There is a war going on in North American between the English and the French. As if the hardships of battle are not enough, the actual wilderness is dangerous and toilsomethe first test of an army's strength. Hardy colonists on the English side can spend months fighting river rapids.
From the frontiers of Canada to New York, along the Hudson valley, there is a lively picture of cruelty and fierceness. There is a passage made by Lake Champlain the French must master in order to beat the English. For this reason some call it the Holy Lake. All around it are "bloody arenas." It is the third year of war, and Great Britain has been lowered from its formerly proud military character. No one fears them. The colonists fight dutifully; the Indians fight for France. Even those located in towns far from battle are scared. There are two forts, William Henry and Edward. News is received through an Indian runner that Montcalm is moving along the shores of Champlain with a huge army. The British commander Munro, who resides at William Henry, also requests urgent reinforcements. General Webb holds Edward. The troops have hewn a path wide enough for moving an army. It is decided that instead of stopping the march, the British will await and prepare for their approach. Word spreads in the camp that 1500 men are to depart for William Henry.
Drums wake the soldiers out of sleep and propel them into motion. As they leave, there are signs of another departure in front of an unusually large cabin. Commoners gather around to watch the emergence of the inhabitants. Two women and a gentlemen appear, the latter an officer of the army. He is tall and lanky, very well-dressed, with a sky-blue coat, silk vest and a cocked hat. In front of the throng of commoners he examines a group of horses and comments on their merits. His voice has sweet and soft tones. In other towns, they are gathering horses as if for the Ark. The man says that the quality of the horses is as high as those in the Holy Book. He looks upon the Indian runner who brought the news, who stands with "sullen fierceness" and stoicism. A young man conducts the two women to their steeds. Both are young. One has golden hair and bright eyes; she looks upon the army. The other, four or five years older, conceals herself from the gaze of the crowd. The ladies and their attendant bow to Webb, and begin their journey at the rear of the cavalcade. The Indian runner glides by them quickly. The younger girl exclaims surprise. The older girl says nothing, but loosens her veil to look at the Indian with curiosity, pity and horror. She has dark tresses and shining dark eyes.
Cooper sets the scene in this short chapter. It is important to realize, however, that he does this in a very untraditional way. Instead of simply stating the situation, which would take at most a few paragraphs, and moving into the main story line, he provides us with a wealth of description that substitutes for simple facts. Most of the initial observation of the detached, third-person narrative voice is rooted in the harsh nature of the surroundings. We are told that wilderness of the continent confronts armies before they can face one another. The "toils and dangers" of nature waste time and energy of colonists who might otherwise be considered "hardy." Mountains block paths; lakes have "daring leagues." The environment "offers" few benefits. The author immediately seeks to personify nature as an ephemeral being that has the powers of agency and decision. Nature is practically divine: the waters of a lake are "so limpid as to have been exclusively selected by the Jesuit missionaries." Thus, the lake is "holy." The audience interpretation here is simplenature is not something that should be taken on lightly. It is both a theme and a character, who is as strong as any that we will meet in our reading. The author is setting it up to be a major antagonistic force in the novel, and we wonder how well these strangers to the land will fare.
Generally, nature description seems to determine the overall tone of events. Reading this chapter, we are hopeful for this army and interested in where they are going. The sun sets in a "flood of glory." Darkness draws a "veil" around the encampment, as a protective force. The morning sky is bright and soft. While Cooper seems to be cheering on these characters, he does not seem to think very highly of the war itself. He mentions "cold, selfish" policies of European monarchies who "rob the untutored possessors" of their "native right." The British military is referred to as imbecilic. Interestingly enough, the author does not follow up on his accusations/observations with factual evidence. Perhaps this will be provided in the outcome of the story.
Some of the most striking descriptions in the chapter involve singular people. Both the army officer and the Indian runner are extensively detailed to the reader, from clothing to demeanor to presence. Not surprisingly, each provides a marked contrast to the other. The officer's clothing is made of fine material, and dignity rests on his shoulders as he socializes with some of the commoners. The Indian has "savage, repulsive" garments, war-paint on his face, weapons in his hands. In the eye of the narrative voice, he is called a "native." In the eyes of those who look at him, he is a "savage." The disparity between the voices is the author's way of conveying subtle disapproval as to the manner in which the Indians are viewed. We are being introduced to the theme of colonization. Apparently Cooper does not like it, but he pays little attention to it here. It will certainly reappear. The silence of the Indian amongst the excitement of the army's departure is notable. While the officer looks at him in amazement, the Indian regards him with disdain. In some respects there is a role reversal. The air of the Indian is more commanding and threatening than that of the officer. Given the harsh nature that surrounds them, we know who is better suited for battle. The relationship between the army and this Indian is not yet detailed, but it will probably be important. Otherwise, Cooper would not spend so much time on describing him.
