Revising his essay “On Fairy-stories” in 1943, JRR Tolkien reminisced about his childhood fairy tale preferences, mildly dismissing Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island and then recalling, “Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows (I had and have a wholly unsatisfied desire to shoot well with a bow), and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and, above all, forests in such stories.”
He never clarified which “Red Indian” stories so memorably fired his imagination. We have only a short list of candidate writings that he actually mentioned in the course of his life. Andrew Lang’s various collections of fairy tales include a handful of such stories; in 1910 Tolkien attended a performance of Peter Pan; and during his college years he studied Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.
Various commentators have also brought up James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels. In The Road to Middle-earth Tom Shippey compared the river journeys in The Last of the Mohicans and The Fellowship of the Ring, and he noted further similarities in the unfolding geographies and characters: “…as the travellers move from forest to prairie, like the American pioneers, Aragorn and Éomer for a moment preserve faint traces of ‘the Deerslayer’ and the Sioux…” The mention of the Sioux seemed to touch on The Prairie, issued in two volumes in 1827.
The 1877 edition of The Prairie featured a long intro by Cooper’s daughter, Susan. She said her father wrote this book in 1826 during his residence in Paris. Summarizing the reports of the Stephen Long expedition to Pawneeland just a few years previous, she mentioned in particular a Skidi Pawnee named Pitarisaru, Man Chief. Her father “had known personally” this Pawnee “when the chief made one of a delegation to Washington.”
Launching his novel, Cooper sent a small group of American emigrants into the Plains. Three members of the group gathered one night on a “rise,” a grassy “swell” near their encampment. Accosted by a party of thirty Sioux horsemen, the Americans hid in the grass as the Sioux rode past them. But the Sioux felt suspicious and dismounted and searched, and one American jumped up and they were all taken captive, surrounded by the dismounted Sioux party. When the Sioux pretended to be Pawnees, the “old trapper” Natty Bumppo recognized them as “burnt wood Teton” Sioux. Stealing the livestock of the emigrant party, the “rude and violent” Sioux warriors vanished back into the grasslands. Cooper was harsh; these Sioux were “like so many treacherous serpents stealing on their prey.”
Many chapters down the road, the Americans encounter a rather noble Skidi Pawnee. Hard Heart is “a warrior of fine stature and admirable proportions.” In “his countenance” we see “all the gravity, the dignity, and… the terror of his profession.” Hard Heart’s “lineaments were strikingly noble and nearly approaching to Roman…” He wears leggings fringed with human scalps and he bears “an ashen lance” and a shield and a “short hickory bow” and quiver. Hard Heart becomes a prominent character in the second half of the book. And at the end, we find Hard Heart present at the death of Natty Bumppo. Cooper buries him in Pawneeland beneath an oak in a grave “carefully watched to the present hour by the Pawnees of the Loup…”
When Pitarisaru visited the United States with a Pawnee delegation in 1821-1822, he made quite an impression on Cooper. In one 1827 letter Cooper wrote that he modeled Hard Heart on Pitarisaru. And in fact, Pitarisaru was treated as a heroic celebrity as he toured the young cities of the United States. Three portraits showed him wearing a pákstaarukawiirat, a feather headdress – this was the first appearance in the American imagination of this iconic headwear. It is fair to say that the very heart of the racial stereotype of the noble Plains Indian was born from American fascination with Pitarisaru.
One afternoon long ago I sat down with one of my uncles, a member of the Knife Chief family. According to their family oral traditions, Pitarisaru had as many as five siblings, and the numerous members of that family today are descended from one brother of Pitarisaru. My research showed that this family ancestor died in 1888, just a few years before the birth of JRR Tolkien.
I don’t know whether Tolkien read Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Some commentators seem to assume that he did, and there may be good evidence somewhere. But I haven’t seen it. My research does affirm the fact that Tolkien made use of Skidi Pawnee oral tradition. He drew from a 1904 collection called Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. In my book, Tolkien in Pawneeland, I show in detail how this was a long-term interest, evident in scattered writings. If a connection to Cooper could be established, it would help to explain Tolkien’s lifelong use of Skidi Pawnee tradition.
Tolkien most likely encountered the 1904 Skidi collection through his interest in mythology and the publications of the British folklore community. But if he read Cooper’s novels, this could have motivated him to seek out the Pawnee stories. When Tolkien sat down to write the chapter that eventually became “The Riders of Rohan,” a faint recollection of The Prairie could easily have seeped into the tale. It is worth noting that he wrote this chapter just a year or so before reminiscing about his love of “Red Indian” stories in 1943.
The arguable connections are interesting but thin. In Tolkien’s first draft, his three adventurers sit “upon a green bank” as a party of mounted Rohiroth ride past. When Trotter rises from the grass, the Riders surround him and his two companions. This does evoke The Prairie and the three Americans hidden on a grassy elevation as the Sioux gallop past. Tolkien’s final version has the three companions descending to the foot of their green hill as the Rohirrim approach. It is difficult to determine whether Tolkien intended any deliberate homage to Cooper in this moment. It is certainly possible.
The 1877 edition of The Prairie was published in England by Riverside Press at Cambridge, and as I mention above, Susan Fenimore Cooper included an introduction summarizing the Long expedition papers on the Pawnees. She made mention of the Sioux doing battle with “the Kite Indians of the Black Mountains…” Tolkien’s notes for “The Riders of Rohan” (The Treason of Isengard, p. 389; also see 177, 282, 311) made mention of just such a mountain range: “They see Black Mountains, 100 miles south.” In the final draft of the chapter these mountains were replaced by the White Mountains.
Tom Shippey’s assertion that Aragorn and Éomer reflect “faint traces of ‘the Deerslayer’ and the Sioux” has been widely noted in Tolkien scholarship. This is an odd suggestion, given Cooper’s extremely negative portrayal of the Sioux in The Prairie. Shippey meant to suggest that Tolkien set in Éomer a dash of what he considered to be primitive savagery – “nomad ferocity” as he called it. Éomer can certainly be seen as a warrior-noble of the grasslands. But to the extent that we may hear any “faint traces” of racial Indian imagery in Éomer, it would seem most appropriate to look for a silhouette of heroic Hard Heart shimmering around a similarly heroic Éomer.
The weaving together of diverse elements marks Tolkien’s preferred artistic method – as in this possible integration of Anglo-Saxon cultural features with subtle details drawn from Cooper’s Pawnee prairies. Whatever we might make of the few overlapping elements, the limited range of comparative elements in this case makes it difficult to form conclusive opinions about what Tolkien had in mind as he crafted Rohan and Éomer.
Cooper’s Hard Heart and Tolkien’s Éomer do stand forth as comparable mythic figures – mostly because they both gallop out of the grasslands of world-famous epic novels. The existence of a few modest narrative parallels indicates that closer comparative scrutiny of Cooper / Tolkien might well yield more shared elements and better definition. For now, the most that can be said is that we can indeed hear a few distant echoes between the fantasy grasslands of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the fictional prairies of Cooper’s Pawneeland.