Savage Danger, Virgin Serenity: An Introduction to the Leatherstocking Tales

Two woodsmen emerge from the thick overgrowth of wood, and wend their way to the edge of a pristine, shimmering lake.  The beautiful Glimmerglass, as this water is known, resplendent in its virgin serenity, belies the savage danger that awaits these visitors to her shores.

As Natty Bumppo and his companion, Henry March, converse at the edge of the Glimmerglass, it becomes clear that two more unlikely companions could not be found.  Young Natty, guileless, steadfast, even innocent, is known as the Deerslayer, for though unequaled in marksmanship, his rifle has never sighted a human combatant, only game.  Deerslayer remonstrates with Hurry Harry (Henry’s apt sobriquet), whose frontier recklessness and coarse manners are darkened by a ruthless want of conscience.  Hurry declares, “As for scalping, or even skinning, a savage, I look upon them pretty much the same as cutting off the ears of wolves for the bounty, or stripping a bear of its hide.”  His fierce prejudice is impervious to all Deerslayer’s arguments from nature or logic.

Their conversation terminates as Hurry and Deerslayer turn their minds to the task of finding their way in the tangled wood.  Deerslayer has made his journey to Lake Glimmerglass to meet his Mohican friend, Chingachook, for a secret mission.   Hurry Harry, on the other hand, is accustomed to travel to the Glimmerglass each year, to visit Tom Hutter, a settler whose family inhabits the lake.  To protect himself from violent natives, Huttter has constructed his dwelling in the middle of the Glimmerglass, accessible only by canoe and by his “Ark,” a small house-boat.

Intending to pass the time until his appointed meeting, Deerslayer accompanies Hurry to meet the Hutters: Tom, whose past is mysterious, his beautiful and charming daughter Judith, and her half-witted sister Hetty.  The plot thickens quickly after their arrival.  Judith’s great beauty and wit take the Deerslayer by surprise, and he wonders if Harry’s hints about her sullied character can be true.  Her own preference for Deerslayer becomes apparent as she slights Harry in his favor.

Meanwhile, Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter plan to attack a Huron encampment of women and children in search of easy scalps, for which they can receive a generous bounty from the colonial government.  Disgusted by their baseness, Deerslayer refuses to take any scalps, but his companions’ plot predictably leads to a fierce and bloody reprisal from the Huron warriors.  The poor decisions of lesser men are what eventually force Deerslayer to fight man-to-man.

Surrounded by enemies, the Deerslayer must now use his rifle for battle rather than the hunt.  To survive the clever attacks of the Hurons, to protect the Hutter sisters, and to keep his engagement with Chingachook, Deerslayer must muster all his resourcefulness and courage.  His success, though partial, wins him the admiration of Judith.  When the conflict with the Hurons subsides, he is faced with an unexpected challenge: he must decide to love or reject Judith.  The civilized reader must learn for himself the heart of the Deerslayer.

First in the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper, this account of Natty’s first warpath leads the reader through an adventure of treachery, bloodshed, and love.  Suitable for adolescents, The Deerslayer provides the reader a well-written alternative to the teenage thrillers publishing houses churn out like cheap chocolate candy.  Incorporating historical events and true landscapes (the Glimmerglass indeed exists, known as Otsego Lake in upstate New York), Cooper’s tale transcends much modern adventure fiction by its superior diction and engagement with important questions of law, morality and justice.  While Catholic readers will object to the heavy-handedness with which Deerslayer’s naturalistic, anti-institutional religious views are propounded, they may find excuse for it as sloppy narrative technique or realistic evidence of his Delaware tribal upbringing.  These and other weightier themes are peripheral to the action of the plot, however, and the Deerslayer remains at its best when enjoyed as a leisurely adventure story.  Those who take pleasure in Natty Bumppo’s adventures can follow his subsequent exploits in The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, and The Prairie.


Therese Conte is an independent writer. She has studied literature at the University of Dallas and at various centers of learning throughout the United States. She lives and writes in New England.

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