The entrance of the two females is unexpected at best. A war is going on, after all. But this is an author's means of creating suspense and moving the story along. Cooper goes to the trouble to mention several differences between these two ladies: hair color, eye color, general manner. It is not clear yet why he does this. However, we must keep the differences in mind for further reading.
Alice, the younger of the two sisters, observes a "spectre" of an Indian beside her and is startled. Heyward tells her that the Indian is a runner for the army, a Canadian who has worked with the Mohawks and was once an enemy to the English, before becoming a friend. He is there to lead the party to Fort William Henry, to Munro, the girls' father. Alice does not trust him. She wants Heyward to speak to the Indian so she can hear his tones. Alice expresses anxiety about traveling in this soldier party, but Cora coldly asks whether they should mistrust the man simply because his skin is dark and his customs different. For this she earns a look of admiration from the Indian.
The journey through the forest is tedious. After some time a colt appears. The ungainly man from the preceding chapter is riding him. Heyward asks him sharply who he seeks in the party. The man replies cheerily that he only desires company in riding to the fort. He is a singing master who has been at Fort Edward for about a week. Heyward is reluctant to let him join the group, but Alice persuades himshe likes the man, calls him "a disciple of Apollo." She believes that he could he a friend to them if the need arises. Duncan plaintively asks whether she believes he would let those he loved travel by an unsafe path. Cora talks to the man about the art of psalmody. The musician believes the psalms of David exceed all other language in beauty. He gives a vocal sample from his book of music. The Indian speaks to Heyward, who says to Alice that it is best to travel without noisetherefore the man's chant must be postponed. She flippantly replies that the sound is not pleasing to her ears at all, that Duncan's bass voice interrupted her musings. In the thicket behind the travelers, a human visage appears, "fiercely wild and savage." He begins to trace the steps of the party.
The outlining of biased European sentiments continues in this chapter. The use of the word "spectre" to describe the Indian runner demonstrates that to a woman like Alice, he is not only foreign but ghostly and frightening. She asks to hear his voice; it seems that she expects to hear something that resembles an animal sound as opposed to a human one. The idea is insulting. It is important to note that Cooper sets up the character of Alice as the anti-Indian: not only is she a soft woman, but she has golden hair, light eyes, and a chattering personality. She is everything that an Indian should not be. In this way she contrasts strongly with her dark-haired, less bubbly sister. The author uses Cora to blur the lines between Europeans and Indians. She looks much more like the runner in coloring. She speaks much more seldom than Alice does in the chapter, but when she does speak, her words are profound. The silence she maintains most of the time appears to be contemplative, like the Indian runner. That she is more willing to trust the Indian credits her as an open-minded person who wants to judge people as individuals, not by race. For this reason she has the admiration of the runner, the author, and the reader.
Still, Alice's lack of trust is intelligent. She may not have a precise reason to mistrust the Indian, but she also does not have a reason to give him her confidence. Her suspicions reveal her to be more clever than Heyward, a man who is supposed to be looking out for the safety of her sister and herself. Blindly he accepts the runner as a guide. Under Alice's nagging he allows the unknown song master to join the group. He is extremely trusting, too trusting for his own good. As they travel, the route is continually described as "intricate" and "tangled." Thus it is apparent that Heyward has no idea where they are, which way they are going. The lack of dialogue between the Indian runner and Duncan lends an ominous feeling to the journey. One clearly has the upper hand over the other.
The addition of the musician is somewhat random with an unclear purpose. Most likely, Cooper's aim is to provide comic relief. We are given no reason thus far as to why this man is inhabiting live war grounds when he is certainly not going to fight. There is not a trace of menace in his demeanor as he rides up to the group with a lopsided saddle and choppy gait. That he is a reverent singer is laughable in light of the perilous situation. The man has an absent-minded air. He picks a most inappropriate time to demonstrate his talents, which apparently are not all that great. In any case, he is very likeable, the most enthusiastic character we have met so far. Clearly the singing master enjoys his life through art. He lends some softness to the stiff travelers.
The authorial voice steps in and switches the scene to one that is two miles west. Two men are lingering by a stream within an hour's journey of Webb's encampment. A canopy of woods spreads over them, trapping the "sultry" heat of an American landscape in July. The sounds of birds and waterfalls mingle, but the sounds are too familiar to be bothersome. One man has red skin and the costume of a woods native. The other has the sunburned complexion of one who has descended from Europeans. Both men are exceedingly muscular and have the rugged look of people who have born hard times. The redskin has almost no clothing. He carries a tomahawk and a knife of English manufacture. The white man has a knife and a rifle, as well as moccasins "fashioned" after Indian shoes. He is a hunter or a scout. The two speak in a language peculiar to those who live between the Hudson and the Potomac. They are discussing fight tactics. The Indian calls the scout Hawkeye. Hawkeye speaks of how he does not approve of many things that other white men do, of how they write in books instead of telling stories in villages. They debate about the truth of the Holy Bible versus the truth of the Indian legends in relation to the mysterious water tides. Hawkeye sees the sources as equally true.
