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“A Knight of Ancient Chivalry”: Last of the Mohicans as Medieval Romance

David Lampe
(Buffalo State College)

Placed on line August 2011

Presented at the 17th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2009

©20011, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta
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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2009 Cooper Seminar (No. 17), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 123-28)

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“Here is the very scene of romance.”
—Edward Stanley (1824)

“Natty Bumppo is a kind of celibate knight of the forest...
He practices homely knight errantry.”
—William Humphrey (1977)

“No romance sold unto
Could so enthrall a man
As the perusal of
His individual one.

’Tis fiction’s to dilute
to Plausibility
Our novel, when ’tis small enough
To credit,—’tisn’t true!”
—Emily Dickinson

My paper has three epigraphs, the last from Emily Dickinson who, as usual, cuts to the essence—the diluting of romance may create “Plausibility,” but also makes it small, creditable, and untrue. I do not know that she read James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans though I like to imagine that she might have recalled it when she wrote those lines around 1863. I do know from the statement of his daughter that James Fenimore Cooper early aspired to write “a great heroic romance with knights and squires, and horses, and ladies, and castles, and banners.” The title she mentions is Don Belianis of Greece, the grandson of Amadis of Gaul, part of the archetypal Spanish romance written by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (1508). It is remembered as one of the books that Cervantes has his curate and doctor save from Don Quixote’s library and call “the best book of the kind that was ever compiled” (Quixote, I.vi). Yet Quixote’s housekeeper burns it anyway (Quixote I.vii). Some scholars seem to agree with her. W.P. Ker grouses, “The formula of Amadis of Gaul is derived from generations of older unformulated heroes and implies the exhaustion of the heroic strain in that line of descent” (Ker 203). My colleague Dana Symons, a romance specialist, warned me that reading Amadis and its offshoots is a life’s work; there are many thick volumes and most of them never translated from Spanish or Portuguese. The version available to Cooper was the “adaptation” by Robert Southey reviewed by Sir Walter Scott in The Edinburgh Review. Having written about Southey’s “Wat Tyler” play (written by the young radical and published by his enemies to embarrass the poet laureate in 1813), I approached my task with the grim determination of a career medievalist.1

But first, just what do I mean by “medieval romance”? Much recent work helps define that vast genre. Among the best is Douglas Kelly’s The Art of Medieval French Romance (l992). Using terminology from the 12th century master Chrétien de Troyes, Kelly highlights two elements: Aventure—an adventure or test—and Merveille—a marvel or wonder—in other words the extraordinary, the unusual, uncommon and mysterious. Kelly argues that romance plots most often feature a quest, a journey with a goal which puts its hero in contact with the marvelous in an inquiry or test for the truth. “Romance,” Kelly insists. “tends to single out one marvel as the goal of narrative adventure, and to that marvelous adventure all other adventures and marvels are made subordinate.”

In Toward a Medieval Poetics (1972, trans. 1992) Paul Zumthor explains:

Romance narrative normally contains three actants: the “hero” (the main subject of the action presented in the text), his companion, and antagonistic forces, which may be enemy knights, taboos, or marvelous and terrible adventures. In many romances the hero is initially designated only by a generic qualifier such as “the knight,” and receives a proper name only later in the story (p. 294).

Dennis Green (2002) contrasts the narrative of history which follows ordo naturalis (chronological order or the cause/effect sequence of political narrative) with that of romance ordo artificialis (narrative patterns designed by the author). Experimentation is endemic to romance; patterns are presented only to be adapted to fit changing cultural conditions.

Whether or not Cooper read or drew episodes directly from medieval romance cannot be established conclusively. Unlike Walter Scott, Cooper does not draw on Chaucer. But then it was not easy to get a reliable text of either Chaucer or Malory in the early 19th century. Sensing that need Robert Southey edited an edition of Malory. The late Lesley Workman who established the flourishing field known today as “medievalism,” the imaginative appropriation of medieval materials for artistic use by later generations, saw Southey as an early innovator. We tend to give credit to William Morris (who was a better poet than Southey) or to the second generation romantics, especially Keats’ erotically charged “Eve of Saint Agnes.” But Southey was at the center of medieval appropriations years before Keats and Shelley who learned from him.

