A major theme of The Ancient Child is the importance of finding one’s true self and finding a home. The novel revolves around a Native American man, comfortable and successful but not quite at home in the Anglo-American world, who must discover his native culture and his own identity and role therein. Momaday’s own experiences of living equally in the Anglo and Indian worlds offer him a unique and powerful insight into this question of discovering one’s sense of self and one’s place in the world. This, however, is not a uniquely “Indian” theme; the question of assimilating into a dominant culture while retaining one’s unique cultural identity is an important part of the American experience, and the need to understand oneself and one’s place in the world is universal.
Momaday believes that one of the ways for an individual to find this identity is to use stories, such as the Kiowa myths and Western legends that figure so prominently in the novel, to interpret and understand experiences. This is clearly seen in the case of Grey, who builds up a personal fantasy around the legendary character of Billy the Kid and uses the fantasy to explore and strengthen the qualities she wishes to have. Set is not an active dreamer like Grey, but Momaday shows the importance of stories to Set’s life by setting up clear parallels between Set’s experiences and ancient myths through the stories of the bear boy and the lost boy.
Tied to Momaday’s belief in the power of stories is his theory that there is really only one essential story, told and retold in many variations. In The Ancient Child, he enunciates this theory through the character of Set. “Yes, he believed, there is only one story, after all, and it is about the pursuit of man by God, and it is about a...
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