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N O R A B A K E R B A R R Y Bryant College The Bear’s Son Folk Tale in When the Legends Die and House Made of Dawn Long recognized in oral-traditional literature such as Beowulf and the Grettis Saga, elements of the Bear’s Son folk tale also are to be found embedded in contemporary novels where the protagonist is connected to a heroic cultural background. The native North American heroes of Hal Borland’s When the Legends Die and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn1 exhibit traits of the Bear’s Son type, and the incidents associated with Bear’s Son heroes provide a structural framework for both novels. The European and Asian folk tales of the Bear’s Son type are told through a recurring sequence of motifs: I. The hero is raised by bears. The hero is frequently represented as having been brought up in a bear’s den. Sometimes he is the son of a bear who cap­ tured his mother. II. Strength and Adventures The hero has extraordinary physical strength but is often sullen, taciturn, and lazy in youth. He sets out on adventures with various companions. JHal Borland, When the Legends Die (Philadelphia: Bantam, 1972) ; N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York, New American Library, 1969). All fur­ ther references are to these editions and will be noted parenthetically. 276 Western American Literature III. Two struggles with supernatural foes Usually in an enclosure, the hero resists and often mutilates in the arm a supernatural being. His companions have been unable to defeat this foe in previous encounters. During this initial encounter, the hero wrestles with his enemy rather than attacks with a weapon. A minor motif is the presence of light shining from the monster’s eyes. A second struggle occurs after the hero tracks the creature to a spring or waterfall and then to a cave. The hero descends into the cave and overcomes another supernatural foe, often his former enemy or his enemy’s mother. In this confrontation a weapon is used but is not effective. A significant motif of both struggles is the abandonment of the hero by his companions.2 In the contemporary novels details often are blurred and characteristics associated with the monster in the folk tale often are transferred to the hero; however, the motifs are present in varying but aesthetically signifi­ cant forms. Borland’s novel conforms more explicitly to the folk tale sequence than does Momaday’s work. 1. The Hero is raised by bears. A Ute boy, Tom Black Bull, is taken by his mother into the wilder­ ness where his father has fled after killing a man. On their way to join the father, Tom and his mother briefly take refuge in an abandoned bear’s den (p. 16). Tom lives in the wilderness with his parents in the “old way” of the Ute tribe before they were confined to the reservation. Shortly after Tom’s father is killed in an avalanche, Tom takes the name Bear’s Brother, telling his mother: “This morning... I met a she-bear and she was not afraid of me. I was not afraid of her. We talked to each other. Then I killed a deer and I left a part of the meat for that she-bear. I shall call myself Bear’s Brother. That is a good name” (p. 22). After Tom’s mother dies, the boy seeks out the she-bear, who is killed along with a female cub by a white prospector. In this way the boy becomes the literal brother/companion to the she-bear’s other male cub (pp. 312Panzer ’s findings concerning over 200 European and Asian versions of the Bear’s Son folk tale are summarized by R. W. Chambers and C. L. Wrenn in Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem (Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univer­ sity Press, 1967), pp. 621 and 369. Nora Baker Barry 277 34). Borland gradually removes the boy from twentieth-century civiliza­ tion to the moment when Tom is living in the most “primitive” state. Leading the reader into the folk-tale in...


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