Thomas (James Bonner) Flanagan Desmond Morton - Essay

Desmond Morton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of Riel as a symbol, enough has been written. Riel as a person remains a troubling enigma. One possible technique is to take him at his own valuation. That is almost exactly what Thomas Flanagan has done [in Louis 'David' Riel: Prophet of the New World]. Having edited Riel's diaries, collected his youthful poetry and explored the political theory behind the 1869 Declaration of the Red River colony Metis. Professor Flanagan has now explored the abundant collection of Riel's religious writings. Let us, he suggests, suspend the conventional judgment that the Metis leader was insane. Instead, why not see if he qualifies as a millenarian religious leader?

The resulting book is an impressive and sometimes laborious example of interdisciplinary scholarship. Although a political scientist, Professor Flanagan has applied literary techniques and theological knowledge to an essentially historical problem. His task was made easier by the narrow horizons of Riel's intellectual world but the breadth of Flanagan's erudition is imposing. Biblical references, contemporary allusions and Riel's numerology are painstakingly explained. We may now understand why the papacy will arrive in St. Vital in the year 2333 AD and why, as a result of a vision, Riel could insist that the Indians are descended from the Israelites. (pp. 37-8)

By defining Riel as a millenarian cult leader, Professor Flanagan has justified himself in undertaking a laborious and profitable re-examination of Riel's extensive writings. However, his interpretation is not really at odds with other extensive studies of Riel, particularly the standard biography by George Stanley. We may now understand more about Louis Riel; do we necessarily change our judgment? (p. 38)

Desmond Morton, "Millenarian," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LIX, No. 690, June-July, 1979, pp. 37-8.