The Song of Hiawatha

This is part of Diane’s  Literature Course I Series

My grandpa was born in 1906. He went to school in the ancient days of America when memorization was considered a good way to, well, remember things. When I was a child, he could still recite large chunks of Longfellow’s Evangeline. I believe I first heard from him, “On the shores of Gitche Gumee / Of the shining Big-Sea Water.” I knew the poem was called Hiawatha, and that’s about all I knew. Over the years, I tried more than once to sit down and read the poem, but the wish to “have done it” was stronger than the will to “do” it.

So, when I set out to compile an American literature course this year, I added Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha to the line-up, thereby inexorably assigning it to myself. Now I have read it.

I allowed two weeks for the class to read it, not because it is long or difficult, but because I didn’t know how my students would take to an epic poem. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by their reactions when, halfway through, I asked how they liked it. They didn’t. They loved it. What did they love? Two of the elements for which Longfellow took much criticism in his day; the rhythm and the descriptions of nature. By the end, my students were truly enjoying some of the characters as well. There were also a couple they loved to hate. My unsuspecting students were drawn into the story, and the characters inspired strong feelings. I consider this a success.

In an effort to give his poem the rhythm of an American Indian chant, Longfellow wrote Hiawatha in trochaic tetrameter. I’m no expert at analyzing poetic meter, but this one’s easy. And completely contrary to the traditional iambic pattern (da-DUM, da-DUm, da-Dum) English-speakers tend to take for granted. Longfellow went, instead, for DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da.  

On the Mountains of the Prairie,
On the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
He the Master of Life, descending,
On the red crags of the quarry
Stood erect, and called the nations,
Called the tribes of men together.

Read this with the stress on the bold syllables and you can hear how tedious, and eventually, ridiculous, this will sound, unless you are careful not to get sing-songy. Which you shouldn’t do when you read poetry anyway. My students found it quite soothing. It seems that Longfellow’s public also loved it, while his critics (then, and now) despised it.  

The poem is filled with beautifully descriptive passages, but Longfellow doesn’t set them apart like framed pictures in a gallery. Rather, he weaves them throughout the story, as Nature’s patterns would have been woven into the lives of his characters.  

But the fierce Kabibonokka
Had his dwelling among icebergs,
In the everlasting snow-drifts,
In the kingdom of Wabasso,
In the land of the White Rabbit.
He it was whose hand in Autumn
Painted all the trees with scarlet,
Stained the leaves with red and yellow;
He it was who sent the snow-flake,
Sifting, hissing through the forest,
Froze the ponds, the lakes, the rivers,
Drove the loon and sea-gull southward,
Drove the cormorant and curlew
To their nests of sedge and sea-tang
In the realms of Shawondasee.

In his introduction, Longfellow claims that The Song of Hiawatha is a compilation of American Indian legends that were told him by Indians he had met. Hiawatha resembles many ancient mythological heroes. He even goes on the equivalent of a journey to the Underworld like Odysseus and other heroes of legend. Hiawatha’s father is immortal, the West Wind, and his mother is mortal. He has superior wisdom and physical abilities, and is also given magical gifts. As I was reading, it gradually dawned on me, “Ah, Hiawatha is an Indian superhero.”   

With that realization, my interest waned. I suppose I’m too pragmatic to understand why I should sympathize with a hero who can paddle his canoe simply with his thoughts and outrun his own arrows, but who can’t go shoot a deer for his starving tribe. When Pau-Puk-Keewis is running away from Hiawatha, he goes to the beavers to hide. He asks to be turned into a beaver, but not just any beaver. He wants to be ten times larger than all the others. The beavers agree to this and want to make him their king. How? Why? I like to have this sort of thing resolve itself into making sense, but it never does.  

I have never had much patience with elaborate stories that claim to explain natural phenomena. In our family, we developed a tradition that someone must say, as we got to a certain point in our drive through Wind River Canyon, “There’s that rock we always look at.” This rock had obviously broken free of the canyon wall, compelled by gravity to settle in the river bed. Its placement, the plants growing out of it, the current as the water forces its way around the rock create its own interest. For me, it would add nothing to have someone tell me a long story about how the rock broke off because Hiawatha, enabled by his magic moccasins, had walked to Wyoming from the Great Lakes in six steps and knocked down the rock with his magic mittens.  

While I don’t expect everyone to agree, Longfellow’s attempts to “Christianize” the Indian religion make me uncomfortable. He seems to want us to believe that their beliefs were practically Christian. They just needed the further enlightenment of the Pale-Face Black-Robe. In the chapter called “Hiawatha’s Fasting,” our hero builds a special lodge in which to fast for seven days. Understandably, on the fourth day he is exhausted and begins to see visions. The Spirit of Indian Corn comes to him and says, “All your prayers are heard in heaven, For you pray not like the others  . . . But for profit of the people, For advantage of the nations.” So, the Master of Life sent him to teach Hiawatha how to plant corn. This rings of Solomon blended with the angel Gabriel coming to Daniel’s aide.

Once Hiawatha has married Minnehaha, the sun blesses them and tells Hiawatha:

“Love is sunshine, hate is shadow,
Life is checkered shade and sunshine,
Rule by love, O Hiawatha!”

The moon then tells him also to rule by patience. Good counsel, of course, but I prefer that godly counsel come from the Creator rather than the creation. I understand the power of fairy tales and imagination. It seems to me, however, that Christians need to be more cautious than ever about mixing Christianity with paganism.   

When the Black-Robe chief arrives, Hiawatha decides it’s time for him to go, leaving his people in the capable hands of the Pale Face. He paddles his canoe into the sunset, reminiscent of King Arthur, though there is no promise of his return.  

The stranger is made welcome, and he condenses the Gospel into ten lines.  

Then the Black-Robe chief, the Prophet,
Told his message to the people,
Told the purport of his mission,
Told them of the Virgin Mary,
And her blessed Son, the Saviour,
How in distant lands and ages
He had lived on earth as we do;
How he fasted, prayed, and labored;
How the Jews, the tribe accursed,
Mocked him, scourged him, crucified him;
How he rose from where they laid him,
Walked again with his disciples,
And ascended into heaven.

The chiefs promise to give this some thought, and Hiawatha paddles into the Land of the Hereafter.  

Though there are a couple of mentions of wooing in the story, it could hardly be called romance. There is killing, but nothing graphic.  

The writing assignment for this book was to compare Hiawatha to another literary or real-life hero or heroes.  

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