Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Longfellow gathered the material for The Song of Hiawatha from many sources, and his aim was to codify the various tales he read into a coherent mythology. He sought to introduce a white audience to Indian mythology. It begins, as most mythologies do, with people and their god. Gitche Manito, “the mighty/ He the Master of Life,” brings the various tribes together to smoke the peace pipe. Gitche Manito will also send a prophet to the people “Who shall guide you and shall teach you,/ Who shall toil and suffer with you.” This prophet, who sounds very much like Jesus, will bring prosperity if the people listen. The prophet is Hiawatha.
Section 2 of the poem shows the taming of nature, of the four winds—especially the West-Wind, which is to be Hiawatha’s father. Hiawatha, after his mysterious conception (an element common to nearly all mythologies), lives with his grandmother, Nokomis, who teaches him about nature. In the fourth section of the poem, Hiawatha goes to see his father, the West-Wind. The West-Wind praises him and defines Hiawatha’s mission in life:
Go back to your home and people,Live among them, toil among them,Cleanse the earth from all that harms it,Clear the fishing grounds and rivers,Slay all monsters and magicians.
One of the most important contributions Hiawatha makes to his people comes after a long fast. Hiawatha is challenged by Mondamin, “a friend of man,” to wrestle. The wrestling takes three days, and on the third day Hiawatha defeats, strips, and buries Mondamin. Soon after, plant shoots appear, then maize, the staple food of the people. Hiawatha does not go in search of great deeds so that he might win praise or honor; rather, he struggles to bring benefits to his people. The progress from hero to leader is reminiscent of the ancient epics of Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh.
(The entire section is 850 words.)
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