True Grit, the surprise hit from the Coen brothers, has captivated audiences and the Academy with its perfect balance of earnestness, humor, and Wild West derring-do. There is a dimension to the film that has not yet been pointed out, however. 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 Fenrir 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 Fenrir 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 Fenrir’s mouth as a pledge to the wolf that there is no hocus-pocus afoot—if Fenrir 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? Rooster Cogburn is a one-eyed U.S. Marshal who doles out his own brand of frontier justice, not caring much for the niceties of the legal system. When we first meet him, he’s being forced under cross-examination to admit that he’s killed 23 men while working as a marshal. It’s clear he’d rather be behind a rifle sight than on the witness stand. Like Odhinn, Cogburn is comfortable with lying to his enemies (he exaggerates the number of marshals he has with him when attempting to take on a crew of bandits in a cabin). Like Cocles, he attacks his enemy with wild behavior. In the climactic fight scene, Cogburn takes on the four men of the Lucky Ned Pepper gang with abandon—his two revolvers drawn and the reins of his horse between his teeth. In Charles Portis’ novel, from which True Grit was adapted, Cogburn is described as “snapping his head from side to side to bring his good eye into play.” In the film, we see a menacing look in his eye when his teeth take the reins. Earlier in the film he tells Mattie of a time he pulled a similar stunt against seven men.
Contrast Cogburn’s approach with Mattie’s. Her precocious, legalistic manner is established right from the beginning of True Grit. Early in the film, she threatens a horse trader with a “writ of replevin.” (The bewildered horse trader replies “a what?“) When she finally comes face-to-face with Tom Chaney, the man she is trying to bring to justice for killing her father, she shoots intending to subdue him, not to kill. Even after she has been taken hostage by Chaney and the Pepper gang, she talks of swearing affidavits to his good behavior so that his sentence may be more humane. Yet at the end of the film Mattie shoots Chaney with intent to kill—the pressing needs of justice having forced her to act outside the legal code she has heretofore championed. The kickback of the gun knocks her over into a pit, where she suffers a snakebite that will cause her to lose her left arm. *
Are Rooster and Mattie modern manifestations of the ancient allegorical characters Dumezil studied? Or are they merely two different personality types: the charismatic, devil-may-care swaggerer and the exacting, careful planner—Dionysus and Apollo, Oscar and Felix. Whether Portis is familiar with Dumezil is unclear—the novelist keeps to himself. A spokesman for the Coens assured me the brothers are not aware of Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Still, the myths Dumezil compiled and explicated do illuminate the novel and the film, regardless of whether the author or filmmaker knew his work directly. They remind the reader or viewer that this isn’t just the story of a young girl with great pluck, but something of an origins myth as well.
In the stories Dumezil analyzes, the one-eyed and one-armed gods act in concert to save the state in an emergency, but they really represent different moments in statehood: creation and conservation, or founding and running. True Grit, too, is a story about the founding of a nation, or more accurately, the closing of the frontier and the birth of modern America. The film ends in 1903, when Cogburn dies after having performed for years in a Wild West show, a sorry imitation of the real West in which he thrived. By the time of his death, the frontier had closed, depriving Cogburn of his natural element and forcing him, like Buffalo Bill, into a representation of that element.
It took men like Cogburn to tame the wilderness and its outlaws and establish order. (To say nothing of appropriating the land of the native peoples who first inhabited that wilderness—True Grit is curiously short on Indians, despite being set in Choctaw territory.) They paved the way for the stable, business-friendly climate of the America in which Mattie will grow up, where laws and contracts will rule. Though she’s forced to act outside the law to exact vengeance on her father’s killer, Mattie appreciates the institutions of civilization. “I love my church and my bank,” she says in Portis’ novel, a line that Cogburn could never utter. Order has been established, now it needs a steady hand to manage it and business-oriented individuals to thrive within it. Mattie was born at the end of the Civil War and is only about 38 when Rooster dies in 1903. Her life illustrates just how fleeting the Wild West’s moment really was—but her lost arm is a reminder of what it took to subdue it.