Friday, November 4, 2011

True Grit, A Tale of Romance



The Coen brothers displayed respect for Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit. They lifted entire passages from the original for the dialogue and followed the original story line faithfully. Their collaboration and admiration for the novel raise their 2010 film far above the one made in 1960 starring John Wayne. The Coen film also led me to Portis’ novel, a western novel, one that I might have purchased as a gift for my father, not one I would have read myself, but thanks to the 2010 movie, the language and heroine called to me. I discovered another great Romance tale, the characteristics of which are:

·      Unknowns, including the true identity of key characters or destinations
·      Supernatural interventions
·      Fantastical settings
·      Numbers that carry symbolic weight, e. g., three, seven, and their multiples signify completion (a complete Holy Trinity or Creation itself)
·      Love and temptation

The unknown true identities of characters in this story are Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn, both of whom prove to have grit, Cogburn by reputation, one that he lives up to, and the other, Mattie, by perseverance and spunk. Together, they set out to find a bad man, Tom Chaney, whereabouts unknown. They find him so far away from civilization, the nearest being Ft. Smith, Arkansas, that Mattie nearly loses her life before Rooster can deliver her for medical care. Chaney and the gang of thieves he’s taken up with have a camp on high ground, near a snake pit that may lead to Hell itself or at least oblivion and shielded by trees above and below, where the wind blows cold and stout, where a man with a long gun and sharp eye can see the pageant of good and evil play out on the plains below, where that man can save lives by taking one.

Supernatural interventions do not come in the form of ghosts, goblins, gods, or gremlins. The only magic that exists is one brewed by honor and empathy. Mattie feels honor-bound to find justice for her father’s murder. She appeals to an unlikeable man who has never enjoyed a lasting relationship with country, army, man, or woman, yet that man honors Mattie, her quest, and her life, even to the point of risking his own. LeBoeuf, the Texas lawman with the long gun, mocks Mattie, teases, toys with her, and takes her for granted, but comes to respect her and prize her mettle. Moreover, all three seek Chaney, a man with a black mark on his face, responsible for killing Mattie’s father who had befriended the outlaw. Still, Chaney, like Cain, destroyed a brother and stole his gold.

The film imagines a fantastical setting described in the book as Rooster rides Mattie’s horse down the hill, away from the thieves' hideout, across plains, through the night, cruelly spurring the pretty filly on beyond exhaustion, violently stabbing her to drain the last life from her. Then he carries Mattie, running as fast as an old, fat, one-eyed man can run across uneven ground. Mattie, who has been bitten by the snake, will die without extraordinary effort, sacrifice, and perseverance.

Still, it is a trinity that saves Mattie and doles out justice to Chaney. Mattie could not succeed alone. Rooster would have died if LeBoeuf had not fired his long gun straight and true over an impossible distance. Mattie would have filled with snake toxin and died, never to return to her mother, without the valiant journey that Rooster undertook and completed.

Finally, the story is about little more than love and temptation. For Mattie, her love for her father defines her quest. That father would never have been lost were it not for Chaney’s love of gold and drink, both of which tempt Rooster Cogburn, but which he conquers long enough to defeat Chaney’s companions and rescue Mattie.

Portis suggests that honor resides within us, that even young girls can be brave, and that crusty old opportunists can shine for an hour. Those are the themes in his novel that bring men and women to his work.

Reading Challenge:

Read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove as a romance tale. Find and list the characteristics of romance tales in his Western epic.

Writing Challenge:

Our culture values courage. Tell a romance tale that upholds the cultural value of courage. Your tale may be fiction or nonfiction. Inspire us all.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Mattie Ross depends upon herself to find justice for her father. She is not dependent upon anyone to find the money for her quest. She is, however, a dependant in the legal sense. Only fourteen years in age, she must ask an attorney or parent to authorize binding contracts and grant permission.

Dependent is a modifier or adjective. It describes a state of being. Dependant is a noun. Remember that dependent with an e describes, a word with two Es in it, while dependant with an a represents a state for a human, and both state and human need As to spell them.