February 13, 2011


One-Eyed Gods and One-Armed Gods: Does True Grit tap into an ancient myth? (Paul Devlin, Feb. 4, 2011, Slate)

True Grit's main characters, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) closely parallel two ancient Indo-European conceptions of justice represented by the one-eyed sovereign (wild, unreliable, ruling through bravado) and the one-handed sovereign (solemn, proper, ruling by the letter of the law).

These conceptions of justice and their attendant myths were originally described at length by prominent philologist Georges Dumezil (1898-1986) in his 1948 book Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Perhaps you own a copy. Perhaps you have two, so you can keep one in the car. Or maybe you came across Dumezil's essay in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's influential A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980), in which it is discussed at length. Regardless, it's worth revisiting Dumezil's work, as it enriches our understanding of the Coens' movie. I'll demonstrate how below, but be warned: Spoilers will be as prevalent as rattlers in Choctaw territory.

Dumezil observed that a wide range of Indo-European cultures produced myths—philologically related to one another—in which the universe was governed by one-eyed and one-handed gods acting in concert. The one-eyed gods tended to rule though magic, strong personalities, and mad bravado. The one-handed gods, by contrast, represented the rule of law—the ordering and arrangement of society through contracts, covenants, and statutes. In many narratives, the one-handed god loses his hand or arm after breaking a contract or reneging on a deal—illustrating the idea that in times of crisis, the law must be bent or broken, though the price for doing so can be dear.

In Nordic mythology, for example, a young wolf named Fenir is thought (by shrewd prognosticators attuned to supernatural wolf strength) to be capable of destroying the world of the gods. The one-eyed god Odhinn thus tries to get Fenir to submit to a leash. This he does through deceit: Odhinn presents the leashing as a challenge—see how long it takes you to get out of it. The savvy wolf suspects, correctly, that the leash is magic and will subdue him for eternity. So as a gesture of goodwill, Tyr, a god representing the rule of law, offers to put his hand in Fenir's mouth as a pledge to the wolf that there is no hocus-pocus afoot—if Fenir cannot get out of the leash, Tyr will lose his hand. The wolf submits, the world is saved, but at the cost of Tyr's hand.

In Roman mytho-history (Romans liked to give their history a mythic burnish), one-eyed Horatio Cocles ("Cocles" being derived from "Cyclops") and soon to be one-handed Mucius Scaevola team up to defeat Lars Porsenna, an invading Etruscan determined to sack Rome. According to Dumzeil, the one-eyed Cocles "holds the enemy in check by his strangely wild behavior." Citing the Roman historian Livy, Dumezil writes that "remaining alone at the entrance to the bridge, [Cocles] casts terrible and menacing looks at the Etruscan leaders, challenging them individually, insulting them collectively." He also deploys "terrible grimaces."

Cocles' antics stop Porsenna temporarily, but the surly Etruscan soon brings war upon Rome again, and this time it's Scaevola, whose mind ran in a more statesmanlike track than his comrade Cocles, to the rescue. He warns Porsenna that he has 300 assassins at his disposal—it's a bluff, but Scaevola burns his hand in a fire to convince his enemy his threat is bona fide. Porsenna agrees to leave Rome be.

How does this all relate to True Grit?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 13, 2011 6:26 AM
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