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Irreconcilable Differences:
The Two Versions of Black Robe

6,373 words

To Father Paul Laforgue, the Algonkian Indians are savage pagans in dire need of salvation

To the Algonkian Indians, Catholic priests are greedy, selfish, Norman pigs of sorcerers

–An excerpt from the back cover of the 1987 Paladin edition of Black Robe

Brian Moore’s mesmeric novel, like my own introduction to the life and culture of seventeenth-century New France, is somewhat dependent upon the American historian Francis Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America (1867) and The Jesuit Relations (2000 edition). The Relations are full of colorful journal entries and first-hand accounts by Fathers like Paul Le Jeune, Jeane de Brebeufe, and Isaac Jogues, men who actually dwelt among the Huron, Iroquois, and Montagnais tribes under the frost-crested treetops of the Northeastern woodlands.

These were gnarled priests who undertook a solemn vow “to save the souls of those whom they called The Savages.” The native people who Moore describes in his Author’s Note introducing the 1987 edition as “handsome, brave and incredibly cruel . . . judging the white man to be his physical and mental inferior . . . practicing ritual cannibalism and for reasons of religion, subjecting their enemies to prolonged and unbearable tortures.”

The note continues, “They despised the Blackrobes for their habit of hoarding possessions. They also held the white man in contempt for his stupidity in not realizing that the land, the rivers, the animals, were all possessed of a living spirit and subject to laws that must be respected.”

This is a viewpoint that elicits some degree of sympathy, even when one is aware that the myth of the noble savage living in harmony with nature is largely a fiction, and that these forest nomads more often than not undertook a “slash and burn” form of agriculture with very mixed results for the ecosystem they inhabited.

Moore’s introductory remarks conclude by saying, “I was made doubly aware of the strange and gripping tragedy that occurred when the Indian belief in a world of night and in the power of dreams clashed with the Jesuits’ preachments of Christianity and a paradise after death. This novel is an attempt to show that each of these beliefs inspired in the other fear, hostility and despair . . .”

This is a damning indictment indeed, and one that unfolds with mounting malevolence and increasing violence in Moore’s concise, screenwriter-like prose, which possesses the descriptive touch of Cormac McCarthy’s epic Blood Meridian (1985) and the anthropological detail of British realist writers from a completely different genre, like George Eliot and E. M. Foster. These were elements that made the text a perfect piece for celluloid reenactment, set as it is in the snowy Canadian province of Quebec around Lac Saint-Jean and ornamented with some truly excellent performances by Lothaire Bluteau as Father Laforgue, August Schellenberg as Chomina, Aden Young as Daniel Davost, and the delectable Sandrine Holt as Annuka. The Golden Reel-prizewinning feature film that was made from the book was further accessorized by a simply beautiful and somewhat haunting soundtrack by the illustrious Georges Delerue.

The director, Bruce Beresford, who had previously made the critically acclaimed film about the Boer War, Breaker Morant (1978), said:

I think that, even if you have no religious faith whatever or, even if you despised the Jesuits, you would still find it an interesting story. It’s a wonderful study of obsession and love. And it is a wonderful adventure of the spirit and of the body. What those people did, going to a country where winters were far more severe than anything they had known in Europe, meeting people who were far more fierce than anyone they had ever encountered . . . Having to deal with these people shows us something of humanity at its greatest. It’s the equivalent of today’s people getting into space shuttles and going off into space. It takes unbelievable courage to do this.

But do it they did, with the book’s opening scene describing Laforgue, pacing back and forth through the “jumble of wooden buildings” and “rectangle of wooden palisades” which then made up the settlement of Quebec, anxiously awaiting permission from Father Bourque, his Jesuit Superior, and the aging Sieur de Champlain to undertake a “journey to almost certain death,” fifteen hundred miles by canoe into the interior to a desolate mission, along a great snaking river running west.

His Algonquin guides, who are also present at the parley between Father Bourque and Champlain, were Chomina and Neehatin, characters Moore describes thus:

Chomina, the elder Savage, had shaved his head bald except for a ridge of hair, which bristled across the crown like the spine of a hedgehog. His face was a mask of white clay. The younger, a leader called Neehatin, had ornamented himself for this occasion by drawing rings of yellow ochre around his eyes and painting his nose a bright blue.

