The Red Feathers
Theodore Goodrich Roberts
A spellbinding story sprung from Indian myths, told with irrepressible zest and lasting freshness.
Every literature possesses its share of overlooked treasures, works of inherent charm and special merit that are inexplicably passed over in the course of years or decades. Such a book is T.G. Roberts' The Red Feathers, a romance of an entirely original kind, set in the Canadian Maritimes and drawing on elements in the patterns of Canadian Indian myths. Now this unique and invigorating flight into fantasy, with its depth of characterization and large dramatic scope, is at last rescued from undeserved obscurity.
Depicting titanic forces of good and evil both natural and supernatural colliding in a struggle for the magic red feathers, T.G. Roberts has created an antique world peopled with shamans and Wendigos, heroic braves and gruesome (if sometimes comical) giants. A work beyond categories, The Red Feathers is here again to entertain a new audience of readers.
Read Ice Runner, a 1922 Roberts story from Boys' Life.
Introduction to the New Canadian Library edition
by Martin Ware
To introduce Theodore Roberts' The Red Feathers is to invite you to enter an imaginary world that closely resembles that of the epic romance, but an unusual one even in this respect. For The Red Feathers is a romance of an entirely original kind, one set in the Canadian Maritimes, and drawing on Canadian Indian mythic patterns. There can be few, if any, imaginative parallels in the range of North American literature with the energy of this adaptation of romance to a North American setting and ambience.
The strange unpredictable world of The Red Feathers will surely be an unfamiliar world to the contemporary reader for two obvious reasons. The first is that we have for a long time allowed ourselves to be swayed by a vogue of naturalistic realism (one soon due for an eclipse) that has imposed tight reins on our imaginative freedom. The second is that the reader is likely to know of few Canadian writers who have indulged their fantasy and succeeded in creating a self-contained imaginative world, one consistent to its own inner laws, that is rooted in a very old North American tradition. We have allowed ourselves to be so encircled by realism that we have tended to forget the few Canadian romances of excellence that we do possess.
Theodore Roberts has for too long been a forgotten author. The reasons for this are easy enough to understand. Born in New Brunswick in 1877, he was too young to have been carried on the crest of the first wave of Canadian romanticism, the one that carried his brother, Charles, with Carman, Lampman and D.C. Scott to prominence. lie was too old to have been possessed by the mood of naturalistic rebelliousness (sometimes cynicism) which was endemic among the young modernists who began to make their reputations after the catastrophe of the First World War. As A. G. Bailey has suggested, Roberts was a writer who reached literary maturity during the Edwardian lull in general Canadian literary activity, and was just hitting his stride as a writer when the disaster of war struck in 1914. His best work was written during the first ten or fifteen years of the century, but the coming of war brought so sharp a reaction, so profound a change in taste, at least among younger writers, that the best of his work never received its due measure of appreciation and recognition. The modernists in their aggressive determination to clean the slate had little patience with any of the work produced, in the vigorous flush of romantic optimism, and were scarcely prepared to accept such work, even on its own merits.
The time has come to reclaim The Red Feathers as a work of genuine imaginative power and originality, one which deserves its place in the corpus of Canadian literature. For The Red Feathers (published in 1907) is not simply a book for its own Edwardian time. In its energy and verve, its gentle humour and wild slapstick, its freshness and its grace, and especially in its originality and imaginative inventiveness; it is a book which deserves more lasting recognition. The shelves of Canadian literature are filled with works of realism; by contrast, works of fantasy and romance-works in which the author can give his poetic imagination full scope-are far rarer. Roberts is as much a poet as a prose writer in his Red Feathers. His approach calls to mind nothing so much as Sir Philip Sidney's characterization of the poet as he who "goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit." One of the hallmarks of Roberts' work is the pleasure that he takes in imaginative flight for its own sake, but this pleasure is balanced by a gentle penetration into character and motive which is unusual in works of fantasy and romance. This aspect of his work distinguishes it from that of one of the few Canadians who has had a comparable imagination, James De Mille. De Mille's Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is one of the few Canadian books that can appropriately be set beside The Red Feathers, but it is much more Utopian (and thus also anti-Utopian), much more a book concerned with ideas for their own sake, than Roberts' more human and more rounded story.
