“I See Nothing but Land and Water; and a Lovely Scene It Is”: Nature’s Enchantment in The Last of the Mohicans

Leah A. Begg (University of Connecticut)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “Reading for Enchantment: Reading James Fenimore Cooper and his Contemporaries” at the 30ᵗʰ Annual American Literature Association Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, May 23-26, 2019.

Originally published in  The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 31.1 (Whole No. 8, Spring 2020): 34-39.

Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Rita Felski, in her 2008 Uses of Literature, describes enchantment as “casting a spell on its readers; like a dangerous drug, it lures them away from their everyday lives in search of heightened sensations and undiluted pleasures” (53). However, a quick search of the OED adds another valence to this definition: enchantment is “the action or process of enchanting, or of employing magic or sorcery.” Although Felski’s purpose for including a chapter on enchantment is to highlight theory’s grip on literary studies and to provide an alternative epistemology for reading, she hints at the more nefarious connotations of the word enchantment. While settling on enchantment’s power to disallow us from putting a book down, she also refers to its power of “intoxication” and “rapture” which is “ecstatic and erotically charged.” In questioning how readers can critique a text if “we are absorbed in subliminal and mysterious enchantment,” Felski’s way of reading is not benign. It is this rather sinister connotation of enchantment which I will focus on in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. I posit that readers of the novel, while under the “spell” of Cooper’s sublime depictions of Nature, will not only suspend their disbelief of unlikely events, but will also be drawn further and further into the plot. Similarly, the characters, charmed by the beauty of Nature around them, will forge further and further into the dangerous wilderness while being duped by nature along the way.

The sublimity of nature — beautiful and threatening at the same time — serves as a muse for Cooper; his aesthetic language and vivid descriptions of the untamed forests and impressive cataracts characteristic of upstate New York transport readers to another world. The setting of the novel is Lake George, New York, and its environs, which Cooper has renamed the “Horican.” Cooper’s descriptive language embellishes this Romantic place:

To the north stretched the limpid, and as it appeared from that dizzy height, the narrow sheet of the “holy lake,” indented with numberless bays, embellished by fantastic headlands, and dotted with countless islands. At the distance of a few leagues, the bed of the water became lost among mountains, or was wrapped in the masses of vapor that came slowly rolling along their bosom. (325) [35]

Words like “dizzy,” “numberless,” and “fantastic” emphasize the power and sublimity of nature.

The presence of vapor here is important. I suggest that the mist has a pharmacological effect; its “ether” further enchanting those who view it. As the main protagonists make their way to Fort William Henry, they view the encampment from a high precipice and notice “the bank of vapor that concealed the setting moon” and “clouds of light vapor ... rising in spiral wreaths from the uninhabited woods.” The word “vapor” is used twenty times in the novel to describe the atmosphere. Cooper was obsessed with mist and vapor, and very few of his mountain vistas are without it. Blake Nevius notes that while in Italy, Cooper recognized that the Italian atmosphere “is characterized by the omnipresent haze over the landscape, which has for [Cooper] the effect of removing the scene from the actual and present” (51). “My beloved mist” and “mist-mist-mist — give me mist for scenery” are frequent refrains in his Gleanings. Like a drug, the mist transports readers — and characters — to another world.

The description of the cataracts and waterfalls that the characters encounter is equally as impressive as the vapor-wrapped mountain vistas:

[The river] confined between high and cragged rocks ... surmounted by tall trees, which appeared to totter on the brows of the precipice, [giving] the stream the appearance of running through a deep and narrow dell. All beneath the fantastic limbs and ragged treetops, which were, here and there, dimly painted against the starry zenith, lay alike in shadowed obscurity. (269-70)

