Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: The Deerslayer

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer is the most charming and profound frontier story that passed before my eyes. Though I would not be surprised if the novel is one of the lengthiest and most drawn-out in the genre, Cooper managed also to instill lessons of integrity, deception, and natural beauty into the genre that is usually characterized as one with a lack of substance. He brought America’s rugged history to life, shaping a tangible and mysterious wilderness as well as a similarly intriguing frontiersman named Natty Bumppo, a man whose indomitable respect and integrity wins many of the hearts around him. But in Deerslayer, he is just beginning to learn the ways of the forest, trying to sort out his beliefs and match them to reality. In this post, then, and as I’ve done with every single other “Literary Wisdom” post, I will endeavor to do the same, and show you how the undefeated principles of Christianity shine throughout the novel.

“How often have I seen Indians, gal, who believed they were lookin’ into a matter agreeable to the will of the Great Spirit, when, in truth, they were only striving to act up to their own will and pleasure, and this, half the time, with a temptation to go wrong that could not more be seen by themselves, than the stream that runs in the next valley[.]” ~Deerslayer, Chapter Twelve

As the Deerslayer hints here, it is always when we feel sovereign over our lives that we most confuse the will of God with the will of ourselves. That is because at the core of our hearts, we long for authority, and when we have the smallest notion of control, we believe ourselves to be better than who we are—thinking ourselves, though often unconsciously, to be God Himself. The irony of this portion of human nature, though, is that it blinds us instead of enlightening us. We forget the limits of our sight, the boundaries of our intelligence, or the frailties of our emotions, causing us to act unwisely until we realize the truth of the very idea we should have stood fast by all along: there is only one God, and none of us could ever be Him.

“It is another peculiarity of the comprehensive wisdom of the [B]ible, that scarce a chapter, unless it be strictly narration, can be turned to, that does not contain some searching truth that is applicable to the condition of every human heart, as well as to the temporal state of its owner, either through the workings of that heart, or even in a still more direct form.” ~Chapter Twenty-One

This statement is best understood when one realizes that, if Jesus died for the sins of the entire world, then it follows naturally that His story is for the entirety of that same audience. If it is inspired by God, who knows all hearts, and is given as the remedy to humanity’s spiritual fall, then the Bible at its core has the unprecedented ability to appeal to and reason with all who encounter it. In Paul’s words:

“…[T]he word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” ~Hebrews 4:12, NASB

“…[F]rom childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” ~Second Timothy 3:15-17, NASB

“In nothing is death more truly a leveler than in this, since, while it may be impossible absolutely to confound the Great with the low, the worthy with the unworthy, the mind feels it to be arrogant to assume a right to judge of those who are believed to be standing at the judgment seat of God.” ~Chapter Twenty-One

Never before had I read such an adequate description of the average person’s response to the effects of death. While a loved one is living, it’s hard to think of him or her as a spiritual being wrapped in an earthly body, so death can seem far away and even unimportant. In that state of mind, then, we never treat a fellow human being in accordance with the way they ought to be treated as equals. But when death comes storming through the door and violently slashes away the flesh from the soul, our minds rapidly realize that we have done wrong in misjudging our “rights” to treat others as lesser than ourselves. Suddenly all is made equal, suddenly the dead are carried up while those who linger on Earth suffer under guilt, suddenly we turn our faces away, and finally let God have His right to judge.

“…God has been kind to me, and lifted a burden off my heart….’Tis the only way, sister, such things can be done. You may raise a stone, or a log, with your hands; but the heart must be lightened by prayer.” ~Hetty Hutter, Chapter Twenty-Two

I love the younger Hutter sister’s simple wisdom as she speaks to her less devout older sister soon after the death of their father. We can only raise a stone or a log with our hands because it is something material and physical and thus something easy to do since our spirits are tied up to the earth instead of things of heaven. But a spiritual burden is something quite different; God must intervene because our flesh cannot solve something so closely connected to the other world, in which lingers our future and eternal state.

“Thus died Hetty Hutter, one of those mysterious links between the material and immaterial world, which, while they appear to be deprived of so much that is esteemed and necessary for this state of being, draw so near to, and offer so beautiful an illustration of the truth, purity, and simplicity of another.” ~Chapter Thirty-One

And thus I honor Hetty Hutter as one of my favorite literary ladies, placed alongside Hamlet‘s Ophelia, Winter’s Tale‘s Perdita, and Mansfield Park‘s Fanny Price. Like the fictional women I most cherish, Hetty Hutter is a girl whose virtues, though so often among the most sweet and enduring, are overlooked. She has nothing that could recommend her to others save her integrity, “feeble-minded” as she says she is. But that little spark of integrity that she guards so carefully in her heart is kept alive by the Scriptures. All throughout The Deerslayer, Hetty Hutter holds to its words as her very lifeblood, letting its truth infuse whatever decision she faces, even though she is far from perfect. Indeed, it was for this reason that when I read of her death, I couldn’t help but mourn aloud, yet also think joyfully of this passage that had lingered in my mind all along:

“And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” ~First Corinthians 2:1-2, NASB

You may never have thought frontier stories or 500-page books your thing before, but I guarantee that whatever bookish inclination you have, you will love reading The Deerslayer. The rugged charm of its protagonist, the tender and observant beauty of Cooper’s prose, and the mystery surrounding the forest and its various trials are too lovely and fantastical to miss visiting for a spell. So relax, let my words speak for themselves, and revel in the beginnings of Natty Bumppo, the sweet frontiersman who will steal your heart.


~Sarah Merly

June 27, 2018

Isaiah 53