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Burden of the Bear

For centuries men have fought bears in life, literature, and film. But there are no clear winners in this mortal combat. 

January 31, 2018  |  by Creative Armenia

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In ancient times hunting in general and bear hunting, in particular, were considered to be means of livelihood; the animal was killed to satisfy hunger. Later hunting (especially bear hunting) turned into a kind of entertainment for the nobility. Kings went hunting to test their sight and strength – and to have a good time. They didn't need the food.

As we glance over a few Armenian and American stories, we'll quickly notice how the narrative of bear hunting has actually evolved. 

We begin with Bear Hunting (1899) by Hovhannes Tumanyan, one of the most interesting writers of the 19th century, known for his tales, novels, and poems. The plot of this novel is very simple. Two friend raise pigs, and one day a bear comes into picture. One of the friends decides to kill the bear. He fails the first attempt and almost falls victim to the beast of the forest, surviving only through force of circumstance. Then he decides to go bear hunting again. This time the reason is different; he intends to shield his territory from further attacks of the bear. He goes into the forest, finds the bear (eating pears), and shoots it. The wounded bear runs to the water, and then dies. A success: The friends liberate and secure a new area for their pig farming.

The positions and circumstances of the parties are different in Mtnadzor (1926) – a novel by Aksel Bakunts. Bakunts was an Armenian prose writer of the Soviet era in the first half of 20th century. The plot of Mtnadzor is as follows: With a strong hunter's reputation in the village, Avi arrives at the wild terrain of Mtnadzor, where pheasants and partridges are usually hunted. This time he finds a fox trail, but the hunt isn't successful. In order not to come home empty-handed, he decides to collect firewood. The forest ranger Panin catches him. "Either pay a 20-ruble fine for stealing wood from the forest," he says, "or kill a bear in Mtnadzor." Avi can't pay the fine; he'll kill the bear. The clash between the rural hunter and the bear has a tragic ending. Avi doesn't quite fall victim to the bear, but as a result of this encounter he "loses face," both literally and figuratively. The ranger saves him from dying and kills the bear himself.

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Hovhannes Tumanyan and Aksel Bakunts

In both novels the ending for the bear is the same. But if in Tumanyan's version the farmers take new lands from the bear – so important for their work – in Bakunts's story, the bear's lands are challenged by a man of tyrannical ambition. In the future, by the way, there won't be an alternative of "killing the bear." Only the "20-ruble fine" will remain. Not surprisingly, we meet hunter Avi next in the village, sewing shoes in front of his house. After the encounter with the bear, the scope of his activities has been drastically restricted.

In 2015 film The Revenant – directed by Alejandro Iñárritu based on Michael Punke's novel of the same name – made quite a commotion. The actions of the film are set in the first quarter of 19th century, in one of the valleys of the Missouri River. This is a story about human will and endurance, about how trapper Hugh Glass could withstand so many hardships to exact revenge for his son's murder. One of the most impressive scenes of the story is the fight between Glass and the bear. The bear, of course, is a lot stronger and the man receives many severe wounds in this fight. Ultimately, though, he does succeed in killing the gigantic bear. At the end of the story, the white hero who defeated the dark bear wins and establishes his right to live in the Missouri Valley, where he was a newcomer. We can infer that this story symbolizes the establishment of the historical rule of the Europeans in North America. The killing of the bear is the allegory of a major territorial conquest.

 Watch the trailer of The Revenant 

Another American story – The Bear (1942) by William Faulkner – tells of the bear hunting of the successors of the "Redskins," who sold their lands, and the successors of the "whites," who bought these lands. In Faulkner's novel, the bear has "a true reputation typical to man" and a name – Ban. The Redskins and whites know that as long as the bear lives, the deal between their grandfathers means nothing, and the land belongs to Ban itself. Their yearly efforts to kill the bear has always failed, and over these years the bear hunting has mostly turned into a carnival. People have to share the territory with the bear. The bear doesn't damage their property, and they don't shoot at the bear. The carnival ends when the bear violates the agreement and, as a result, the mixed Redskin, half-slave Boon Hogganbeck kills the bear. After that, Boon quickly becomes Mr. Boon. From now he is the master of the land. The whites will have to give up the territories bought from the Redskins.

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William Faulkner

If we look at the logic of these works, we see a few things clearly: in Tumanyan's Bear Hunting, the efforts to expand the borders autonomy in the context of a collapsing Russian Empire; Bakunts's Mtnadzor, the loss of autonomy and the quest for it one's own land; in The Revenant, the establishment of the Europeans (the whites) in America; and in Faulkner's The Bear, the first hints of a great rebellion by the blacks and Redskins to reestablish their own rights with the whites. 

In the end, it turns out that bear hunting has evolved from adventure to allegory, a very specific tale of a people's ambition to control its land.  


Vahram Danielyan is a lecturer at Yerevan State University and American University of Armenia. He specializes in Armenian literature.

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