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The Deerslayer

James Fenimore Cooper

Critical Essays The Epic Hero and the Code

Natty Bumppo, presented at the start of his illustrious career in The Deerslayer, has been described already in the critical introduction as Cooper's adaptation of the European tradition of the epic hero. Although many of Natty Bumppo's habits resemble those of the medieval knights, so popular in the early nineteenth century from the stories of Sir Walter Scott, the code of the American epic hero is peculiar to the time and circumstances. Deerslayer, for example, is not introduced as an intellectual, erudite, or even educated character. Surprisingly, in terms of a character to be imitated and followed, Natty Bumppo has certain defects: he is unable to read; he mistakes chess pieces for pagan idols; and his language is unpolished. Natty, for instance, will frequently use humorous malapropisms: he is unfamiliar, for instance, with Judith's use of the term "buccaneers," and interprets the word according to his own forest vocabulary as "buck-and-near." Cooper, however, never holds his hero up to ridicule; he makes Natty Bumppo, if anything, a little more human and fallible.

Also, Cooper does not always accept Natty's simplistic explanations; and he even allows Hetty on occasion to pose some embarrassing questions to the hero about the necessity of killing and about his views on marriage and love. Natty Bumppo has had such a rudimentary education that his views, at times like those of Hetty, are recitations of his lessons from the missionaries. When he must answer with these set replies, Natty can err because he has not relied upon his feelings or emotions and his experiences in the forest. Even though he is very young in The Deerslayer, Natty has already embarked upon a path of individualism and independence. He has, in short, found a code by which he will live and by which he will communicate his intuitions about life to others.

Natty Bumppo's code, then, is not rooted in the European past (despite the hero's resemblance to the medieval knights in his conduct) nor is it organized logically and systematically around schoolroom lessons. The originality resides in the simple, direct, trusting approach that Natty gives to each of his beliefs. He believes in God and trusts in divine providence, although Natty cannot fathom it at times, nor justify events. God, for Natty Bumppo, is not different for the white and Indian races but is "our common Maker and Master." The best proof of God's existence and benevolence is the beauty of nature. It is true that nature, as Natty freely admits, has unfavorable aspects, such as winter and storms, but the cycles of the seasons bring relief and appreciation.

Natty's wonderment (a recurring pattern in his reactions) at Glimmerglass is explained by his feeling and intuition that God has created here a perfect example of natural beauty. It is typical of the romantic writers and painters of the nineteenth century to select an awesome scene of nature and also to choose the dawn or the sunset to further heighten the emotional reactions of the audience. Even at night, though, Glimmerglass provides an uplifting atmosphere for Cooper's hero, and there seems little doubt that Natty's emergence into manhood on this "first warpath" is due in large measure to the surrounding trees, shores, and water of the lake, reflections of the divine presence.

However, the code, supported by the love and joy of nature in harmony with God, is challenged by mankind. Men can either live harmoniously and appreciatively with nature (as Natty does), or they can exploit and ravage the landscape (as Tom Hutter and Hurry Harry do). The Indians, including the Mingos, have more regard for their natural surroundings because they have lived on the land for generations. White men generally come only for profit and gain. Therefore the code faces its severest tests for Natty when he must oppose the greed of his fellow white men.

Despite Natty's repeated and insistent reliance upon the differences between the races in his code, there is nothing racist in his approach. He believes that white men and Indians can live closer in peace with each other and nature if they recognize and accept differences in their respective races. For example, Natty and Chingachgook are closer friends and better allies than Natty and Hurry Harry, who are immediately and consistently antipathetic to one another.

The code, then, is based soundly on recognition and mutual acceptance of differences between the races on the continent, and Natty never makes the boast that the white man is superior to the natives because no clear standards of distinction exist. And, in fact, many of the tenets of Natty's code could be transferred to the Indian code. Many aspects, likewise, are uniquely fitted to Natty's definition of the code. The white men, most at fault because of their hypocrisy and cupidity, are condemned severely because they should set better examples based on their religion, education, and traditions. Nature, for example, can "get to be deformed by mankind," in Natty's words, and the hero's nostalgia, after his return to Glimmerglass 15 years later, reflects the changes that can be caused by the incursions of the settlers.

The code is compounded of several idealistic and moral elements. One of the principal contributions is Natty's belief in the sacredness of human life, arid be criticizes all those who needlessly kill. Only in warfare or in self-defense is he justified in killing a fellow human being; even then, he should take no pride in this necessity by boasting or exulting. Natty, encountering his first trial in The Deerslayer, kills and fights on several occasions; but he behaves humbly and defends his conduct with humility. He thus behaves with honor, for this characteristic is what distinguishes him greatly from his two companions, Tom Hutter and Hurry Harry. He redeems his pledge to return from the furlough, he faces death at the stake stoically, and lie never takes unfair advantage of friend or foe, all because of the unwritten law of honor.

In addition to the abhorrence of violence and killing and the dedication to honor, Natty possesses other qualities: he defends women in need, sacrificing his own safety, for example, to remain with Judith and Hetty on the ark; he comes to the aid of his friends, the cause of his capture by the Mingos being the result of his promoting the escape of Hist and Chingachgook; he always speaks the truth, although hurting Judith by his frank admissions; he is courageous and uncompromising, refusing to join the white men's scheme to scalp women and children; and he states his opinions frankly and at length. Morality, demanding that lessons be applied to each situation and to the persons involved, permeates Natty's speeches. His soliloquies are the most extensive and detailed analyses of the code, and the farewell of Natty on the ark to his friends is the longest exposition of his didacticism.

Although Natty knows that he is a "loner," he does not retreat from the defense of his position and from the conviction that lie can uplift others by his example. On the contrary, his characteristic pose throughout the romance of leaning silently and thoughtfully on his rifle is often the starting point for his speeches to the others. Natty is optimistic and perhaps imbued unknowingly with the missionary spirit from his early days among the preachers. He, like Hetty, strives to improve mankind by talking openly and constantly about his code.