It is made explicitly clear that Chomina and Neehatin’s only interest in guiding Laforgue is their payment of six muskets, along with sufficient powder and shot to be used in their inter-tribal war. The following description of these Savages perfectly encapsulating the gulf between the two cultures:

They were in their normal summer garb, the men naked except for a breechclout, the women covered modestly enough in long tunics made of animal skins. All were filthy, their hair matted with food particles, their skin greased to keep off the flies and mosquitoes. And yet, despite this, their slender bodies, their lack of facial hair, and an absence of physical deformities made them seem more handsome and of a higher species than the priests of the residence.

Now, as the hands of the clock moved towards four, one of the male Savages rose and walked around it, then went into the chapel to see if anyone was hiding there. Satisfied, he returned, nodding to the others. In the kitchen, the priests ceased their labours and fell silent. All waited in a quiet in which the only sound was the ticking of the clock.

The clock chimed Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! At the stroke of four, the Superior cried out “Stop!”

The chime died. The clock’s steady ticking was heard. The Savages gave a cry of astonishment and delight, turning to each other with the amazement of people who had witnessed a miracle. The eldest male Savage began to speak to the others. “You see, it’s just like I fucking well told you. The Captain is alive. The Captain spoke. I told you. He spoke.”

The film, too, brims with historical authenticity, with watchmakers and armorers being consulted on the most minor details, from the movement of timepieces to the embellishments on matchlock weapons, and from the size and texture of tobacco pouches to the color and length of the porcupine quills sewn into the Indians’ buckskin clothing. Scene after scene is a visual pleasure, transporting the viewer back in time so that one can almost smell the body odor and the reek of the latrines in 1634.

The plot itself, some progressive critics have claimed, is far too stereotypically grounded in the Western tradition of the lone stranger arriving in an isolated community, setting its troubles right, and then moving on, being almost Shane-like in its conformity to these conventions. One analysis states that “as a vision of the traditional clash of cultures of the past, Black Robe is still pegged to the structures of the old, the stereotypes that inhabit the diegetic world of the Western.” Its author no doubt would prefer that the narrative conform to the newer type of narrative established by Little Big Man (1970), Soldier Blue (1970), Dances with Wolves (1990), or Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans (1992), where the wisdom of the Red Man and the benefits of “going native” are emphasized, so that the hybridization of the heroic central characters seem natural and the blending of distinctive cultures ends up being beneficial for all concerned. This is always particularly true of the white man, who has so much to learn from the otherness of the Indian, lacking as he is in self-knowledge, and ever-fearful of the seductive organic quality of the natural world.

Such politically correct assumptions and academically-policed restrictions on free expression bring back my memories of research seminars where disciples of the guru of Marxist literary theory, Terry Eagleton, and overzealous converts to post-colonial studies viciously attacked classic works like Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage (1937) for its supposedly racist depictions of the Abenaki Indians. The students became positively bilious when Roberts’ central character, Major Rogers, reminded his men, before their raid on St. Francis in 1759, of how the Abenakis had “hacked and murdered us, burned homes, stolen women, brained babies, scalped strangers, and roasted officers over slow fires.” The book goes on to describe the Abenaki alternately as “red hellions,” “red skunks,” “weasels,” “dirty,” and fit for being “burned alive” or “skinned” – if “their pelts were worth it,” that is. In several highly descriptive speeches, the reader is told how the Abenakis had flayed and dismembered captured officers, pulling out their ribs one by one while the tortured man’s heart was still beating, and then “playing ball with [the] heads” of such victims. One scene from King Vidor’s 1940 cinematic interpretation of Roberts’ work shows over seven hundred scalps blowing in the wind in their encampment at Odanak.

Likewise, I am reminded of my bitter encounter with the American historian Francis Jennings, author of books such as The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (1975), Empire of Fortune (1988), and Founders of America (1993) who, despite my earnest and well-evidenced protestations, flatly refused to see any merit in the work of Francis Parkman, calling him a “liar” and “falsifier” while rebuking me for even mentioning the Boston Brahmin’s name.