The Indian is "unmixed," and his tribe is the "grandfather of nations." In the past they held the Maguas, also known as Iroquois, at bay with triumphant song. All his family has departed except for Uncas, his son, the last of the Mohicans. Chingachgook is the older Indian. Uncas reappears during this discussion. Chingachgook asks whether the Maguas are in the woods. Uncas says there are two of them hidden. Hawkeye is extremely angry. The men decide to eat first and then worry about fighting. Uncas and Hawkeye slay a deer for supper. Chingachgook hears the horses of white men approaching. He asks Hawkeye to speak to them. The scout hopes they are safe from the Iroquois.
Cooper makes clear his total authority by use of the authorial voice. He write that "we must use an author's privilege" to consider another scene. He speaks as if the reader is included in this decision, when in fact he is using what is usually termed the "royal we." Cooper obviously has a high opinion of his role as an author. When he openly states that he is switching from speaking about Heyward and the travelers to speaking about Hawkeye and Chingachgook, he demonstrates complete control over commentary and description. This has the effect of putting the reader on the alert. An author who makes such sudden switches in plot is not an objective, unbiased voice. Rather, it will be partial and expressive of opinion at all times. it is certain that Cooper's voice will be very important in the subsequent chapters.
In describing Hawkeye and Chingachgook together, Cooper very subtly portrays the extent of English rule. The Indian has weapons "of English manufacture;" he carries a rifle. Yet he is still painted with his traditional colors. In this man we see a meeting of cultures; he illustrates the effects of colonialism. This is a theme that resurfaces throughout the novel. It is important to note that while his weapons are English, he still maintains the dress and customs of Indians. Thus Chingachgook is not willing to completely assimilate to the culture of his conquerors. Nor would he be able to. Hawkeye, as much as his dress appears Indian, still can only wear moccasins that are "fashioned" after Indian ones. Some of his weapons are Indian, but he does not carry the tomahawk, and the rifle remains his weapon of choice. Much as he may try to assimilate, he is still a white man, and always will be. Hawkeye realizes the difference, which allows the reader to approve of his attempts (which are not clumsy) to be one with his Mohican friends. Had he not seen the impossibility of becoming completely Indian, he would be an annoying character.
The dialogue between the two Indians points to the disparities in diction. Hawkeye's speech is streamlined and direct; his ideas are always clear. Chingachgook, however, speaks in flowery language that relies mainly on nature imagery: he refers to rivers, skies, and animals many times. Whereas the nature setting taunts newcomers such as the English travelers, to the Mohicans and Hawkeye it is comforting and peaceful. Nature is a friend to those who understand and respect it: this is another of Cooper's themes. The argument between the two men, which mostly deals with the meeting of whites and Indians, rattles Hawkeye and arouses anger at some moments, while Chingachgook speaks sternly but is perfectly calm. The different worlds from which these two men come is apparent. When Chingachgook speaks of Uncas as the last of his tribe, he speaks of the end of one world in the face of the new world of the whites, a consequence of white colonization.
The travelers come into sight on the trail. Hawkeye asks who they are. They identify themselves as "friends of the king, believers in religion." They ask how far away they are from Fort William Henry. Hawkeye laughs and tells them they are going precisely the wrong way. Heyward shakes his head and says that the Indian guide of theirs must be lost. Hawkeye says an Indian lost in the woods is an absurd prospect. When Duncan tells them that the guide is of the Huron race, Hawkeye and his companions are immediately alert: they are a thievish people. Heyward contests that the man is now a Mohawk, but the scout and his friends do not believe this. Heyward asks them to take them to whatever fort is nearest. After discerning that the traveling party are not spies of Montcalm, and observing the dishonest, disagreeable looks of the guide, Hawkeye wants to shoot the guide from his vantage point so that he will not be able to follow the party. Heyward does not approve, so the scout lowers his rifle. After talking to his friends, Hawkeye tells Heyward that he must engage the guide in conversation while the two men catch him with "Indian tactics." Duncan agrees. He talks to the guide, who is called Magua and Le Renard Subtil. Magua says he will leave the party if other guides have been found. He mutters to himself about pale-faces being dogs to their women. Heyward casually dismounts to talk to the guide; but as soon as he puts a hand on his arm, Magua strikes him and runs away. Chingachgook, Uncas, and Hawkeye are after him. The rifle fires.
