True Grit and Dumezil?

Very interesting idea over at Slate … some appropriate excerpts:

These conceptions of justice and their attendant myths were originally described at length by prominent philologist Georges Dumezil (1898-1986) in his 1948 book Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Perhaps you own a copy. Perhaps you have two, so you can keep one in the car. Or maybe you came across Dumezil’s essay in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s influential A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980), in which it is discussed at length. Regardless, it’s worth revisiting Dumezil’s work, as it enriches our understanding of the Coens’ movie. I’ll demonstrate how below, but be warned: Spoilers will be as prevalent as rattlers in Choctaw territory.

Dumezil observed that a wide range of Indo-European cultures produced myths—philologically related to one another—in which the universe was governed by one-eyed and one-handed gods acting in concert. The one-eyed gods tended to rule though magic, strong personalities, and mad bravado. The one-handed gods, by contrast, represented the rule of law—the ordering and arrangement of society through contracts, covenants, and statutes. In many narratives, the one-handed god loses his hand or arm after breaking a contract or reneging on a deal—illustrating the idea that in times of crisis, the law must be bent or broken, though the price for doing so can be dear.


In Roman mytho-history (Romans liked to give their history a mythic burnish), one-eyed Horatio Cocles (“Cocles” being derived from “Cyclops”) and soon to be one-handed Mucius Scaevola team up to defeat Lars Porsenna, an invading Etruscan determined to sack Rome. According to Dumzeil, the one-eyed Cocles “holds the enemy in check by his strangely wild behavior.” Citing the Roman historian Livy, Dumezil writes that “remaining alone at the entrance to the bridge, [Cocles] casts terrible and menacing looks at the Etruscan leaders, challenging them individually, insulting them collectively.” He also deploys “terrible grimaces.”

Cocles’ antics stop Porsenna temporarily, but the surly Etruscan soon brings war upon Rome again, and this time it’s Scaevola, whose mind ran in a more statesmanlike track than his comrade Cocles, to the rescue. He warns Porsenna that he has 300 assassins at his disposal—it’s a bluff, but Scaevola burns his hand in a fire to convince his enemy his threat is bona fide. Porsenna agrees to leave Rome be.


Are Rooster and Mattie modern manifestations of the ancient allegorical characters Dumezil studied? Or are they merely two different personality types: the charismatic, devil-may-care swaggerer and the exacting, careful planner—Dionysus and Apollo, Oscar and Felix. Whether Portis is familiar with Dumezil is unclear—the novelist keeps to himself. A spokesman for the Coens assured me the brothers are not aware of Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Still, the myths Dumezil compiled and explicated do illuminate the novel and the film, regardless of whether the author or filmmaker knew his work directly. They remind the reader or viewer that this isn’t just the story of a young girl with great pluck, but something of an origins myth as well.

In the stories Dumezil analyzes, the one-eyed and one-armed gods act in concert to save the state in an emergency, but they really represent different moments in statehood: creation and conservation, or founding and running. True Grit, too, is a story about the founding of a nation, or more accurately, the closing of the frontier and the birth of modern America. The film ends in 1903, when Cogburn dies after having performed for years in a Wild West show, a sorry imitation of the real West in which he thrived. By the time of his death, the frontier had closed, depriving Cogburn of his natural element and forcing him, like Buffalo Bill, into a representation of that element.

… and it continues a bit. Not sure if the logic works; seems a bit simplistic to me. Pretty much every pirate movie would match this description, no? Heck, almost every Johnny Depp movie in some form or another. I’m being facetious, of course … now I’m pondering the descriptions of the one-eyed Hannibal, or that Antigonus guy. Did they gain some psycho-mythic ‘cachet’ by being one-eyed?



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