Inside Story (Genesis 19:1-38).
For Moses and Jephthar: Frontier Justice in the Promised Land (Numbers 31:7-18, and Judges 11:29-40).

The two top images are adapted from paintings by Zdeněk Burian, the second two images are adapted from paintings by N.C. Wyeth.


  1. Mr. Hawkwood,
    Antares here. This comment will come in two parts.

    Excellent series of blogs you have going on here, my friend. I admit I've been following them for some time now and have always been drawn to the overall artistry and aesthetic sense you have pervading them. Keep up the good work.
    However, I find your analysis here is a bit flawed. No doubt that JFC's Last of the Mohicans can be a great read, but it's much more a tale of high Americana adventure than it is a tale known for its complex, introspective characters. Inspiring though he can be, Hawkeye (Natty Bumppo) is really more of an archetype than a multidimensional character, designed to represent the rugged individualism and self-reliance that was so esteemed in Cooper's time. Much like Indiana Jones, Superman, Batman, or the heroes of later comic and TV serials, Hawkeye is the protagonist of an enjoyable adventure story, who doesn't need to come off as a complex moral actor because the story doesn't require it. His moral code is simple as he as a character is simple. We enjoy him for his adventures and what he represents, but we can't necessarily relate to him as a fleshed-out human, simply because he's not written that way.

    The scriptural characters on the other hand, are written that way. Abraham, Lot, Jephthah, and Moses aren't cartoons, but presented as human beings, with all the moral flaws that accompany them. Their job in their respective stories is not to stand as untouchable, almost superhuman examples of a particular moral code or way of life, but to illustrate the struggle that all men and women go through to try to discern and accomplish what is right, a process that at time ends in disastrous result. They struggle, they fail, they misunderstand the good, all too often to the jeopardization of themselves and those whom they love. Their lives are not sanitized for the sake of the mass-marketed serial, but are presented as raw, and oftentimes cruel examples of the drama of the struggle to live a moral life. Saying one prefers a character like Hawkeye to any one of these is like saying one prefers reading about 1930's Superman to someone like Dante, because Superman never does any wrong. We may be more driven to emulate characters like Superman and Hawkeye for their almost angelic simplicity, but I find we are even more often driven see reflections of ourselves in the lives of people like Dante, Abraham, and Moses, who likewise tried to live in concert with a demanding moral code, but were much less able to live up to it due to their all-too-human failing. Comparing Hawkeye to Abraham is like comparing the ideal to the real. No matter how hard we try, we can never hope to fully actualize the one, as it will forever remain in an imaginary world of forms, whereas we can always see the other around us constantly, and can in fact hope to find the grace and redemption in it.

  2. Part 2

    There is another piece to this analysis though. You speak of how unthinkable it would be for Hawkeye to commit the acts of carnage, rape and murder the scriptural characters commit, for indeed JFC would risk his readership if he made his hero too unsavory, or perhaps in this case, too realistic. But the moment we bring Hawkeye down to earth and indeed into history, we find that he is indeed tarred with many of the same sins as Moses, Lot, and Abraham.

    Hawkeye is largely a fictional iteration of a certain Robert Rogers, a British-American partisan and guerilla-style fighter during the French and Indian War. I invite you read just once about the rape and the massacre of the Abenaki he partook in at St. Francis or the cannibalistic aftermath at Mempremagog to destroy any sense of how "inhuman" these actions are, for they are in fact all too human. Rogers was a thief, a killer, and a man responsible for the slaughter of villages full of women and children, whom he tomahawked to death in cold blood or burned along with their food supplies in their own corn cribs. And yet it is these actions that are forgotten while the sins and tragedies committed by the Moses and Abraham remain. The binding of Isaac, the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah, and the story of Lot and his daughters remain touchstones of these characters' lives to the point where they become almost synonmous with the characters themselves. No aura of virtue surrounds them, nor is any pass given them because they appear in scripture, but rather the opposite. Their lives and failings are laid bare to the sight or the reader, for they appear as nothing more or less human than the reader himself. It is Hawkeye however, as a fictionalized appearance of Robert Rogers, to whom the odour of sanctity clings much more strongly, for his failings have been ignored and forgotten for the sake of the narrative. Though he truly possesses the moral "right stuff," Hawkeye cannot exist past the pages of his own novel, for as soon as he does, he, like the scriptural fathers, becomes enfleshed in the same flaws that we all share as imperfect men and women.



  3. Antares, thank you for providing this information, and for your appreciative comments about my blogs. My own response will also necessarily be a two-parter!

    Yes, I am well aware of Robert Rogers of Rogers' Rangers fame, and also am very aware of what a bloody business the Frontier actually was. Frederick Drimmer's excellent (and shocking) compilation of first-hand accounts from that time 'Captured by the Indians', written by those who actually were there and experienced it for themselves, strips away any vestige of fictional romanticism. Such human darkness is certainly not forgotten by myself, I assure you, and I would recommend this title as an antidote for anyone who imagines that the expansion of the Frontier was a noble affair. But that (and any other ex-narrative historical sources) does not apply to my post, which addresses only what happens between the covers of Fenimore Cooper's story.

    Hawk-eye, however one-dimensional or complex he comes across to individual readers, nevertheless as a character possesses the moral fibre and judgement which guides his actions. Had he a lesser sense of moral worth, then the story would have unfolded differently. I would suggest that the book is more complex than you describe. Were it a mere boys-own adventure yarn, then in the end all those under threat would have been saved. That, despite Hawk-eye's and Chingachgook's herculean attempts at rescue, they are not, is what I consider lifts the narrative out of such a category and into the more confronting arena of tragic heroism.

    But even all this is somewhat irrelevant to the main point of my post: the comparison of Hawk-eye's moral stance (and other such worthy fictional characters) with that of the four names whose own moral stance I call into question when compared to Hawk-eye's own. My premise is: given the same sets of circumstances in the same scriptural incidents which I have cited, would Hawk-eye (the character of the narrative, which is how we must judge him, and not via any extra-narrative sources) have acted the same in those circumstances as Abraham, Moses, Lot and Jephthar?

  4. Part Two:

    You say that the four names in scripture which I cite are revealed in the stories as "nothing more or less human than the reader himself." I for one certainly hope not! I don't know if you're a family man, but I for one would not kill my own daughter, or be prepared to kill my own son, or offer up my daughter to a street mob to be gang-raped. Such actions are considerably more than what you describe as 'failings'. They are morally reprehensible under any circumstances. And yet in no instance in which these incidents are recorded in scripture is their moral standard (or lack of it) the point of the story. Such an aspect is not only not even touched upon, it is the opposite standard which is applied. We are instead asked, either directly or indirectly, to admire their virtue: the virtue of obedience to God's will, the virtue of protecting the sanctity of hospitality to guests, the virtue of not breaking an oath, even if that means killing one's only child.

    This is morality turned on its head. And yet this is what these incidents advocate, which is why they are included in scripture in the first place. It is the 'point' of them being there: as instructional lessons on the virtue of obedience to God's will, etc. These scriptural incidents are not about human failings, but about human atrocities, with those atrocities being presented to we the readers as virtues. If killing one's own child, or slaughtering innocent women and children who already had surrendered to the mercy of their captors, could truly be considered as mere human failings, then your point would have been made. But I have enough faith in humanity and in personal moral judgement to trust that you also consider these acts to be despicable and morally reprehensible, and certainly more than human failings. To describe these atrocities as the apparent "struggle that all men and women go through to try to discern and accomplish what is right" gives me considerably more faith in my own moral judgement - and, I believe, in your own as well - than in theirs!


You are welcome to share your thoughts.