The overriding ethos was, of course, to create a metanarrative whereby the only acceptable way to present the early encounters between allegedly indigenous peoples like the Aborigines in Australia, the Maoris of New Zealand, the southeastern Indians of the subcontinent, or the Amerindians of both Americas, is to “ennoble” and “uplift” them, while presenting us, the mostly white invaders or colonialists, as narrow-minded, vulgar, and ignorant exploiters of the natural riches of the continents they conquered. They are shown as bringers of disease, war, and pestilence, disrupting and devastating the harmonious lives of the peaceful natives who had, of course, lived up to that point in perfect peace and harmony. It is such scurrilous madness as that depicted in Werner Herzog’s movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), starring Klaus Kinski, who leads his conquistadors down the Orinoco in search of El Dorado in the sixteenth century. At the end of the film, Aguirre symbolically drifts alone, his men all having been killed, on a raft overrun with monkeys, defiantly swearing:

I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter, and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God. Who else is with me?

Blatantly ignoring anything they do not like, and wherever possible carefully selecting from the vast range of archaeological, anthropological, archival records, especially the reliable folkloric and oral histories, the Left-Revisionists sift through these source materials for useful threads that can somehow be woven into their tapestry of myth that can become – through school curricula and the mass media – the very fabric of public consciousness and common belief.

Descriptions such as the following are now considered transgressive:

Savage drumbeats punctuated drunken Breton songs. Mosquitoes and tiny midges moved in separate clouds as they sought out blood. The day had been warm but an evening coolness came in from the river, bringing relief to the Commandant and the Savage leaders, who sat in a circle on the river bank; Champlain upright in an armchair, wearing a cloak made of beaver skins. Outside this circle, the Jesuits of the mission huddled in long black cassocks, their wide-brimmed hats looped up at the sides. Farther down the river bank, the majority of the population of New France, some one hundred colonists, artisans, fur company employees and soldiers, strolled about among the remaining Savages of the Algonkian band, who were now eating their share of the Commandant’s feast. These, the younger men, together with the women and children, crowded around a bank of smoking fires on which were placed cooking kettles containing a stinking mess of bear meat, fat, fish and sagamite. The Savages ate gluttonously from the kettles, stopping from time to time to wipe their greasy fingers on their hair or on the coats of their dogs, which ran barking around the fires in search of discarded scraps . . . Champlain turned to the Savage leaders and pointed to Father Bourque and the other Jesuits. “These are our Fathers,” Champlain said. “We love them more than we love ourselves. The whole of the French nation loves them. They do not go among you for your furs. They have left their friends and their country to show you the way to heaven . . .”

The theme of cultural and religious conversion, no doubt well-intended on the part of the Jesuits and others such as Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620-1700), the woman who founded the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal as well as the first public school for Indian children (and of course instinctively and stubbornly resisted by the tribesfolk), is neatly summed up in an early dialogue between two minor characters, Tallevant and Doumergue:

“Look over there,” Doumergue said. “See that Savage with a musket on his back?”

“The one eating from the kettle?”

“Right. Know who that is? It’s Jean Mercier.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That’s Mercier, I tell you,” Doumergue said. “He’s just been up-country with one of the hunting parties, buying pelts. See? He dresses like them now. He even eats their food.”

Tallevant stared uneasily at the almost naked figure biting into a piece of bear meat, the animal hair still on the half-cooked flesh. The man wore European hunting boots, not the soft shoes made of skins which a real Savage would use. Could this be the Rouennais fur trader whose accounts Tallevent had seen entered in the Company’s ledgers in Caen? He turned to Doumergue. “What happened to him? Is he drunk or mad?”

“No, no. He likes the life.”

“But how can he? That stinking food, the flies, the smells, the way they live.”

“The way they live?” Martin Doumergue laughed. “They live for pleasure, for a full belly. They live to hunt and fish. They do no work, the Algonkin. And, most important, they let him fuck their young girls. He likes that. He’s free up there. And he’s not the only one. I have twenty-one traders on my books. In five years, if they stay here, most of them will be like Mercier.”

“I don’t believe it,” Tallevant said.