Cooper’s protagonist, Hawkeye, describes the cataract at Glenn’s with the following lines: “Look at the perversity of the water. It falls by no rule at all; sometimes it leaps, sometimes it tumbles; there it skips; here it shoots; in one place ‘tis white as snow, and in another ‘tis green as grass” (274) In fact, Cooper writes that “the river fabricates all sorts of images” (274). Similarly, Alice and Cora Munro, who are part of the traveling party on their way to their father at Fort Henry, are enamored by “the flood of golden glory which formed a glittering halo around the sun, tinging here and there with ruby streaks, or bordering with narrow edgings of shining yellow, a mass of clouds that lay piled at no great distance above the western hills” (315). Like the drug-inducing effects of vapor, the rush of water over the falls and the sun’s glittering halo renders the scene almost psychedelic. [36]

While Cooper’s pharmaceutic vapors and psychedelic waterfalls beguile the reader, nature also charms the characters of the narrative, luring them deeper into the woods. Sisters Cora and Alice contemplate “the wild charms that night had assisted to lend the place” (270) and remark that “Nature ... assume[s] her mildest and most captivating form” (329). Throughout the novel, Cooper refers to the scenery as “captivating,” full of charms, and “intoxicating,” further highlighting its bewitching capabilities.

The Munro sisters’ guide, Magua, who, as an indigenous person, can be read as a symbol of nature itself, “charms” the party into taking a path that brings them further into the woods rather than advising them to stay on the main road. Because of his association with nature, the travelers allow Magua to dupe them into following his route. This decision, of course, leads to trouble. As the travelers bore deeper into the forest, they encounter a natural fountain containing “healing waters” where Hawkeye declares, “the knaves well know the vartue of its waters! ... I now crave it, as a deer does the licks” (314). Nature here has an intoxicating and almost magical power.

Nature enchants the indigenous people as well as the European settlers: the Delawares, while watching Magua kidnap Cora, are “charmed to the place by some power,” and a sick woman in their village is “believed to be the victim of some supernatural power” (431, 393). Hawkeye and Heyward also dupe the Delawares by intimating that an evil spirit is among them. Because of the tribes’ belief in the supernatural and the charms of nature, they are duped by the protagonists and these instances drive the plot.

The wilderness of the novel is not benign. Cooper chalks up its darkness and terror to the specters of the Revolutionary War whose bodies sullied the “holy lake” (Lake George). He depicts the “recess of the woods so dark” highlighting where the “darkness drew its veil around the secluded spot” (247, 249). The party of travelers traverse a “dark and tangled pathway” and enter “under the high but dark arches of the forest” (253). The ghosts of the soldiers who “bur[ied] themselves in these forests” threaten, while “the forest ... appeared to swallow up the living mass which had slowly entered its bosom” (248, 250). Upon first meeting Magua, Alice frightfully exclaims, “are such specters frequent in the woods?” (252). Here Cooper presents the wilderness as having a ghostly and supernatural enchantment underscoring the novel’s Gothic setting.

As the party moves further and further into the woods, the enchantment of nature becomes harder to desist, and like the poppies [37] in the Wizard of Oz, causes characters to nod off from its effects. Within their cave by the falls, in the midst of nature, while “the moon reached the zenith, and shed its mild light ... on the lovely sight,” the group “lost every idea of consciousness, in uncontrollable drowsiness” (280). Later, when the travelers reach the crumbling blockhouse, which is notably a sacred burial site, a “memorial of the passage and struggles of man,” everyone except Chingachgook falls asleep (317). Heyward tries to resist sleep in order to keep guard, but as “the mournful notes of a whip-poor-will became blended with the meanings of an owl; his heavy eyes occasionally sought the bright rays of the stars ... the young man sank into a deep sleep” (318). Chingachgook, already one with nature is immune to its charms, while the others fall under its spell.

Not only do the sights of nature enchant the characters, but the sounds of David Gamut’s psalmody become hypnotic as the travelers trudge through the woods. While still in the garrison, before the party sets off for their journey through the wilderness, Gamut’s musical pipe strikes “a high, shrill sound” which Alice calls an “unworthy conjunction of execution and language” and “an unfitness between sound and sense” (256). As they move deeper into the woods, however, the music’s effect on the travelers improves, becoming rich and melodic with “thrilling notes” (276). Even Chingachgook and Uncas “listened with an attention that seemed to turn them into stone.” Hawkeye also gradually succumbs to the charm of the tune and “before the hymn was ended scalding tears rolled out of fountains that had long seemed dry” (276). Here, in the depths of the forest, Gamut’s music beguiles the party with sounds of “greedy rapture” (276).