Nonetheless; despite its concern with character The Red Feathers is a romance rather than a novel. It is set in a scarcely imaginable time when a race of whom we know tantalisingly little, the Beothuks (long since extinct), roamed the stretches of Newfoundland from the source of the Exploits River to the furthest reaches of Notre Dame Bay. Our very historical ignorance thus allows the author life-giving freedom. The theme of Roberts' book concerns the extraordinary and mysterious events that surround the titanic struggle for two little feathers. And, as is appropriate in a romance, the plot culminates in the unpredictable attempts of the hero (a baby when the book opens) to achieve his quest, and, if he can, his destiny.
The story is epic in the sense that the struggle widens to involve virtually all the inhabitants of Newfoundland (by my count at least five races are involved), that its action spans the life of a generation; that it involves the creation or destruction of a civilisation, and that its action moves in more senses than one from the icy poles to the tropics (Newfoundland lies almost exactly halfway between).
In seeking the main elements of his story, Roberts has turned to a most unusual source. He has turned (as the writer of romance almost invariably does) to the mythic tradition closest at hand, not to a commonly used European mythic tradition, but to the Micmac tradition of Nova Scotia. The crucial elements of The Red Feathers can be traced in the series of legends and fables, adventures and poems gathered in such collections as Silas Rand's Legends of the Micmacs (1893). One can discover here the mightiest and wisest of magicians, the strange Glooscap with his powers of transformation and flight, or malicious shamans who delight in tormenting their victims; one can find in these legends a widespread belief in the importance of the influence of dreams, especially on those reaching the age of initiation and responsibility; and one can enjoy here the tales of terrible cannibalistic Kookwes or giants. These elements provide the raw material of Roberts' art (in the same way that the Greek legends provided the raw material of the Greek dramatists). Roberts has transformed them for his own purposes in an entirely individual brew, one which leaves the Micmac spirit untouched but has a special flavour of its own.
What then is the approximate recipe according to which Roberts has concocted his brew? The prevailing passion for realism has tended to blind us to the need for recipes and to dull our powers of distinguishing artistic representation from its raw material in experience. It may be that the reawakening of a taste for romance involves a rediscovery of the need for literary recipes and conventions - not conventions in the esoteric academic sense, but simply a sense of generally accepted modes and means of expression that have traditionally been the basis for popular art, and provide the artist with the opportunity of varying the approved patterns in ways that bring pleasure, recognition, and new ways of perceiving.
The recipe according to which Roberts has begun his Red Feathers is that of the pantomime, a form until recently not very widely known in North America (except, perhaps, in Old Acadia). The action of a pantomime centres typically on a struggle between two magic forces, one represented by a benevolent wizard or fairy godmother, the other by an evil magician or devil. Generally such figures have little human individuality. Their role is simply to project the abstraction which they embody. Devils, for example, take a great pleasure in duping their human pawns, and then gloating over the fact in self-satisfied soliloquies. The action customarily revolves around the struggle between the opposed forces to achieve the happiness or work the destruction of the hero or heroine (and through them that of their community). The human figures, frequently distinguished by marked idiosyncrasies, usually project a caricature of popular types. Their power to initiate action is markedly limited by comparison with that of the magicians. It is only through purity of motive and an understanding of the applications and limitations of the available magic power that the hero (and his friends) can hope to overcome the perils that confront them, and achieve happiness of some kind.
While some such pattern can clearly be discerned in Roberts' work, to suggest that The Red Feathers is limited by its initiating pattern would be to do it a serious injustice. It is true, of course, that Roberts has a fine sense of the dramatic moment, one which may remind the reader of moments in pantomime. At one point in his narrative, for example, a group of friendly Indians are sitting around a campfire. One of the braves throws a log on the fire, and suddenly a shower of sparks illuminates the group, revealing a sinister stranger in a robe of bright fur. Moments of this kind - comparable with the instantaneous appearance of a devil in a puff of smoke - suggest both the popular parallels for Roberts' romance, and begin to indicate the ways in which he transforms them. For in the chambers of Roberts' imagination the pantomime form undergoes a reaction of fusion and a change of state. The conventional pattern is given a new vitality, and restored to its source in the wild energy of life.