“And if we do bring in colonists,” Doumergue said, “the same thing will happen to them. Do you think I’d bring a woman out and marry her and settle here? What for? So that my sons will grow up half savage, running naked in the woods, then dying of starvation when the snows come?”

Uneasily, Tallevant looked back at the tall figure of the trader, the lank greasy hair, the thin loins, the buttocks bare beneath the breechclout. Doumergue is wrong; it must be drink or madness. To go from all that we know and back to that brutish state? “‘It makes no sense,” he said aloud.

“Doesn’t it? It makes sense to me. We’re not colonizing the Savages. They’re colonizing us.”

Such concepts of moral equivalency between natives and newcomers, or even the idea that the Indians might have been capable of negative agency, proved almost impossible for New Left historians to accept or express. We see this in the work of scholars such as Colin G. Calloway, author of Dawnland Encounters: Indians and Europeans in Northern New England (1991) and New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (1998); David E. Stannard, author of American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (1993); Anthony Padgen, author of The Fall of Natural Man: The Indians and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (1987); Alan Gallay, editor of Indian Slavery in Colonial America (2015); James Axtell, author of The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethno-history of Colonial North America (1994) and The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (1995); and Daniel Richter, author of Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and their Neighbours in Indian North America, 1600-1800 (2003). They meticulously go about their work while in a state of positive denial. They offer predictable excuses for one set of actors and attribute malign motives to the other in a scholarly blame-game that is well-funded by research councils and eagerly approved by academic publishing houses that cooperate to sustain an almost self-perpetuating denigration of white Europeans, and white European males in particular, whilst either airbrushing out or excusing the less attractive aspects of the behavior of the so-called “First Peoples,” like the colonial massacres at Jamestown in 1622, Wethersfield in 1637, Lachine in 1689, and Deerfield in 1704.

Not that the colonists were innocent, either, responsible as they were for similar atrocities at Pamunkey in 1623, Staten Island in 1637, Massapequa in 1644, and Occoneeche in 1676. While the facts around Anne Hutchinson’s brutal murder and Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative are investigated from a historiographical perspective and deconstructed Derrida-style, it is as if the experience of the victims were of only secondary concern, while the perpetrators’ feelings and motivations are of far greater ethnographic interest and value.

These are the dichotomies that Moore’s book and Beresford’s film manage to navigate so majestically and even-handedly, leading to stinging criticism from the usual sources because they both refused to follow the standard playbook: “A film more concerned with its historic credentials than it is with cultural and social specificities, than it is with the context of its own production, with how it resonates with the contemporary audience, what it has to say about contemporary issues of ethnicity and its representations.”

But that is exactly what both the book and the film do in a balanced and uncompromising way, and that is why such critics attacked it at the time and have subsequently tried to bury it. Black Robe is in some ways closer in spirit and texture to movies like Massacre (1912), The Indian Wars (1914), The Vanishing American (1925), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Allegheny Uprising (1939), Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986), Ron Howard’s The Missing (2003), Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), and Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant (2015), based on Michael Punke’s well-regarded 2002 book, which is about the adventures of Hugh Glass evading Arikara war parties along the Missouri River. Despite the latter’s gritty realism, so evident in the opening battle scenes, the movie is unfortunately irretrievably marred by the insertion of flashbacks depicting the central character’s Pawnee wife being killed by white soldiers, and the almost inevitable allusion to the gifts of “native” American religiosity, the clear intent being yet again to virtue-signal the benefits of blending distinctions. But there are also the films based on Thomas Eidson’s excellent trilogy: St. Agnes Stand (1994), The Last Ride (1995), and All God’s Children (1996).

