Frequently in his career as a novelist, Brian Moore has taken Catholicism and the demands of religious faith as a central theme. In Black Robe, he gives this theme a historical background, setting his story in the seventeenth century Canadian wilderness as he explores the attempts of the French Jesuits to convert the North American Indians to Christianity. The story is also of two parallel journeys—one physical and one spiritual—undertaken by a priest who has come to the New World seeking martyrdom through his service to God. As Moore’s story progresses, the clash between the priest and the Indians he hopes to convert becomes a microcosm of the larger conflict between the European and Indian cultures that marked the white man’s arrival in North America.
Moore’s objective throughout the novel is to present each society in its own words, and he accomplishes this through the use of multiple points of view. Although the narrative remains in the third person, the viewpoint from which the action is perceived shifts from scene to scene. In the first chapter alone, Moore incorporates four points of view, including that of the famed French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, who heads the Quebec settlement. Later chapters are told from the viewpoint of several of the Indians, thus presenting their own interpretations of the Jesuits’ actions and their tribal beliefs in spirits of the natural world. This device allows Moore to balance his portrayals of the two cultures, as well as revealing the thoughts and feelings of several of the novel’s primary and secondary characters.
Although the story offers multiple points of view, the principal figure in Moore’s tale is Father Paul Laforgue, a French Jesuit who is chosen to travel to the remote Huron village of Ihonatiria, where one of the two resident priests is rumored to be ill or dead. For Laforgue, the assignment offers the possibility of martyrdom, or even sainthood, at the hands of the people the French call the Savages, and he embraces the journey’s dangers with a mixture of fear and joy. Yet, his feeling for his Algonkin companions and guides on the trip is initially one of revulsion. The vulgarity of their language, their easy, open sexuality, and their seemingly barbaric habits all horrify the ascetic Laforgue, particularly when he sees the French fur trappers in the colony adopting the Savages’ dress and customs.
Laforgue sets out on his journey firm in his devotion to God and unrelenting in his view of the Savages (Moore’s terminology—borrowed from the French—throughout the book) as little more than potential souls to be saved. He will finish it, however, a profoundly changed man, his faith shaken to its foundations by his growing understanding of his companions. As the tribesmen become not simply “the Savages” but individuals in the priest’s mind, he finds himself doubting basic teachings of the Church that he had hitherto accepted as inviolable. This crisis of faith is precipitated by the events of the journey itself, a canoe trip upriver from Quebec to the shores of Lake Huron, which will encompass illness, hunger, betrayal, abandonment, and terrible torture at the hands of a tribe of Iroquois before its conclusion. For Laforgue, the trek becomes a personal “temptation in the wilderness,” but unlike Christ, he finds that his faith cannot sustain him.
Accompanying the priest on his mission—and counterpointing his experiences among the Savages—is Daniel Davost, a young French boy who, unbeknown to Laforgue, has fallen in love with Annuka, an Algonkin girl, and plans to remain with the tribe rather than continue on with the priest. As the arduous trip upriver commences, Laforgue attempts to accustom himself to the Savages’ habits, but it is experience, rather than an act of will, which brings about his gradual understanding. Initially sickened by the greasy, half-cooked meat that constitutes the tribe’s evening meal, he finds, to his surprise, that this same meal tastes delicious after several days of cornmeal and unsuccessful hunting. Gone, too, after several days is his disgust at the smell and heat of the sleeping bodies in the shelter at night. Ill with a fever and unable to concentrate on his prayers, he discovers that he now longs for the moment when he can lie down among his companions and sleep. Even the Savages’ open sexuality begins to affect him when he stumbles upon Daniel and Annuka making love and finds himself, to his shame and horror, aroused by the sight of the naked girl. Although he fights this last revelation with scourging and prayer, it increases his understanding of the boy’s attraction to Annuka.
Unlike Laforgue, Daniel adapts easily to the Algonkin way of life, happily eating from the communal cooking pot and sleeping in the communal shelter while Laforgue struggles against his revulsion. Yet, the irony in Daniel’s willing embrace of the Savages’ life-style lies in their refusal to accept him as a worthy member of their tribe, for just as the Europeans regard the Indians as primitive savages, so the Indians themselves hold the French in contempt, with Annuka’s father, Chomina, telling the girl that no white man can ever be a fit husband for her.
The mutual suspicion with which the two groups regard each other across a gulf of cultural differences so wide as to appear unbridgeable forms the crux of the book’s conflict. To the Savages, the priests—or “Blackrobes,” as they term them—are unnatural witches who abstain from sex, cast spells while they pray, practice water sorcery (baptism), and live only for a life in paradise after...