After two trips to Iberia (both Spain and Portugal) Southey translated Amadis of Gaul (1803) and The Chronicle of the Cid (1808) and wrote The History of the Peninsular War (1823–32) and a Life of Nelson (1813), which is still in print today. There had been a translation of sorts of Amadis by Alexander Munday, a fustian contemporary of Shakespeare, but Southey was the first to work from the Spanish and (God bless him) to abbreviate Amadis.2 C. S. Lewis said that his vision of heaven was reading a medieval romance that never ended. Amadis and its continuations might well have provided that story.3

In his preface Southey explains what he had done to Amadis:

I have reduced it to about half its length, by abridging the words, not the story; by curtailing the dialogue, avoiding all recapitulations of the past action, consolidating many of those single blows which have no reference to armorial anatomy, and passing over the occasional moralizing of the author.... The minutest traits of manners have been preserved, and not an incident of the narrative omitted. I have merely reduced the picture, every part is preserved, and in the same proportions (I.xxiii).

The story begins “Not many years after the passion of our Redeemer” (I.i.1) in “Lesser Britain” (Wales). Amadis is born to Princess Elisena, who is secretly married to King Perion, and who, for the sake of her honor, is forced to abandon her son in “an ark large enough to contain a new born child and its garments, and long enough for a sword, a rich garment, a ring” and a wax-sealed parchment which declares “this is Amadis, son of a King” (I.ii.10-11). Gandales, “a knight of Scotland sailing on that sea...with his wife, who had newly been delivered of a son called Gandalin” (I.ii.11) sees the ark, rescues the baby, and christens him “Child of the Sea” (I.ii.15). He is raised along side Gandalin who becomes his life-long companion. At twelve he is knighted by King Perion (who doesn’t recognize him as a son) after Amadis rescues his father from Irish raiders. Later his father will recognize him by his ring, sword, and that sealed parchment. Like his father, Amadis falls in love with a princess, King Lisuarte’s daughter Oriana, whom he secretly marries. Amadis and his younger half-brother, Galaor (two years younger but a fickle rather than faithful lover) join forces to engage in adventures—what Eugene Vinaver (following John Leyerle’s lead) would call narrative “interlace.”4 Faithful Amadis tries to win Oriana from her father’s control while Galaor seduces a series of available ladies. They are, as Southey puts it, “errant knights who redress wrongs” (I.xvii .108). Amadis’ quest is for his father-in-law to recognize his marriage to Oriana, and keep him from marrying her to the Roman emperor El Patin (Little Duck).

Before he is finally recognized as Perion’s son Amadis is known by a several names: Child of the Sea, Knight of the Lion (I.xii.71) and the Strange Knight (I.xiv.83). In Book II, after Oriana is “angered by what the dwarf [Ardian, Amadis’ attendant] had said to her concerning [the] broken sword [she had given him]” he takes on the name of Beltenebros “the fair forlorn” (II.vi.284-5) and lives as an austere hermit. Imitating Amadis, Don Quixote takes on this role in the mountains with wonderfully comic results (I.25). Later Amadis is known as Knight of the Green Sword (III.ix ) and as the Greek Knight during his adventures in Bohemia, Turkey, and Greece (III.xv ). Southey actually elides two other names: “Amadis, Sin Tiempo” (“Ill-Timed”) as Place and Behm translate it, and my favorite “Caballero del Enano” (Knight of the Dwarf). Although Frank Pierce in his often useful Twayne treatment of Amadis (1976) seems to think “nicknames” a fault, I think it adds comic charm to the narrative to have one of Amadis’ early opponents known as Dardan the Proud (I.xiv ) and to later find an El Bravo, El Valiente, El Orgulloso, as well as El Lozano (the Lusty).

There are a number of forests: the Forest of Arunda (I.xvii.106), the Forest of Ill Fortune, the Forest of Angaduza (I.xxiii .141), and a Forest near Windsor (I.xxiii.143ff). There are also numerous damsels in distress, one rescued from being “burned at the forest edge” (I.107). Amadis and Oriana consummate their love in a forest, as Southey decorously puts it, “the fairest damsel in the world became a woman in the forest” (I.xxxvi.197). There are many instances of merveille, some the work of the evil enchanter Arcalaus or the “good fairy” Urganda “la Desconocida” (the Unknown). Others are exotic places like the Island of the Devil which features Endriago, the fruit of incest and killer of both his mother and father, Fire on the Sea (II.xviii), the Island of the Boiling Lake (II.xix), or the Firm Island with its “Arch of True Lovers” and a Forbidden Chamber. There are also, as one might expect, a number of courts set up by King Lisuarte. One of these is called the, “most honourable court that ever had been held in Great Britain” (I.xxx.163), even if it does not feature a round table. And in these courts, castles, combats, kings or knights errant everything is always superlative, never merely ordinary.