Unlike Moore and Beresford, whose versions of Black Robe immediately confront us with the irreconcilable differences that exist between unique and equally valid cultures, showing the merits and constraints that heredity and environment endow on people who have shared the customs, mores, and aspirations of their forefathers for millennia. And both do so without making moral judgments or projecting preference or prejudice – something that clearly infuriates their detractors. Mestigoit, the dwarf Indian shaman’s religious peccadilloes, are for example afforded no less respect than Laforgue’s baptismal rituals over a dead Indian baby. Far from being the “master” of the environment, as some critics seem to imply, Laforgue confesses to being “lost” in the Indian’s world so that when he becomes detached from the group and wanders alone in the wild – a moment one critic decries as a “lost opportunity” because it could have portrayed “the arrogance of the outsider’s presumption to show the way [to paradise] to a people with a sophisticated and long-standing spirituality and culture,” and instead chooses to emphasize the dread of someone who recognizes that to be alone in such a place can only mean certain death. This might seem incredibly humanizing to an objective viewer as the Blackrobe stumbles through the roots and branches, becoming increasingly disorientated by a world he cannot begin to comprehend. But this is evidently not the case for those with an agenda, who infer that some kind of power is still being manifested in the man who in truth has merely been cast adrift in an environment that both fascinates and terrifies him.

The book and film are very much focused on illustrating Laforgue’s flawed and meager personal resources set against the backdrop of snow-filled mountain landscapes, which impart a tragic dignity to the Father’s impossible quest as he undertakes his river journey, the classic water passage motif intended to depict the inner journey of self-discovery. Laforgue is described setting out, sitting “in the narrow canoe, the paddle resting on his knees, his wooden clogs tied around his neck, his head bare to the cool morning breeze,” while a cannon is fired from the ramparts above the river in farewell. Neehatin calls out to his frightened compatriots that “the cannon fire was an honor, a salute from the Normans for their journey” as the Savages “bowed to their stroke. The canoes sped on,” with the “paddlers taking the Father to the top of the Great Rapids, whence the Allumette people will help him proceed . . .”

The book, like the film, conveys onward movement by referencing “the slap of the paddles in quiet waters.” Laforgue recalls his mother stopping with him in the Place du Vieux Marche in Rouen, insisting that “God has chosen you, just as He chose the Maid.” The sequence continues:

Her words made him blush. Surely it was foolish to compare him with a saint like Joan of Arc, but still it was true that ever since the Order had granted his petition to be sent to New France he had dreamed of the glory of martyrdom in that faraway land.

The convoy of five canoes traverses portages, with the Father carrying “a chalice, a monstrance, four missals, two sets of mass vestments, writing materials and two gallons of altar wine,” along with “trading goods: tobacco, awls, beads, knives, hatchets.” Laforgue cuts an incongruous figure in the middle of wonderful wide-angle shots of the St. Lawrence waterway as the travelers make their way upstream to discover the fate of Father Jerome and Father Duval: whether they had succumbed to the deadly fever gripping the region or been martyred at the mission by the Savages “putting a hatchet to their heads.”

Travelling ever deeper into the interior, to where “the sun fell below the tree line” and “shadows moved across the surface of the water,” Laforgue experiences an epiphany:

At that moment a great shadow passed over him, and, looking up, his prayer still born on his lips, he saw high above, a huge eagle of a sort he had never seen in France, its head white, its beak and talons yellow, its great brackish wings rigid as sails catching the wind eddies as it glided back and forth over the trees. Suddenly, swift as clashing swords, the great wings shut. The eagle plummeted between the trees. And as Laforgue knelt there, his struggles, his deafness, the dangers of this journey were transformed miraculously into a great adventure, a chance to advance God’s glory here in a distant land. God was not hidden; He had shown himself in the eagle’s flight. Laforgue saw the eagle rise from the trees, its great wings beating steadily as it carried off its prey. In the beauty of this wild place, his heart sang a Te Deum of happiness.

His Indian companions are given equal attention, both in the anthropological and narrative sense, when they simultaneously undergo life-questioning experiences in the form of dream sequences such as Neehatin’s: “I was on a log. I paddled across a river and landed in an open place. I walked up to a meadow, and when I did, this fucking big serpent followed me through the grasses.”

“Then?” his wife asks.

“I went back to the river and again sat on the log. As I paddled away, a heavy man jumped on to the log behind me and made it rock. I fell in the water and a fish swam up and told me to follow it. It led me to the farther shore. That is all. What does it mean?”

His wife interprets the dream: “The serpent is a sorcerer. We must find a sorcerer to tell us what is the danger.”

Neehatin replies: “So it is a danger, then?”

His wife nods. “Yes, the heavy man is the Blackrobe.”

