Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Cold Dish: Henry Standing Bear as Walt Longmire’s Shaman

In the role of best friend, confidante, mentor, and spirit guide is Henry Standing Bear. He is able to tell off Walt Longmire, the protagonist of Craig Johnson’s successful novel series about Sheriff Longmire in Absaroka County, Wyoming. Henry gets away with telling off his friend simply because he is loyal and wise, often wiser than Longmire himself. As a character with traits universally recognized as worthy, readers identify with and admire Henry, a direct descendant of other admired archetypal characters. Foremost among those archetypes is the shaman and seer.

Two shamanic literary figures illustrate a shaman’s role. The first is Queequeg, Ishmael’s mentor and spirit guide in Moby Dick. Queequeg’s world view is characteristic of shamanic figures in that his is pantheistic--although in the novel, he’s defined as a pagan. He guides Ishmael to enlightenment and greater tolerance for all mankind, Christian and non-Christian, by sharing with Ishmael his worldliness and proving his character as a savior. Queequeg also risks his own life to save two sailors and the coffin he carves for his own burial becomes the instrument of Ishmael’s survival after Ahab’s obsession brings down the ship.

The second is Ultima, Antonio’s spirit guide and grandmotherly friend. Her wisdom comes from Nature. She reads the birds and uses plants to heal and see. She prepares Antonio to continue her work upon her death, but his decision is difficult. He’s torn between his Catholic upbringing and education, the pagan myth of the Golden Carp, and Ultima’s gentle guidance. Unlike other characters in Antonio's life, Ultima never requires Antonio to choose one over the other in order to remain her friend and companion. Like Queequeg, Ultima demonstrates the purity of her intentions, fostering enlightenment and understanding in Antonio.

Henry Standing Bear functions as Walt Longmire’s shaman with one significant difference. Longmire may have been taught the tenets of Christianity, and he may believe them, but they do not hold him. He’s receptive to the wisdom that Henry’s pantheism grants him.

An iconic symbol of the Western frontier
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin
Indeed, Henry’s faith in the old ones as spirit guides help him survive being gut-shot and left on the trail during heavy snows, but Henry chants the old music as much for Walt as for himself. The chant carries Henry to a meditative place where he can preserve his energy and direct it to survival. The chant also leads Walt Longmire back to him through snows that have masked the path.

So receptive is Walt that he sees the old ones. They appear when he’s in danger of taking the wrong path, of walking to his own death while failing to rescue Henry.

Henry saves Walt in more mundane ways as well. He accompanies Walt when he must navigate treacherous terrain, he demonstrates calm in storms of all kinds, and he takes charge to lift Walt from the wallow of his own despair.

When sorrow and loss blind Walt to the chaos of his own life, Henry appears to cook nourishing food, advise his misguided friend, and arrange home improvements. He nudges Walt back into fulfilling the promise of the man. He does this with empathy and, we’re told, an understanding of dangers ahead, the ones for which Walt must be ready.

The result of Henry’s influence is a wiser, more capable Walt Longmire.

Reading Challenge:

Read the first of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, Cold Dish, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima

Writing Challenge:

Write a poem or essay celebrating the wisdom gleaned from Nature.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach. She also writes for