'True Grit' Mirrors Indo-European Mythology

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True Grit, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a stylish Western, a fast-moving revenge story, and a worthy companion to both the Charles Portis novel on which it's based and the other movie made from the same source material, a 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne. It may also be an unconscious manifestation of religious myths older than Christianity. (By the way, if you're planning to see True Grit and don't want anything spoiled for you, this would be a perfect place to stop reading.)

Over at Slate, Paul Devlin explains:

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) ... 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.

If you've seen True Grit, you know how the archetypes of "crazy one-eyed god" and "lawful one-handed god" map onto the characters of Rooster and Mattie. Rooster is a hard-drinking bounty hunter who prefers to shoot his way through most situations; Mattie is a headstrong and frighteningly articulate teenager who wants her father's killer brought to justice. Rooster starts out the movie with one good eye; Mattie, by the film's end, has lost her right arm.

Devlin's full essay will delight film geeks (as well as history geeks and religion geeks). He does leave unanswered the question of whether True Grit consciously alludes to these myths--"whether Portis is familiar" with scholarly works on the subject "is unclear," writes Devlin, while "a spokesman for the Coens assured me the brothers are not aware of Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty," a volume in which the stories are explained in more detail.

Still, it's not like the Coens are uncomfortable with the idea of movies that incorporate mythology and metaphysics--O Brother, Where Art Thou? is basically "Odysseus Goes to Mississippi," after all, and both No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man have a certain mythic sweep--so if it's an accident, it's at least a happy one. Though we're not sure what might be the theological antecedents of Bad Santa.

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