Neehatin solemnly acknowledges this. “So it is the Blackrobe who brings us danger?”

From this point on, there are several significant plot twists which facilitate the rapid emergence of the underlying themes that pose fundamental challenges to both the Christian and Indian worldviews: the meaning of and value attributed to honor, as opposed to self-preservation; and the conflict between lascivious and licentious activity versus the more repressed and pristine approach of delayed gratification, in the context of personal freedom.

A perfect example involves young Daniel questioning the authority of the Catholic faith, in a heated debate with Laforgue:

The Savages are truer Christians than we will ever be. They have no ambitions. They think we are mean and foolish because we love possessions more than they do. They live for each other, they share everything, they do not become angry with each other, they forgive each other things which we French would never forgive . . . Annuka tells me about the mysteries of this land and these forests. It is there that they find their spiritual strength. They think us blind and stupid. They say we are less intelligent than they are, because we ignore these mysteries.

Laforgue’s riposte: “That is because Belial rules here, the devil infects their minds.”

Daniel counters, “Is it [the Indian world of the dead] harder to believe in than a paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God? Or burn forever in the flames of Hell?”

The young man’s thinking was no doubt influenced by Moore’s other subplot, involving sexual temptation; in this case it is the effect of the exoticism of the Indian woman on the white male, rather than the unfulfilled romance of Uncas and Alice in Mann’s Last of the Mohicans: “The bed of ferns was damp but, excited, she stripped off her tunic and her skirt and was naked for him, her only adornment a long necklace of white and purple beads made from the insides of shells. It hung and shook between her breasts as she reared over him and took his prick in her mouth, sucking it.”

Another theme is the breaking of Chomina’s oath to Champlain to take Laforgue to the carrying-place. The desertion, and the return to the spot where they had left Laforgue, results in Chomina’s group being ambushed by a Huron war band:

Arrows hissed, some falling short, three finding a mark, one in Chomina’s shoulder, one in his wife’s neck, one in the bundle his daughter carried on her back. At that moment Daniel’s musket thundered. Seven painted Savages rushed out on the trail, surrounding their victims, flailing at them with clubs. Laforgue saw Chomina turn to his wife as she fell, blood spurting from the arrow wound in her throat . . . Daniel’s shot had felled one of the Savages, and now the Savage leader, wearing the mass vestments which he had donned last night, knelt by the fallen warrior, cradled him in his arms, then with a cry of rage so terrible it made Laforgue quail, let the dead man fall back to the ground . . . Rising, his silken robes bloodied from the dead man’s wounds, the Savage leader screamed at the others. Chomina’s wife was dragged across the ground by one of her captors, while another ripped the arrow from her neck. Laforgue saw them kick her and turn her over. The Savage leader, the embroidered gold cross on his vestments fouled with blood and dirt, uttered a second cry of rage, and at once the Savages fell on Chomina, Daniel, and the girl, making them pass down a double line of warriors, each of whom struck at them with a javelin or a club . . . And in that moment, watching, Laforgue knew that Daniel, Chomina and Chomina’s family all would die. And that he, if he crawled back into his hiding place, would escape their fate. “But what is my life in the balance, if, by going forward now, I can confess Daniel who is in a state of mortal sin, and God willing, baptize the others before their last end . . .” He felt himself tremble . . . Pale and determined, a frail man in a long black robe came forward and knelt beside Chomina’s wife and, wetting his fingers in the snow, began to say the words of baptism . . . Then, with a shriek of rage, the Savage leader came up behind him and clubbed him at the base of the skull . . .

The subsequent torture and murder sequences, along with the lugubrious sex scenes between Indians, are, the progressives assert, constructed to underline the “differences” which they claim “gives the impression in the film of cultures implacably opposed, of values and beliefs (meaning the Indians) that have justifiably been made to vanish.”

But I think this is mere sophism. The truth is that such acts were instinctual and natural to that particular culture at that particular time, and no postmodern gloss can nullify or justify such rituals by our so-called modern, civilized standards. Or for that matter, one cannot deny the reality that they were performed willingly by people who thought them completely acceptable, just as Catholics and Protestants burnt each other at the stake during the religious wars in Europe, and the streets of Paris ran red with blood after the St. Bartholomew’s day Massacre in 1572.

