Another week, another Library of America volume. I picked at random someone I never read before, Eudora Welty.
There is something worthy of respect in re-telling folklore for a new time. Folklore tends to provide fated characters who are doomed to follow the same path with each re-telling. As often as we invent new contexts for the story the main trajectory of the characters is bound. It takes some real creativity to manage to stay true to the story while also retelling it in a fresh way. The way Eudora Welty does this with The Robber Bridegroom is by combining the classic German tale with American folklore. The story is of a young naive woman, kidnapped by robbers, who escapes only after witnessing the brutal murder (and literally consumption) of another woman. When she is able to retell the story when the robber returns to collect his finance, she is able to retell what she saw, providing evidence in the form of a severed finger and golden ring, the robbers are put to death. This story is unlikely to get a Disney version, but Welty does give it an American version by placing it in the U.S. South in the eighteenth century and filling it with mythical figures, most notably Mike Fink – the great riverboat pilot. I could not help notice the inclusion of a “innocent planter,” which I am certain was also a mythical figure of American folklore although perhaps Welty was not conscious of it.
Welty borrows much that is familiar from readers of the Grimm tale: bandits in the wood, cruel and jealous stepmothers, doting and loyal fathers, the repetition of tales, the intervention of animals with inside knowledge, and naive young women. It is all placed in a identifiable American setting. I do not know if this is a testament to Welty’s brilliance or a reflection on the structural similarities in folklore (a Jungian approach), or maybe a deeper influence of Germanic story-telling in American folklore. In any case, it is a captivating and entertaining tale. The effect is that we can be truly surprised at the outcome even if we are familiar with the source tale. It also breaks free of the deterministic trap in the retelling of such stories.
Welty is able to cram a lot of story into this short novella. In the opening chapter, the planter Clement Musgrove, stays in an inn, sharing a room with two men who turn out to be Mike Fink and Jamie Lockhart (who turns out to be the famous “Bandit of the Woods” but sustains an alter-ego as a respectable man). Lockhart saves Musgrove from Mike Fink’s attempt to murder and rob them. In response Musgrove helps secure Lockhart’s passport and tells him his story. After a brutal Indian attack, Musgrove’s son, wife, and friend die. He remarrys to his friends surviving wife, aptly named Salome. His true love is for his daughter Rosamond. In the next chapter (harnessing Grimm) we find Salome brutally exploiting her stepdaughter on a daily basis. While out collecting herbs, Rosemond is attacked by the Bandit of the Woods, who steals all her clothing. Observing this is Goat, a local dimwitted man who Salome bribed to kill Rosemond. Musgrove finds Lockhart and asks for his help in rounding up and killing the Bandit. In the center of the novel are several conflicts that need to be resolved. Rosemond fascination and love for Lockhart along side her observations of the horrible acts of his gang, Goat’s love for Rosemund and attempts to take Jamie’s place, and the rise of Little Harp – the most brutal member of Lockhart’s gang all complicate the central act of the novel. The force that forces a resolution are the Indians. It is a very American plot device that pulls us out of the Grimm-style tale and return us solidly to American folklore. To make this even clearer we see Mike Fink return at the end, outcast for his earlier failures. He returns Rosemund to reality by telling her that Jamie Lockhart has died. This seems to be read as the famous bandit, for the respectable persons (“a gentleman of the world in New Orleans”) survives and fathers twins of his own.
Welty tests the limits of the moral absolutism of the classical fairytale. While in the original tale, the robber bridegroom is completely odious and finds a well-deserved death at the end, Jamie Lockhart is redeemed. Even Mike Fink finds a degree of salvation despite his boorish and thieving introduction. Far from becoming a classical morality tale, Welty’s version of The Robber Bridegroom contains plenty of frontier-era moral ambiguity. As Clement Musgrove says when coming to terms with his capture by Indians. “Wrath and love burn only like the campfires. And even the appearance of a hero is no longer a single and majestic event like that of a star in the heavens, but a wandering fire soon lost. A journey is forever lonely and parallel to death, but the two watch each other, the traveler and the bandit, through the trees. . . . Massacre is hard to tell from the performance of other rites, in the great silence where the wanderer is coming. Murder is as soundless as a spout of blood, as regular and rhythmic as sleep.” (69) Whatever we are supposed to make of this, it is not a message of moral certainty. When hesitating to kill the dualistic Jamie Lockhart Musgrove says: “But since in addition [to being a bandit] he loves my daughter, he must be not the one man, but two, and I should be afraid of killing the second. For all things are double, and this should keep us from taking liberties with the outside world, and acting too quickly to finish things off. All things are divided in half–night an day, the soul and body, and sorrow and joy and youth and age.” (61)
A final thing I would like to say about Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom is the importance of names. Several of the names have symbolic significance. Characters, especially Mike Fink and Jamie Lockhart are easily offended when others fail to recall their names. Mistaken identities play a role in at least one plot point. I would need to revisit the Grimm tales, but I recall many nameless figures and archetypical stock characters (the villainous stepmother for instance). Perhaps in translating these tales to the more individualist and democratic United States, she had to insist on the importance of individual identity. I am not sure how this ties into the more flexible moral universe of the novel. Perhaps given the democratic, frontier, morally-ambiguous world Welty is trying to present, our name is the only solid thing we have. Even Mike Fink finds himself expelled from his group and temporarily losing his status as folk hero.