Friday, March 16, 2012

Abiding Friend

I’m really taken with William Faulkner’s story, “The Bear.” I mean the longer version that appeared in his 1939 classic Go Down, Moses, a collection of short stories that Faulkner himself called a novel. The stories that appear in that volume are connected mainly by imagery and place. “The Bear” comes toward the end of the collection and goes this way:

Ike McCaslin has always wanted to lay eyes on the old legendary grizzly that haunts the Mississippi bottoms. When he is 10, his older cousin, Cass, and his woodsman mentor, an old half Chickasaw and half African named Sam Fathers, let him go on the annual hunt with them. When he tells Sam he wants to see Old Ben, the bear, Sam says he has to leave the gun behind to get a glimpse of the creature. He explains to the boy that the bear is very smart and he won’t show himself to anyone with a gun in his hand.

So, one morning the boy gets up before the others and takes only a stick, a compass, a knife and a watch with him into the bottoms. By noon he is very far from camp and he realizes that he must relinquish the accouterments of civilization before he will see the bear. He leaves his knife, stick, compass and watch on a log and goes on alien and small into the windless noon’s hot dappling. (That’s not an exact quotation, but it gives you a sense of Faulkner’s language).

Suddenly, he realizes he is lost, so he does what Sam has taught him, making a large circle to the left, then to the right, looking for his own tracks to trace back. What he finds, though, is the old trap-ruined footprint of Old Ben, filling up with water, the sides caving in. The bear is very close. Then he sees him, even bigger than he thought, looming like a thundercloud above him. Then he catches a glint of light and looks to discover his knife and the other items on the log where he left them. When he looks back, the old bear is gone, having faded back into the wilderness.

The second time he sees the bear he has a gun but can’t shoot. Something won’t let him pull the trigger. When he asks his older cousin about this, Cass reads him Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” that poem about some things being too precious to change. “Forever wilt thou love and she be fair,” is a quotation from the poem that resounds in the boy’s head, until he understands that if he had shot the bear, he would have destroyed the very thing that made him appreciate and admire the love of liberty and all the old truths of the heart, such as love, honor, pity and sacrifice. The boy learns a lot from Sam Fathers and Old Ben. He learns even more from John Keats, thanks to his cousin Cass. That poem also has a line in it that goes, “Thou shalt remain in other woe than ours, a friend to man.” Faulkner’s story is our abiding friend.

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