Lord Raglan’s The Hero gives a convenient listing of 22 elements found in “traditional” and literary hero stories (I find this pattern more useful than Joseph Campbell’s reductive circle). Oedipus scores 20, King Arthur scores 19, and Robin Hood 13. Amadis of Gaul is not listed but by my tally would score 13. And Cooper’s Hawk-eye would score 6 (which is pretty good since only the first 10 of Raglan’s list are relevant to an American/non-royal hero). Actually Uncas scores even higher than Hawk-eye with a 12. I have given you Raglan’s “pattern” in an appendix since it provides a concise plot summary of Amadis.

I do not mean to argue direct influence or exact similarities since I cannot prove that Cooper read Southey’s Amadis. But since Scott reviewed Southey’s Amadis in The Edinburgh Review (1803), I think it likely that he knew it. Though Scott praises Southey’s “mode of executing his translation” as “marked with the hand of a master” and though he provides a useful plot summary, he also harps on the primacy of French sources for romance and on the minstrel origins of metrical romances.

There are a number of similarities between Amadis (my example of the genre) and Last of the Mohicans. Like Amadis, Cooper’s hero plays what Zumthor calls the name game at different stages of his life—Deerslayer, Pathfinder, La Longue Carbine, and finally Leather-Stocking. Hawk-eye’s companions and even his antagonist also bear several names. While no one in Last of the Mohicans wears body armor, they do have “heraldic” names (in French, the language of heraldry) which Hawk-eye is very fond of: “I’m an admirator of names,” he tells us, which:

With an Indian ’tis a matter of conscience; what he calls himself, he generally is—not that Chingachgook, which signifies a big serpent, is really a snake,big or little; but that he understands the winding and turnings of humannature, and is silent, and strikes his enemies when they least expect him (Mohicans 534)

Uncas is “Le Cerf Agile” which means “bounding elk” not “nimble deer” (Mohicans 574). While Magua is “Le Renard Subtil...the name his Canada fathers have given” him since “Night is the same as day to le Subtil” (Mohicans 515). In Pioneers (1823) Chingachgook is known as John Mohegan. Amadis’ son will later be known as the Knight of the Great Serpent in Amadis (iv.44).

There are also a number of other explicitly chivalric elements apparent in Cooper’s text. Weapons play an important role. King Arthur has his sword in the stone and his Excalibur, Roland his Durendal, and Amadis a sword to prove his royal birth and a broken sword to estrange him from Oriana. Hawk-eye’s weapon is important and is rightly called “kill-deer” (Mohicans 554, 711) and not “la Longue Carabine” (Mohicans 573) since “their [the Mingo’s] title is a lie, ‘killdeer being a grooved barrel, and no carabyne” (Mohicans 814, cp. 549—“long barreled, true grooved, soft metalled rifle”).