Take, for example, one of the common features of the pantomime, the sense given of human vulnerability and weakness in the face of natural and diabolical perils. Roberts conveys this by the force of his portrayal of the Indians' total dependence on the cycle of life and of the seasons in the primeval wilds. He makes his reader constantly aware of the remorseless necessity of natural processes -of the succession of the seasons which brings with it the movement of great masses of animals, the Indians' only guarantee against starvation. It may be the melting of the snows in early spring that brings thousands on thousands of seals floating down from the North on pans of ice (magic carpets?) many of them destined for the hunter's knife. Or it may be the early summer warming of the rivers which lures innumerable spawning salmon to the upper reaches -and to the fishermen's net. Or it may be the shortening evenings of early fall which seem to stir the birds for their southerly migration - or for a short encounter with a stone arrow. In the midst of these easily disturbed processes, Roberts is always alert to the possibility of moments of miraculous balance. One of the minor heroes of his story, Jumping Wolf, takes a journey in early autumn:Yet the hunter in Roberts' world can easily become the hunted, just as the hero of pantomime must face incalculable perils. Roberts brings this aspect to life at another point in his romance when Jumping Wolf faces almost certain death with four murderous pursuers at his back. Suddenly he sees through the dark wood to the pans of ice on the open lake; he sees "a glimmer of open spaces, a grey glimmer dotted with lighter spots, and in another second he stood at the edge of a great lake whose father shores were hidden in night."
The season of wild harvest was over the land, the days of ripe berries and falling leaves and the flocking birds. Snipe and plover from the farther North, and coveys of ptmarmigan and flocks of snow birds, fed along the ground, and started on quick wings.... The berry-stained moss on which he reclined was warm as a couch of fox-skins, and the soft bird calls, sounding indolently from hummock and hollow made music in his ears.
It is against this background of wild naturalistic beauty that the Indians group together in small bands for safety and survival. In small groups of this kind, each individual has a well defined role and usually marked idiosyncrasies as well. Such idiosyncrasies have traditionally been the staple basis of the character types of popular drama and pantomime. Roberts has a sharp eye for the comedy of such quirks, but his characterization transcends the usual stereotype or caricature. One of his most endearing characters is the hero's grandmother, an appealing if hard-handed squaw named Old Blowing Fog. Perhaps she resembles the old grandmother of Micmac tradition or the aged widow of popular drama. But she is no mere stage convention. She has an authenticity which derives from the sharpness with which Roberts focusses the necessities of her life. She is inevitably a tough old lady, having survived the rigours of the remorseless environment for so long. She is a relentless paddler on the long canoe journeys and still carries the heaviest loads on the portage. Her reckless scepticism is as natural as her industry. Her environment seemingly only demands strength and skill. She has little time for any form of magic which does not make itself apparent in terms of size and strength. Confronted by an awesome magician who combines the gentleness of a saint with the authority of a hardened commander, she scornfully remarks "Great magicians were bigger men in my young days." Even after she had disastrously provoked the magician into unleashing a scene of the wildest slapstick, she yet has the audacity to belabour a frail but independent brave named Old Green Bow (a chauvinist hold-out?) until his gums rattle. Despite her warlike militancy and her stubborn refusal to recognize the necessity for a magical counterweight to the exercise of sheer strength, she easily enough assumes the role of a ministering angel. She has no hesitation in gently administering a magic potion (medicine being the preserve of the shaman) to a desperately sick baby in a mussel shell.
Human life must cling precariously to frail roots in a wild environment such as Roberts' Newfoundland. In view of the power of the elements in such a setting, it is appropriate that Roberts should introduce a race of giants into his story. They seem to symbolize the wild uncontrollable forces of elemental nature - forces for which Roberts' better protagonists hold a respectful fear and distrust. It is significant that when The Red Feathers - a source of a superior form of power - fall into the hands of these rugged individualists, a scene of the wildest bedlam is enacted. When the leader of these exponents of the instinct of sheer power, Crack Bone, tries his arm (with the help of the feathers) at the graceful and farseeing art of flying, he succeeds only at playing a grotesque form of aeronautical hopscotch. The feathers, whose power is strengthened by each generous act that they further, are intended for those who better understand the uses of power. The jealousies aroused by Crack Bone's use of the feathers result in a murky Armageddon, a scene of the wildest tree smashing (slapstick?) where giant strikes down giant in blind unreasoning rage. It is hard to say whether it is proper to read a parable into a scene from a romance of this kind. It may be of interest to the reader, however, that Theodore Roberts was at one time a neighbour of the American author Frank Norris, who in such books as The Octopus (1901) exposed the business practices of the rugged individualists.