Should historical fiction be censored, or authors mediate their prose, in order to avoid depicting certain groups in a negative light, or which might offend a protected group’s sensibilities? Moore and Beresford clearly do not think so. Nevertheless, I am convinced they did not intend to cause offense, but rather merely wanted to present their tale authentically, informed by a knowledge of the behaviors of the time.

“Strip them,” said Kiotsaeton (after they are brought to their captors’ village). At once, all the prisoners, including the little boy, were stripped naked. A cheer went up into the rafters as the older women came forward, singing. They took firebrands from the smoking fire and approached the paramount chief. “May we caress the captives?” asked one of the women. “Caress them,” said Kiotsaeton, “but carefully we must make them last . . .”

The scene that follows includes descriptions of the two Frenchmen clumsily jigging and singing Ave Maria while Annuka shuffles in a primitive dance-step before being kicked. Then, “a tall Savage, his head dyed red, his eyes horrid yellow circles, a strip of reddish fur hanging from a pigtail down his back,” goes to Chomina’s little boy, takes him “by the hair and, with a gesture callous as though he killed a fowl, swiftly slit his throat. Blood gurgled forth from the child’s mouth . . . Laforgue saw the child hacked to pieces with hatchets, its bloodied limbs thrown into a cooking kettle . . .”

Later, after escaping the Iroquois by way of Annuka’s sultry seductive skills, Laforgue, Daniel, and Chomina paddle on until Chomina finally succumbs to the inevitable. He tells his daughter that the She-Manitou “will touch me before night comes,” leaving Daniel, Annuka, and Laforgue to press on to Ihonatiria, where, lifting the latch on Father Jerome’s residence, “he (Laforgue) was met by a foul charnel-house smell, which made him gag . . .”

The denouement of both the book and the film shows Laforgue teetering on the knife-edge of success or failure. Will the mission Indians kill him, as they did the sick Father Jerome? “He ran into the sick priest’s room” to see the long-suffering Father “on his knees, his shoulder leaning against the edge of a table . . . a hatchet had split his head at the base of the skull.” Or will the confused villagers, driven half-mad by fear, convert, as the Blackrobe desires?

The final “water sorcery” scene, where Father Laforgue is seen baptizing a group of Huron Indians, desperate to stop the spread of disease in their settlement, is shot in a montage that contains the Christian cross and an uplifting musical score, signifying in the eyes of the movie’s detractors that Christianity, and indeed the white culture it is meant to portray, has prevailed.

But is that really the case?

Given the previous dialogue between Taretande, Aenons, Ondesson, Sangwati, and Father Jerome (just before he is murdered), and the subsequent private noon meeting of the village council, such a reading of the both the book and the movie is mistaken, or at least deliberately misleading:

The sick old voice [Father Jerome] rose in a quaver of anger. “Yesterday, the sun went black. You have seen the hand of God, our God who is above us, who is the only Lord of Heaven and earth. What must you do that you will be cured of this fever? You must serve our God, who is your God. If you will end this contagion, you must make a vow to do His will. Do you understand? . . . You must make a public vow that if God ends this contagion, you will be baptized and keep his commandments . . .”

“The water sorcery?” asked Sangwati. “For all?”

“Yes,” said the Blackrobe.

Which elicits the following private response from the Hurons:

“Of course there will be some who will not take the water sorcery,” said Aenons. “I, for one, will not give up the dream.”

“But listen, you silly old prick,” said Taretande , trying to joke him out of it. “Why give up the dream? We will do as they say. We will take the water. Then we will see what we will do.”

“If we make vows to give up the dream, to keep our wives, to let our enemies die an easy death and all the other stupid demands the Blackrobes make, it will be the end of us,” Aenons said. “If we make the vows we must keep them. For, if their god is strong as they say, then he will know if we lie to him.”

“It will be the end of us if we die of fever,” Ondesson said.

“Then I will die of fever,” Aenons said.

The dialogue shows the village elders’ pragmatism, and the supposed conversion, so beautifully choreographed in the movie and cinematically described in the book, proves to be nothing more than a superficial act:

“Do you love us?” [asks Taretande.]