There are also numerous explicit references to knighthood and chivalry beginning with references to, “the well known and chivalrous scalping tuft” (Mohicans 500), and later to Duncan’s, “dreaming that he was a knight of ancient chivalry, holding his midnight vigils before the tent of a re-captured princess whose favour he did not despair of gaining, by such a proof of devotion and watchfulness” (Mohicans 618). Later Alice rebukes Duncan, “Ah, thou truant! Thou miscreant knight! He who abandons damsels in the very lists” (Mohicans 641). Duncan will wonder, “What says our graver Sister? Will she find an excuse for the neglect of the knight, in the duty of a soldier?” (Mohicans 642). Marquis of Montcalm is described as, “affable, and distinguished as much for his attention to the forms of courtesy, as for that chivalrous courage, which only two short years afterwards, induced him to throw away his life, on the plains of Abraham” (Mohicans 646). The massacre at Fort William Henry is set against this background of “French civility” (Mohicans 655) and noble codes. Notice the attention to “terms” for “speedy surrender”—regimental “colours” to be carried to England, “arms” kept—Duncan is “deeply touched by so unusual and unexpected generosity” (Mohicans 660–661). Yet all these preparations make Magua’s dashing, “the head of the infant against a rock” and driving, “his tomahawk into [the] brain” of the grieving mother (Mohicans 672) even more horrific. But such extreme contradictions were also part of medieval warfare. The rules of chivalry applied only to the privileged. The etymological root for chivalry after all is cheval (horse), and we should remember that a “knight errant” required at least three of them—his pack horse, riding horse, and trained battle steed (usually the size of modern Clydesdales to carry a man wearing 80 pounds of armor). Horses are still the mode of transportation in Last of the Mohicans. What reader of Last of the Mohicans can forget the “horrid shriek” of a horse in agony in Chapter 7? Add to this the attention given to “codes of behavior” and cultures at war (indigenous and invader) and one might almost believe we were reading a Crusader tale. Yet, the quest is to find Fort William Henry rather than the conquest of Jerusalem and the only cross mentioned is the one vehemently denied by Hawk-eye. Actually, we have not one but two quests—to get to Fort William Henry and then to rescue the captured damsels in distress. These are certainly the materials of romance. Indeed they are the very elements one finds in a “medieval novel” called Ivanhoe and no one has to “prove” that Cooper read Scott. Scott’s light and dark ladies Rowena and Rebecca reappear as Alice and Cora in Cooper. Though Scott may no longer claim a wide readership, in his day he was both popular and intellectually stimulating. As I have shown, the Robin Hood conventions (down through Kevin Costner and Mel Brooks) are set by Scott. Even though Peacock may pen a pastiche and Thackeray may write an affectionate corrective, it is only Twain who fumes and fusses.5

There was another kind of antiquarian medievalism a generation before Scott in what is too often termed the pre-romantics (like pre-post-moderns?). Most important among them is the reclusive Cambridge poet, Thomas Gray. We know that Cooper read Thomas Gray because three of the epigraphs to Last of the Mohicans are from him—two from his Pindaric Ode “The Bard.” It’s interesting to see what Cooper makes of these two quotations. Though Doctor Johnson was famously unkind to Gray—“He has a kind of strutting dignity and is tall by walking on tiptoes—he still admitted that Gray was, “Perhaps…the most learned man in Europe” (Lives, 1781). Inspired by John Parry, a blind Welsh harpist he heard in 1755, Thomas Gray drew on the moment in English history when Edward I, having conquered Wales, orders the execution of all traditional bards. The poem is the speech of the last of these poets who in bold bardic form curses Edward and his descendants and then leaps to his death from Mount Snowdon.

Gray is first used in Chapter 7, “They do not sleep,/ On yonder cliffs, a grisly band,/I see them sit.” At the end of the chapter, both Hawk-eye and Duncan are tangled in battle with dangerous opponents. Though Hawk-eye’s “toughened sinews” finally prevail “over the less practical limbs of the native” (Mohicans 550), Duncan’s opponent seems prepared, like the bard of Gray’s poem, to sacrifice himself if he can take Hayward with him. Only at the last moment Duncan is, “drawn backward by the saving arm of Uncas [as] his foe…fell sullenly and disappointed down the irrecoverable precipe” (Mohicans 551). And this, of course, anticipates the climactic deaths of Cora, Uncas, and Magua. Chapter 8 also bears Gray’s epigraph from “The Bard”: “They linger yet,/ Avengers of their native land.” The echo here is on the “avenger” as Hawk-eye asserts and modifies his code. Hawk-eye dispatches a Huron sniper who had threatened their group (and especially Heyward). But when Heyward requests a coup de grace, ”Give him, in pity, give him the contents of another rifle” (555), Hawk-eye refuses and says, “Not a karnel…we have no powder to spare.” Yet he soon relents even though it requires, “the last charge in my horn, and the last bullet in my pouch, and ’twas the act of a boy” (Mohicans 556). Hawk-eye insists he is a man without a cross (8 times, 4 times he insists he is white). But if we accept the reading of Barbara Mann, we see that he protests too much and is really Indian—a cross he refuses to bear. Here he remembers that, “it is better for a man to die at peace with himself than to live haunted by an evil conscience” (Mohicans 559). Uncas decides to stay and though Hawk-eye and Hayward leave, the latter recognizes, “There are evils worse than death” (Mohicans 562)


