According to the Britannica, the noble savage is an “idealized concept of uncivilized man, who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization.” Does Hope Leslie’s Magawisca fit this archetype?
This notion can be felt at Magawisca’s first introduction in the novel, when she is brought to the Fletchers’ home in the village of Springfield, Connecticut. She has been brought to help Mrs. Fletcher with the housework while Mr. Fletcher is away; he tells his wife how the girl’s tribe was killed, but her and her brother were spared because of the reputation their Indian mother had for being kind to the settlers. Fletcher tells his wife not to bother Magawisca about her “Indian garb” so as not to “interfere with her innocent peculiarity” (Sedgwick 22). This is to say that she is not blamed for her way of dressing because it is an outward display of her “innocent” mind that has been kept pure in the wilderness. She is “peculiar” because she is different from the white settlers, and this is an admirable thing to be in the context of the noble savage.
Another instance in which this archetype is emphasized is in the lengthy description we get of Magawisca at her first appearance. The author tells us of her beauty, her dignity and the way in which she carries herself. She describes every detail of Magawisca’s apparel and ends with telling the reader that she “had an air of wild and fantastic grace, that harmonized well with the noble demeanor and peculiar beauty of the young savage” (Sedgwick 23). It’s important to note that the very words “noble” and “savage” are used to describe our heroine, and this can be no coincidence as the term had been coined in 1670, 157 years before Hope Leslie was published.
The term was first used in Dryden’s play The Conquest of Granada, in which the hero claims, “I am free as nature first made men / Ere the base laws of servitude began / when wild in woods the noble savage ran.” The speaker is denying the rights of a prince to sentence him to death on based on the fact that he is not the prince’s subject and therefore immune to the jurisdiction of society. We see echoes of this in Hope Leslie when Magawisca is imprisoned by the Puritans. When asked to defend herself in court, she replies, “I am your prisoner, and ye may slay me, but I deny your right to judge me. My people have never passed under your yoke–not one of my race has ever acknowledged your authority” (Sedgwick 302). In this instance, Magawisca denies the Puritans the authority to judge her, and her “race” are the Pequods who live in the wilderness, free from the jurisdiction of the white settlers and the stain of their society.
While this term is supposed to be admirable, there is a confession overtone in the way the white settlers and even the author view Magawisca. In claiming she is innocent they are claiming she lacks some sort of knowledge or wisdom that comes with living in white, Christian New England. In the end she cannot be with Everell and Hope, and she ventures into the wilderness alone again and, in my opinion, still unwelcome in the eyes of the vast majority of the settlers. She has been pushed out of her home, her people have been killed and she must continue westwards to be safe from the tyranny and murder of the settlers. Admiration alone is not enough. Magawisca is disrespected and displaced.