Like the characters, the reader becomes enraptured with Gamut’s singing through Cooper’s conflation of Gamut’s music with the sounds of nature. He notes how “the rushing of the waters ran through their melody” and describes the “melody in the fall of the cataract, and the rushing of many waters [as] sweet to the senses!” (276, 290). Cooper eloquently captures the sound of the woods in the following passage: “still that breathing silence, which marks the drowsy sultriness of an American landscape in July, pervaded the secluded spot, interrupted only by the low voices of the men, the occasional and lazy tap of a woodpecker, the discordant cry of some gaudy jay, or a swelling on the ear, from the dull roar of a distant waterfall” (257). These nature sounds captivate the reader, coaxing them to continue their journey with the characters.

David’s music unwittingly enchants the Huron villagers as well. Upon their first concert, their “astonishment soon changed to [38] admiration,” and their suspicion of Gamut turned to indifference, after which they allowed Gamut to wander freely about the village without molestation (347). Of course, Gamut believes that his “holy charm is beginning to be felt” and his song “has recovered its influence even over the souls of the heathen” (348, 375). His song even saves Cora from Magua’s clutches, his odd behavior deterring the villagers from stopping him and Cora in their flight to safety.

As symbols of nature, Chingachgook and Uncas, the titular Mohicans of the story, possess language which enchants those who hear it. Cooper states that their conversation is “impossible to describe” and “wonderful” and that anyone would be charmed “while under the influence of these gentle and natural feelings” (361).

Because Cooper has enchanted the reader with his vivid descriptions of nature, we are willing to suspend our disbelief at some points for a satisfying story. Not to side with Mark Twain, in Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, but as a reader of The Last of the Mohicans, we not only suspend our own disbelief, but we willingly allow nature to delude the characters. The enemy Magua hurls a tomahawk at the trapped Alice, and barely misses her, as it “cleaved the air in front of Heyward ... cutting some of the flowing ringlets of Alice” (306). In another example, a band of enemy Hurons shoot at the protagonists, who sit in an unprotected canoe in the middle of a lake. Instead of our beloved characters becoming “sitting ducks,” we allow that the trained indigenous warriors would miss multiple shots, their balls instead “[striking] the light and polished paddle from the hands of the chief” and then “[striking] the blade of Hawkeye’s paddle” (366).

Not only do readers suspend their disbelief of certain plot points, but they also allow nature to delude the novel’s characters. In the thick of enemy territory, Heyward, who is a trained military officer, believes a colony of beavers is a Native American village (373), and mistakes children as “dark glancing specters, or some other unearthly beings” (380). Later, Heyward dresses as a buffoon, in order to enter the Delaware camp and search for the captured Alice. Although the Delawares are suspicious, they do not question his appearance, and later even believe that he is “a great medicine,” allowing him free-range within the cabins of the village (388). In perhaps the most humorous scene of the book, Hawkeye dresses up as a bear and deceives not only Gamut and Heyward, but the Delaware villagers as well, who are no strangers to the animals of the wilderness. Later, Chingachgook miraculously deceives the villagers as a beaver. [39]

As readers, we allow these delusions to suspend our disbelief because we are enchanted with the story. Cooper’s sublime depictions of the sights and sounds of the setting enrapture us, while the heightened suspense, albeit improbable, spurs us to the ending. Like Hawkeye in his quest to reach Fort William Henry, we willingly enter the forest of the plot, “seldom abating ... speed, and never pausing to deliberate” the plausibility of the events (315).

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. James Fenimore Cooper: Complete and Unabridged. Barnes & Noble, 2007.
  • Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
  • Nevius, Blake. Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision. University of California Press, 1976.
  • Twain, Mark. “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” 1895. www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3172.