From the onset it is certain that Hawkeye is much more cunning and wary than the English travelers. The questions he puts forth to test the allegiance of Heyward demonstrate that he is not at all trusting, and in wartime this credits him as sensible and wise. He is a white man, but in living with the Mohicans he has definitely lost some of his whiteness. Heyward acts as a foil to the scout; he is a warrior in the English tradition, which means that he is accomplished in pomp and ceremony involved with "civilized" warfare. He has no clue as to how to deal with a battle that has no rules and guidelines. He also thinks too highly of those he meets. The fact that Magua has purposely led the group astray confirms in the reader's mind the naivete of Duncan. He is well-meaning, but ill-suited for Indian encounters. This is proven when he does not succeed in apprehending Maguathe Huron is extremely perceptive and knows as soon as he is touched that he is about to be attacked.
The distrust that Hawkeye and the Mohicans feel for Magua from the start sets up what will be the central conflict in the book, more so than the French-Indian war: the clashing between tribes of the Delaware and tribes of the Huron. Notice that the scout can tell from Magua's paint and facial expression that he is not to be trusted. He wants to shoot him, knowing that approaching Magua will alert him to something strange. Still, he heeds Heyward, who feels that Magua might be innocent still, and lets him try to capture Magua himself. While this may appear to be a stupid decision, it is necessary that Hawkeye let Duncan see his own errors, so that he will implicitly trust the foresters. Eventually, Cooper will invite comparison between white and Indian warfare.
The sisters are barely noticed, but Hawkeye spends a moment looking upon their beauty. Right now they are more or less ornamental. The musician is not mentioned at all. Such lack of commentary about these characters indicates the manner in which the author plays with time. A few moments last for a few chapters. We also see that Cooper is not a writer who engages in excess description. He speaks only about the characters concerned with a given plot movement at a given moment.
Duncan starts to join the chase, but he meets the three men almost as soon as he leaves. They see some of Magua's blood on the leaves, but Hawkeye knows he is not dead. Heyward wants to pursue him, but the scout scoffs and says that they would be led into the tomahawks of his companions. He recommends instead that they move as quickly as possible so that they are not found by the Mingoes. Heyward begs them to stay. The men converse in the Delaware language, and decide to help them, provided that they will keep the place which they will see a secret from all men. Duncan agrees. He soothes Cora and Alice. Hawkeye says they must dispose of the horses. The women object, but eventually see the intelligence of the plan. After killing a colt and leading the others astray, the three men pull out a bark canoe and they all begin the journey down the river. They come to a rocky shore with loud, pulsating water, called Glen Falls. The foresters and the travelers disembark and move towards a cave-like area. Duncan asks if he sees any of those called Iroquois. Hawkeye replies that all who do not speak the Delaware/Mohican tongue are Iroquois enemiesthey come from bad blood. He thinks that there might be an enemy hovering about. They hear sounds that seem to indicate that the colt is being eaten by wolves. The musician raises a song about the first-born dying in Egypt. They come to the cave.
That Magua is able to disappear so suddenly indicates the cunning of Indians in general. Hawkeye once again proves his intelligence when he refuses to run after Magua, for fear of running into his Huron companions. The fact that the foresters decide to remain with the travelers and escort them to safety indicates better than anything else how much the Mohicans differ from the Huron tribe. We are meant to put Hawkeye's friends on a pedestal. Uncas himself states that "such harmless things" cannot be left to such an awful fate by those who call themselves men. Thus, helping the travelers becomes a show of bravery and gallantry, in the European sense of the words. It appears that these Indians have something to prove: that they can be as kind and caring as any white men. This is quite deliberate on Cooper's part. He is determined to blur the line between the European constructions of "white" and "Indian," "civilized" and "savage." The Mohicans behave very nicely by European standards. Still they are looked down upon because they are red men. Herein lies the tension. Readers must mentally challenge the European stereotypes as they read the novel.
The killing of the colt illustrates the basic Indian principle of minimalism. They do not keep what is unnecessary. Horses are a luxury that must be exchanged for time and speed. The women do not understand this completely, but they are smart enough to complain little. The minimalist ideal extends to the nature setting. The foresters use walking and water as the main methods of travel because they are easy and readily available. The journey on the water itself is described as "dangerous" with many "swirling eddies leading to destruction." We might view the river as a symbol of passage throughout the novel. It is used to enter new worlds and circumstances. In this case, once the group disembarks from the canoe, they are in a cave dwelling that is a secret place for the Mohicans. The English people have truly entered a new world by their acquaintance with the foresters. It is a cause for fear and celebrationperhaps this is why the musician raises a song.
Incidentally, the musician is still referred to as "the stranger." Cooper has not needed to discuss him, so he has remained unnamed. His song is a biblical psalm. Clearly the author will use this character to explore Christian religion in the context of the war and the white-Indian relationships.