Glancing at my bookshelf a couple of evenings ago, my eye fell upon a great American literary classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. It set me to thinking about the moral compass of such narratives. For all his ups and downs, Hawkeye, Fenimore Cooper’s existential frontiersman, strives to ‘do the right thing’ in the situations in which he finds himself. At certain moments in the narrative such striving lifts him to heroic stature, and his example lifts us up with him.
The moral compass of this work and other such titles as John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old man and the Sea, or even Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is never in doubt. Their central characters, however embattled through circumstances, remain basically good and decent. Indeed, guided by his own moral compass, Hawkeye moves mountains in his attempts to affect a rescue of the story’s victims of kidnap.
Now let’s take Fenimore Cooper’s protagonist and place him on a very different frontier. Could we imagine Hawkeye willing to kill a child, or handing over a young girl in his care to be raped, or overseeing a massacre of women and children? If the answer is ‘no’ – and it has to be – then what makes such possibilities, not merely unlikely, but in the minds of we the readers, completely out of the question? We take our lead from the narrative itself, which gives us every indication of Hawkeye, not just having decent moral standards, but of adhering to those standards. In short: he lives by his own innate code of moral values.
My eye travels to another title on my shelf. Four of its characters we already have encountered in posts on this blog. Could we imagine these characters being prepared to kill their own children, or offering their own daughters up to be gang-raped by a mob, or directing a massacre of defenceless women and children? The answer has to be ‘yes’- because all these events actually take place within the narrative. The characters are respectively Abraham, Jephthar, Lot and Moses, and the book is of course my own copy of the King James Bible.
Now we are confronted with a paradox. On the one hand we have Hawkeye, the frontiersman with the moral right stuff. On the other, we have four names whose moral compass is clearly awry – at least when compared to those of our frontiersman. How is it then possible that these names are held up as examples of ‘doing the right thing’: in this case, of being obedient to God’s will? Abraham is prepared to kill his own son. Jephthar actually does kill his own daughter. Lot actually does offer his two virgin daughters to a street mob to be raped. Moses actually does command his men to kill many defenceless women and children whose lives had previously been spared.
The question has to be: why do we not condemn these four, whose actions are so clearly reprehensible, even inhuman? Why, against all reason, does an aura of virtue apparently cling to them? There is only one answer which presents itself: because they are in scripture. Hawkeye, on the other hand, has to make do with a secular context. And yet all our instincts tell us that, were there ever to come a hypothetical face-off between, say, Hawkeye and Lot, then the frontiersman would view the Sodomite as being worthy of nothing but his contempt, as flawed in his values as the treacherous Huron Magua from his own world, who, like Lot, was fully prepared to betray the trust which others had placed in him.
There might be someone, somewhere, who can clearly explain to me the reasons why the moral compass of such characters from scripture is worthy and exemplary – and indeed, why God’s also is, if these actions were in his name. There might be, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, I’m happy enough to take Hawkeye, the embattled frontiersman with the moral right stuff, as being more worthy of my emulation and more deserving of my respect than such flawed scriptural luminaries as Abraham, Jephthar, Lot and Moses.
 I seem to have chosen four American authors as my examples. You can probably think of as many British, European and other authors whose characters exemplify moral decency. Heck, I can even think of the characters in Bram Stoker’s classic gothic tale Dracula – Jonathan and Mina Harker, John Seward and Abraham Van Helsing – whose moral decency drives them to strive their utmost in their struggle against the notorious Count. Would Van Helsing have offered his own daughter up to be raped? Just saying.
 If you wish to independently check for yourself that the Bible really does say what I claim for it here, these posts together with their chapter-and-verse citations are:
For Abraham: Abraham, Isaac and a Stressed Out Ram, (Genesis 22:1-18).
For Lot: Lot and His Daughters: The Inside Story (Genesis 19:1-38).
For Moses and Jephthar: Frontier Justice in the Promised Land (Numbers 31:7-18, and Judges 11:29-40).
The two top images are adapted from paintings by Zdeněk Burian, the second two images are adapted from paintings by N.C. Wyeth.