Monday, October 31, 2016

N. Scott Momaday: The Ancient Child, a novel

N. Scott Momaday
The Ancient Child

As I began reading this work, I was reminded of Momaday's, The Way to Rainy Mountain, which I posted on several years ago.  That work had a three part structure.  Each section began with a Kiowa legend, myth, or story and this was followed by a bit of factual information which related to the myth or legend.  For example, Momaday related a story about a famous arrow maker and this was followed by factual information about arrow-making among the Kiowa. The third part was a personal reminiscence by Momaday.

The Ancient Child  has four interwoven narrative threads: one is a Kiowa legend; the second is a bit of Western lore, part true and part myth; the third the story of a Kiowa/Navajo medicine woman; and the fourth the story of a Kiowa who was orphaned at eight, adopted by whites, and grew up far from the reservation and his people.

It took a while, but gradually, most of the threads merged or I could see the possibility of a merging. However, there is still one narrative thread that I haven't quite been able to meld with the others, so I will have to reread it to see what I have missed.

Momaday begins with an epigraph that provides a clue as to the nature of the work:

 "For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at the end."     -- Borges --

And the cast of characters provides more clues.


LOCKE SETMAN,  called Set, an artist
GREY, a young medicine woman, a dreamer

HENRY McCarty, Billy the Kid, a notorious outlaw
KOPE'MAH, an old medicine woman
BENT SANDRIDGE, Set's adoptive father, a retired man, humane and wise
LALA BOURNE, a beautiful, ambitious woman
SET-ANGYA,  an old Kiowa man, Chief of the Kaitsenko Society, a Lear-like man, a man who carries about the bones of his favorite son                

THE BEAR, himself,  the mythic embodiment of wilderness
OTHERS, as they appear

THE BEAR, one of the four threads

Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother.  Suddenly the boy was stuck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet.  His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur.   Directly there was a bear where the boy had been.  The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear after them.  They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them.   It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air.  The bear came to kill them, but they were beyond its reach.  It reared against the trunk and scored the bark all around with its claws.  The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper. 

                      Kiowa story of Tsoai (Kiowa for rock tree)

Tsoai, the great stump of the tree, stood against the sky.  There was nothing like it in the landscape.  The tallest pines were insignificant beside it; many hundreds of them together could not fill its shadow.  In time the stump turned to stone, and the wind sang at a high pitch as it ran across the great grooves that were set there long ago by the bear's claws.  Eagles came to hover above it, having caught sight of it across the world.  No one said so, but each man in his heart acknowledged Tsoai and the first thing he did upon waking was to cast his eyes upon it, thus to set his belief, to know that it was there and that the world remained whole, as it aught to remain.  And always Tsoai was there.

This must be a true story, for I have seen Tsoai.  It is as it is described: it sits all alone on the plains, and there is nothing like it anywhere near it.   I have camped out there and it is so.  And many others have seen it, even those who have never been there, as it was prominently featured in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  We call it Devils Tower and it is found in Wyoming.

Side Note:  The Sioux Nation has recently requested that the name be changed to Bear Lodge, saying that to associate it with the devil is misleading and insulting

Born Henry McCarty, he sometimes called himself William H. Bonnybut he is  best known as Billy the Kid. We are given both factual information and Grey's interactions with Billy the Kid.  Grey's interactions are actually dreams or visions in which she interacts with Billy, and at one time she helps Billy escape jail. 

He is a Kiowa whose parents died, and he was placed in an orphanage.  He was adopted by Bent Sandridge and grew up in San Francisco.  At the beginning of the novel, he had never returned to the reservation.  I wonder about the name of his adopted father and haven't been able to come up with anything significant.  As he is described in the Table of Contents, he is a wise and humane individual..

Set developed his talent for painting and became quite popular for his unique style and subject matter.  Unfortunately, as his popularity increased, he listened more and more to his agent, to art dealers, and to the buying public and gradually began doing less and less of what he wanted to paint.  Now he is depressed and lost, feeling that he has betrayed his talent and it is lost forever. 

She is a medicine woman and a dreamer  (these dreams are more like visions than dreams though).  Her father was a Kiowa and her mother Navajo.  Her basic language is English, but she knows some Kiowa and Navajo and knows much about both cultures, especially Kiowa lore and healing..  I bring her up last, not because she is the least important, but for the very opposite reason.  She is the most important human character in the novel for she is the central core that unites the novel. It is her visions of Billy the Kid and her knowledge of Kiowa medicine and lore that brings the three threads of Billy the Kid, the Bear, and Set together.

While she unites the three narratives in her, I still don't quite understand the relationship of her visions/dreams of Billy the Kid to the other two.  What I do know is that Momaday has a personal fondness for Billy the Kid.   I am now reading another work of his, In the Presence of the Sun, and it  contains a section called "The Strange and True Story of My Life with Billy the Kid."  This section fills 30 of the 145 pages in the book, and it contains poems, some stories, and personal reminiscences about his interest in Billy the Kid. 

It Is Grey who is responsible for bringing Set to the reservation and connecting him with his Kiowa heritage. She does this for one simple reason.  She is a medicine woman and she knows she is the only one who can help Set face the problems that are coming to him.   And, those problems have to do with the Bear.

This is my first, but certainly not my last reading of this work.  The Ancient Child is not a simple, feelgood work.  There is evil here, as there always is in that other world we call real.  The best way to conclude this preliminary commentary is to end the way N. Scott Momaday began--with Borges' epigraph:

               "For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at the end."  


  1. i remember you posted something re Momaday some time ago; his writing must hold a lot of interest for you... it sounds very complex and grounded in Indian lore; the kind of thing a person could lose himself into... i'll be looking forward to what you might discover in your journey. Borges is a favorite; his unique pov has enlightened me in several aspects of literature...

  2. Mudpuddle,

    Yes, I find his blend of Kiowa lore and legend, and history (real or fictional) and contemporary themes fascinating. I've got my eye on another one of his, The Man Made of Words. The library has a copy, so I'm going to take a look at it, before I buy a copy.

    One of my regrets is that I didn't take a class with him when I was at the University of Arizona back in the 80s. Unfortunately I knew nothing about him at that time and it was only much later that I "discovered" him.

    1. somehow, or why, i remember Yogi Berra's quote: "When i Come to a Fork in the Road, I Take it"... for every missed opportunity, there's another road... Frost... "all the difference to me"...

    2. Mudpuddle,

      It's pushing it a bit, but it seems as though Yogi takes one branch and never looks back, while Frost is more thoughtful and does look back. Of course, Frost never tells us what type of sigh that is.