What holds one's interest in The Red Feathers is the unremitting nature of the struggle, not a struggle for power or success, but for the way in which power (as represented by the red feathers) should be used. Roberts' underlying attitude differs significantly from that implicit in most of the romances popular in his own day-for the most part regional or historical novels. The regional novel is typically concerned with the theme of the local boy who makes good; in terms of Roberts' Newfoundland the cod fisher who conforms safely to the accepted mores, corners the market in livers, and marries a mainland mackerel princess. The historical novel generally revolves around the elements that culminate in the triumph of one flag and one national interest. The main interest in both cases tends to focus on the final outcome and with a rather crudely conceived notion of success in love, business, or war. Roberts' main focus, by contrast, is not on ends but means. His villain, variously a magician called Bright Robe or a little brown owl is a satirically minded student of the "hopes and vanities" of human nature. He uses his knowledge, particularly his understanding for the thirst for power and possessions, so as to manipulate and dupe his human pawns so that they will serve his ends when they think that they are serving their own. His formidable adversary, Wise-As-A-She-Wolf, on the other hand, is a magician of faith and impulse, one to whom the motivating power of dream is overriding importance. He is a lover of flight, and of vast airy lodges. He does not impose on his friends and allies, but simply helps to focus their impulses. The tension and conflict created by the opposition of these opposed modes of feeling and action are no mere creations of romantic convention to Roberts. The force of the conflict can be felt at every crucial turn in his romance. It is particularly evident in the suppressed power of Roberts' description of titanic invisible battles, ones that faintly shadow the true battle of will involved.
Roberts draws on two strands in the Micmac tradition to develop this main theme of his. The first such strand involves the traditional importance of the Micmac culture hero, Glooscap, a figure comparable with Roberts' Wise-As-A-She-Wolf. One of the most absorbing aspects of the Maritime Algonquin culture is the way in which Glooscap assumes such a central importance in the tradition, one which finds no parallels amongst the Indian traditions of Central Canada. The Ojibwa hero, Wiskejauk, is of altogether minor importance by comparison with Glooscap, the benevolent hero and friend of his tribes. A. G. Bailey, in his article "The Ordeal of the Eastern Algonquins," has pointed out one consequence of Glooscap's central importance when he writes "the belief in mysterious beings, such as the culture hero, provided terms with which the [Maritime Algonquins] could apprehend God." The withdrawal of Glooscap from the mortal sphere would seem to be a natural consequence of such a belief process (although not the only one). It is consistent with Micmac traditions that Roberts' character, Old Blowing Fog, should believe that the great magician is either buried under a mountain, or that he sits "in some gorgeous lodge, beyond the sunset, superior to the affairs of the island in which he has been born." Roberts seems to have a new move in mind for the tradition. His Wise-As-A-She-Wolf takes Old Blowing Fog by surprise, and proves that he is not superior to the island in which he has been born-even to the extent of demolishing the lodges of those that provoke him.
Roberts uses a second strand in the Indian tradition, the legends that surround the shaman with Wendigo tendencies, to develop the character of his evil genius, Bright Robe. Such a figure is a much more typical and central than the culture-hero in most Indian traditions, one who by lonely vigil and through dreams assumes the super-personal powers of an animal manitou or presiding genius and misuses his powers for his own malevolent ends. Like the typical Manitou, Bright Robe in his prime is able to instantaneously transform himself into the shape of animal or bird, and, like the Manitou, he can exercise limited power over man and beast. His appearance as a little brown owl is typical of Indian shaman lore. Yet in his animal shape he preserves a remorseless human venom which his animal counterparts find incomprehensible.
It is the main theme of the book to show how the owl's adversaries try to develop the kind of magical power that can effectively counteract the poison which threatens to infect the entire island. The true nature of the magic is Roberts' secret, one which I leave to the reader to try to discover.Martin Ware