“Yes.” [answers Laforgue]

“Then baptize us . . .”

[Laforgue] went to the chest in which vestments were stored and took out a linen alb, pulling the long white smock-like garment over his black cassock. He took up a gold-embroidered stole, and from habit, touched his lips to it before putting it around his neck. He walked past the dead priest, going to the door.

Outside, a cold wind came from the great lake. Before him, huddled in the village street, were four rows of litters containing the sick. Behind them stood the children of the village, and behind the children were the men and women not yet stricken by fever. He saw, standing to his right, Taretande and Ondesson, with the other members of the council. And, close by, he saw Daniel and Annuka. He signaled to Daniel, who came up at once.

“Take the kettle,” Laforgue said. “Help me”.

He faced the crowd. Slowly, he raised his fingers, making the sign of the cross, touching his brow, his chest, his right shoulder, then his left. All watched this sorcery. Then, with Daniel carrying the kettle, he went down to the first row of the sick. He took a small ladle from the kettle’s rim, filled it and poured a trickle of water on a woman’s fevered brow, saying in Huron tongue, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Savage woman stared up at him, sick, uncomprehending. He moved on, saying over and over the words to make them Christians and forgive their sins. Was this the will of God? Was this true baptism or a mockery? Would these children of darkness ever enter Heaven?

He looked up at the sky. Soon, winter snows would cover this vast, empty land. Here, among these Savages, he would spend his life. He poured water on a sick brow, saying again the words of salvation. And a prayer came to him, a true prayer at last. “Spare them. Spare them, O Lord.”

“Do you love us?” the Indians asked.

“Yes,” Laforgue unequivocally replied.

But I suspect the truth is that this love goes unrequited, and that the philanthropic urge represented by the Jesuit’s attempt at conversion mirrors similar pathologies that any calm and rational observer witnesses in our own culture today. It is the same virulent fever that leads liberals and Social Justice Warriors to believe – in their modernist-multicultural delirium – that other ethnic groups want to share our values and desert their own aeon-old customs and traditions. In the historical case of the woodland Indians of the American Northeast and Canada, the encounter proved fatal.

What, in our hubris, makes us white Europeans immune to similar incursions from the Islamists, the corrosive influence of the Sharia and proselytizing imams who seek to surreptitiously colonize our own continent? The message of both the book and the film is clear and unambiguous. The chasm between cultures is simply too deep to bridge, and attempts to do so merely risk contaminating and defiling the integrity of the original peoples that created and are worthy of them. Perhaps we whites are too blind to see this self-evident truth. Or is it that we are in some way inoculated with an arrogance that defies historical reality?

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3 Comments

  1. Ononteo
    Posted August 16, 2018 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. I was somehow unaware of this book, even though its subgenre is probably my favorite reading. I just reread Northwest Passage, whose first third, the account of the raid on the Indian village and the return, is a classic of world literature on a level with Xenophon’s Anabasis. The rest of the book, which many refer to as a letdown, is perfectly fine too.

    One thing I’ve always wondered about. You hear of ghastly tortures and murders, but never rapes by Eastern woodland Indians. And I don’t think it’s modesty that prevented rape from being discussed in sources at the time. I just get the sense from reading captive narratives and the like that rape was something they didn’t do, for whatever reason.

  2. Troll King
    Posted August 15, 2018 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Very fine article, although I’m only about 2/3 done. Black robe is a great movie, capturing the cruelty and viciousness of the Indians. Another point is that they did all these things to one another, even worse. Indians of the southwest, northwest, northeast, Central America all sound much alike in their behavior to one another. Why aren’t whites seen as liberators and pacifiers of the Indians rather than oppressors, as mel gibson’s Appocolypto artistically suggests?

    I’m reading a book Captured by Indians right now that contains many such harrowing tales. One amazon reviewer said something like “when you see dances with wolves after reading this, you’ll just laugh.”

    • leech
      Posted August 16, 2018 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      Hobbes, IIRC, used the state of Indian tribes, in which they were found by Whites, as a factual confirmation of his theory of the primitive man’s state of nature as a state of constant war.

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