Dec 252010

Trolling, as is my occasional wont, I discovered this screen gem from 1974: Reader’s Digest, presenting Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (a Musical Adaptation). I remember seeing this as a kid in the early ’70s; I have to say, I appreciate it now on a lot of levels lost to me when I was like eight. It is a really well-done presentation of a classic piece of American literature; I’d like to recommend it to Pagans for its depiction of a time-not-so-long ago, when Americans lived in far greater proximity to Nature than we do now- and for an interesting scene in which Jim cures Huck of snake-bite by daubing the Healing Hex of an Upward-Facing Pentagram on his chest.

A major source of Twain’s book is (of course) slavery- a point scored in literally the first moment, as the film opens on a long tracking-shot of slaves exiting their cabins for one more day’s toiling in the fields for the white folks. The movie is actually brilliant in its use of extended camera-sweeps, as the first sequence (over which Roberta Flack’s “Freedom” soars, a song that always leaves me misty-eyed when she’s done) introduces both Huck and Jim, as well as the basics of 1800s rural life; it then flows into a jaunty theme “Hey Huckleberry- Where You Be?” which ends with Huck and Jim joining each other onscreen for the first time.

The cast is all very impressive- Paul Winfield lends a dignity of classic dimensions to Jim, while comic pros Harvey Korman and David Wayne zestfully steal their scenes as two vaudevillian grifters with royal pretensions. It is the shoulders of the young Mr. Jeff East that carry this movie, however, and he does a very fine job as Huck (he looks like he’s maybe fourteen to me). He is always very believable; he’s never uncomfortable in front of the camera; and he has a nice quality of slightly puzzled watchfulness, that suits Huck well.

Americans in the 1800s- while not Pagan- lived in close-quarters with Nature to an extent with which we have lost connection. This movie does a very fine job of depicting American life in the nineteenth century (kudos to their location scouts), and it is striking how much more “in Nature” they were then, as a rule.

Huckleberry Finn is ultimately about a boy who rejects “civilization” altogether, and who is At One with the natural world; the forest is Huck’s element. Moreover, the great theme of the book- the Mississippi as a metaphor for the Great Journey of Life- is easily appreciated by modern Pagans.

Thinking about it, as an example of the timelessness of a work- Huck Finn would work just as well, interpreted in the Middle Ages (Jim fleeing serf-dom, perhaps) or even in Ancient Egypt (where orphan Huck Hop-Tet shaves his head and wears kohl around his eyes, and Jim is a Hebrew fleeing Egyptian slavery for the Promised Land, and they escape down the Nile). Its basic themes- the urge of the Human Spirit towards dignity and freedom; the disillusionment that contact with fellow humanity can instill; offset by the purity of Nature and contentment in the Natural World- Huck Finn’s themes are universal, and of a sort so as to be simpatico with the Nature-Worshipping spirit of Neo-Paganism.

One scene really caught my attention, though (I have no idea if this scene is in Twain’s book or not; I have actually managed never to read Huckleberry Finn). Anyway (at least in this movie)- after Jim has run away from slavery, he and Huck meet up again in the following way: Huck has been bitten by a poisonous snake and collapses into unconsciousness.

When he comes to, he discovers Jim nursing him; Jim explains that he drew out the venom, and has been hoping that Huck will “come around.” Huck looks down- and sees a Pentagram painted in mud on his chest (pointing upwards). “What’s this?” goes Huck.

“Well, that- that’s a Hex,” Jim explains. “Now I ain’t superstitious or nothin’- but you don’t take chances with a friend’s life.”

Huck goes, “You saved my life, Jim! Thanks!”

And Jim goes, “You’d best thank that Hex.”

Interesting, isn’t it, as an example of folk-healing, offset by a bit of Hoo-Doo Charm.

  2 Responses to “Reader’s Digest’s Huckleberry Finn”

  1. That’s in the book. Hoodoo was part of the area life for black and white people alike (the latter of whom being the poorer ones who didn’t get it “educated” out of them). And Twain knew this well.

  2. Ah! Fascinating- thank you.

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