"I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience. Which'll it be?"
"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man."
"Fill your hands you son of a bitch!"
The best take on the shoot-out at high noon from a fun movie adapted from a great book .
But what this scene from True Grit really is is an acknowledgement that westerns are our continuation of the stories begun with the sword being pulled from the stone. Westerns are chivalrous tales of knights-errant on quests or hero-kings arising to save the people from oppression and restore order and peace and justice.
In this scene, Rooster Cogburn is literally a knight on horseback. In the long shots he might as well be Beaumains confronting the Black Knight and his minions or Launcelot tilting against all comers beneath the castle of Shallot. In close up, of course, he doesn't look anything like a knight in shining armor---until he twirls his rifle, which he does with the panache of a knight of the Round Table drawing his sword. But that's the joke that drives the story. Mattie Ross has come looking for a Launcelot to go after her father's killer and instead she gets Rooster Cogburn.
On the face of things this is a reiteration of the classic theme, Don't judge a book by its cover. Heroes are as heroes do. And this is the lesson Mattie herself thinks she learns.
"No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!"
But Mattie doesn't know she's living out the shadow of a myth.
Rooster isn't a hero. Not until she makes him into one. His drinking and swearing and bad manners and less than noble ideas about how he ought to go about doing his job as a deputy marshal are the least of his unheroic qualities. He has an unsavory past and his commitment to the law is purely mercenary and opportunistic. He has some of the qualities of a knight, grit, mainly, and there may have been times in his life when he's been a knight. But while knights are heroic by nature, they aren't necessarily heroes. The Black Knight is a knight. A knight doesn't become a hero until he has a heroic cause to serve.
Although she doesn't know it, Mattie herself is that cause.
The key scene in both the novel and the movie isn't Rooster's joust with Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang. It's the ride Rooster makes to get Mattie to the doctor afterwards.
That's when he completes the task she's set him for him and which by sheer force of will, her own grit, she's kept him at, becoming her worthy lieutenant.
In case you haven't figured it out, this is a follow-up to Friday's post, Lieutenants, sergeants, squires, free-lances, and the hero-king.
Don't mind me. I'm just trying to decompress from the election.
At any rate, to answer my own question, Can a bold-talking one-eyed fat man be a hero king: No. At least, not in this story. But he can become a hero, if he's lucky enough to meet a Mattie Ross.
That answer would seem to put Mattie in the role of hero-queen, wouldn't it?
She isn't, though. Not quite.
In a comment on Friday's post, Dave MB asked, "Hmm... in _True Grit_ Glen Campbell is a free-lance, but how do you classify John Wayne and Kim Darby?"
I'm glad you asked, Dave MB. And funny that you should, because I was thinking about True Grit when I wrote that post.
You're right about Campbell's character, the Texas Ranger, being the free-lance.
And I've pretty much said what I think Rooster is.
Maddie, however, is an somewhat ambiguous position.
First off, there is no hero-king in True Grit. Mattie's hero-king, her father, is dead. Which would make her the princess. But what is a princess or a prince but a ruler in training?
Maddie, at the start, is a version of the squire. She's the apprentice.
She's also at the start in the same boat as Rooster. She has no hero-king to serve.
This is where a lot of epics and westerns and action-adventures begin. There is no king. Chaos reigns. The story is about how a hero or band of heroes defeat Chaos and bring about the return of the king.
The king, by the way, doesn't have to be literally a king or even literally a character. In a more democratic age, the "king" is an ideal. "He" is the ordered and peaceful and just society that the heroes preserve and protect.
The hero, then, doesn't have to be a king or a queen. The hero can be, and often is, a lieutenant who is waiting for the king's return or who has gone on ahead to act in the king's stead or he can be a free-lance who has been prevailed upon to do the job. In this story, the hero is a surrogate for the king or queen and he neither wants or expects to continue to be in charge once his job is done. Robin Hood is a surrogate for King Richard. All the knights of the Round Table---except Launcelot, Galahad, and Percival---are surrogate Arthurs. Arthur himself is a surrogate for the real once and future king, You Know Who. And I'm still convinced that was the path the new Batman movies were headed on, with Batman, the free-lance on his way to becoming a lieutenant, unaware of it but acting as a surrogate for Superman.