But there is also another twist being worked by Cooper. I suggest we should also see Cooper as juxtaposing this strange Welsh bard with his comic bardic figure David Gamut whose code of behavior, like that of Hawk-eye, is changed by his circumstances. Early on Gamut seems a buffoon, “to the last degree ungainly...[with his] ill-assorted and injudicious attire” (Mohicans 485), with his pedantic insistence on “four part harmonies” (Mohicans 495) and his insistence on the primacy of the Psalms (as tiresome a hobby-horse as Scott’s insistence on the primacy of metrical romances over a prose version). Later we see this buffoonery gives him privilege as a “natural fool” (Mohicans 735) who is finally enthralled by eloquent funeral of Uncas and Cora (Mohicans 866–870). In other words, David has run the gamut from intolerant orthodoxy to the sympathetic recognition of the “other”—a process that readers of the novel share with him.

Using medieval chivalric romance as a lens for reading Last of the Mohicans we can see the novel’s two quests, its chivalric and non-chivalric warriors (heroes and anti-heroes) as well as a minstrel, the psalm-singing David in a different light. And we can also once again appreciate the ingenuity and craft of Cooper in experimenting with the romance form, might we say in developing a democratic romance with a natural, rather than hereditary, aristocracy.

The woods are the marvel (though they are not the aristocratic preserves of medieval England).6 The aventure of the plot are quests along with several rescues of damsels in distress which is a subject of continuing plot interest in Deerslayer. Yet Cooper does not slavishly follow romance pattern but instead experiments and adapts them to his purpose and landscape. Dennis Greene reminds us the “genius” of romance is its invitation to innovation and experimentation, in this case to its adaptation to American settings and peoples.

And finally the issue Dickinson addresses, the sense of “moonlight” and madness that Hawthorne describes in his “Custom House” Prologue to Scarlet Letter. This wonderful improbability of “romance” is opposed to the novel, to so-called realistic fiction in which everything is ordinary not superlative, everything is probable and measurable, and everything is for sale—might we say the novels of James Fenimore Cooper as opposed to those of Samuel Langhorn Clemens.

End Notes

1. David Lampe, “The Prince and the Peasants, Who’s the Hero,” Medievalism: The Year’s Work for 1995,X (2000), 159–174.

2. John J. O’Connor, Amadis de Gaule and its Influence on Elizabethan Literature. New Brunswick, NJ; Rutgers University Press, l970 discusses early “translations.”

3. Even if Cooper did not know Amadis, Ker’s description of it as a “decadent” repetition of the patterns of romance conventions makes it a useful text.

4. Though Vinaver applies the concept to Malory “the device of interweaving a number of separate themes” (71), the concept borrowed by analogy from the visual arts (especially Ms. illuminations) was first applied to Beowulf by John Leyerle in 1967.

5. David Lampe, “The Heirs/Errors of Ivanhoe: Robin Hood in Pre- and Post- Modern Fiction,” in Robin Hood in Popular Culture, ed. Thomas Hahn (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000), 129–139; and David Lampe, “‘The Accuracy Of My Impressions,’ Mark Twain, Ford Madox Ford, and Michael Crichton Re-Imagine Chivalry,” Studies in Medievalism XVII (2002), 84–96.

6. As Corrine J. Saunders shows, real medieval forests (as opposed to those found in romances) were “a mixed landscape, to be thought of in terms of woodland, in terms of human inhabitants as much as wild beasts. Swineherds, charcoal burners and woodcutters might be found pursuing a livelihood within the forest.” The Forest of Medieval Romance. Cambridge: Brewer, l993. p. 3. See also Matt Cartmill. A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature Through History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, 56–60.

Works Cited

Lord Raglan. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (1936, rpt. 1948)

1) The hero’s mother is a royal virgin;
2) His father is a king, and
3) Often a near relative of his mother, but
4) The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
5) He is also reputed the son of a god.
6) At his birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather, to kill him, but
7) He is spirited away, and
8) Reared by foster-parents in a far country.
9) We are told nothing of his childhood, but
10) On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.
11) After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
12) He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and
13) Becomes king,
14) For a time he reigns uneventfully, and
15) Prescribes laws, but
16) Later he loses favour with the gods and/or his subjects, and
17) Is driven from the throne and city, after which
18) He meets with a mysterious death,
19) Often at the top of a hill.
20) His children, if any, do not succeed him.
21) His body is not buried, but nevertheless
22) He has one or more holy sepulchers.

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