Most westerns are stories about lieutenants (any movie with a lawman as the hero) or free-lances ("Come back, Shane! Shane! Come back!") who are called by duty or forced by circumstances to take on the job of the hero-king, but who ride off into the sunset, usually more figuratively than literally, once that job is done.
Just talking through my hat here, but I'll bet that if you did a comprehensive survey of movies and literature you'll find far more stories about lieutenants and free-lances than about hero-kings and queens.
And for the record, I'm not trying to make the case that every story is a tale of a hero-king or a hero-king's surrogate or that every main character falls neatly into one of these archetypal roles.
But I'll also bet that if you did that survey you also find that there are lots and lots and lots of stories about apprentices who in the course of learning whatever they need to learn bring about the conditions necessary for the return of the hero-king.
This is the first tale of King Arthur. It's the story of Luke Skywalker. It's the story Anakin Skywalker failed to live out.
The apprentice is always young, usually a young teen and very often a child. She---and now it's just as accurate to use feminine pronouns, because the apprentice is quite regularly a girl, because she:---doesn't have to be a knight in training or the heir of a hero-king or queen. Her apprenticeship can be in a vocation that doesn't require her to wield a sword or a gun. She's learning something far more important and powerful than warcraft and statecraft. She's acquiring knowledge.
In many of these stories, the apprentice is a sorcerer's apprentice.
The most popular hero in contemporary literature is a sorcerer's apprentice who just finished up his training and his hero's journey.
In the end Harry Potter doesn't become the hero-king he seemed on the road to becoming in the first books. He finishes as lieutenant in service to a system instead of to a an actual hero-king or queen. (Actually, he finishes as a minor government functionary, but I'd rather not dwell on the banalities in the last chapter of Deathly Hallows.) That's because Harry is the product of a democratic age and an egalitarian-minded author and he has helped bring about a world in which a hero-king isn't needed. But considering the direction J.K. Rowling took him, even if Harry had been set down into a world more like Middle Earth than like late 20th Century Great Britain, he'd have refused a crown in the end. He identifies too much with Dumbledore and Tom Riddle and having seen how they were tempted he's become his own greatest doubter. He's also seen his own father, a more natural hero-king than Harry himself, abuse his own power over lesser wizards like Snape and that's caused Harry to wonder if perhaps if he hadn't met and married Lily, if he hadn't been surprised and murdered by Voldemort, James Potter might have met with some temptations he wouldn't have been able to resist.
Harry really doesn't have to worry about himself because he had an advantage that James didn't. It's the same advantage Arthur had. The same that Luke had over his father. Harry was raised by adults who taught him humility.
On the other hand, I wouldn't trust the almost slavishly worshipful Ginny to have the same effect on Harry as Lily had on James. Maybe Harry spends a lot of his time at Ron and Hermione's.
At any rate, to get back to True Grit. Mattie is an apprentice. I'm not sure what she learns how to be or that it matters all that much. True Grit isn't a myth, after all. It's a comic novel. At the end of the book we're given a glimpse of Mattie in late middle-age. She has become something of a queen of all she surveys. She's the richest woman in town, an empire-builder. But this seems to be a result of her grit and her common sense and her lawyer's investment advice rather than a symbol of her learned wisdom or her nobility. Mattie is the the teller of her own tale and she's not the kind who brags. But she's also not inclined to leave out the facts, even ones that are flattering to herself, and she doesn't give any hint that she thinks she's particularly noble or even wise and benevolent. She's just who she is. A banker.
Rooster, by the way, isn't able to continue his knightly ways after he and Mattie part company.
In the end maybe the point of the myth is that there are no heroes or heroines. There are only people who sometimes get lucky enough to attach themselves to a cause that makes them heroic for a time.
Mattie's and Rooster's causes were each other.