BOOKS: A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature Through History

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1993:

A View to a Death in the Morning:
Hunting and Nature Through History, by
Matt Cartmill. Harvard University Press (79 Garden
St., Cambridge, MA 02138-1499), 1993. 331 pages,
hardcover. $29.95.
A traditional fox-hunting song, “D’ye ken John
Peel,” gave Matt Cartmill his title; it appears in a stanza in
which the hunters follow their dogs “from a find to a check,
from a check to a view, from a view to a death in the morn-
ing.” Despite the title, Cartmill spends little time on fox-
hunting, boar-hunting, bear-hunting, wolf-hunting, bad-
ger-hunting, coon-hunting, fishing, fowling, and falconry.
The theory, practice, myths, and effects on its practition-
ers of deer hunting are the focus of his chapters about hunt-
ing, from the ancient Greeks to Bambi . Those chapters
which concentrate on nature are more diffuse.

Cartmill begins by surveying the background of
the anthropological myth of man as killer ape, whose
humanity was essentially formed by his meat-eating. This
theory was first put forward in Charles Darwin’s time,
enjoyed considerable popularity through the middle years of
this century, and by the 1970s was being vigorously
debunked both by the scientific community, which took
issue with the evidence, and by pacifists and feminists,
who took issue with the theoretical underpinnings of the
idea. Nonetheless, as Cartmill shows, the myth remains
strong in contemporary American society, particularly
among hunters. Similar attitudes, though without the mod-
ern anthropological theorizing, have been common
throughout western European history. Cartmill feels that
this myth may encapsulate some significant insight of male
mankind into his own nature.
Cartmill seems to suggest that this insight is about
how sick it is to go out and kill animals or people on pur-
pose, for fun. However, he goes to considerable effort to
be even-handed, to the point where the reader may long for
a definite thesis statement. He begins with all the excite-
ment of a hunter closing in for the kill by relating the discov-
ery of the fossils which led to the killer ape theory. He then
considers hunting, treatment of animals more generally,
and scientific attitudes toward nature from the classical era
into modern times. Only then does he say anything about
modern hunters. The reviewer initially assumed Cartmill
took his objective stance in hopes that if he could get
hunters’ attention, he might convince some of them to put
down their guns. Later, however, some ambivalence
appeared in the authorial voice. There is a strange slippage
between such statements as, “Despite all the forces that have
promoted the growth of animalitarianism in the past three
centuries, most of us…still prize consistency less highly than
sausage,” and four pages later, “To most of us, ceremoni-
ously going into the woods once a year to kill deer with a
rifle sounds about as attractive as marching into the dairy
barn once a year to bash cows with a sledgehammer.” Who
are “we” in these assertions? And why does Cartmill contin-
ue to find the myth of Man the Hunter dreadfully fascinat-
ing, even after his own sad experience with hunters killing a
fawn on his property?
Cartmill considers a wide range of classical,
medieval, and Renaissance literature decrying hunting, and
shows particular interest in the metaphysical significance of
deer in poetry, as they represent either the unattainable lady
or the mutilated innocent. The relationship between hunting
and sexuality, particularly violent sexuality, haunts most of
the book; but for Cartmill and the hunters he quotes, deer
seem to be particularly sexy. He does not, for instance, dis-
cuss the sexual symbolism of rabbit hunting, though
“coney,” originally a term for a female rabbit, had much the
same secondary meaning in earlier times that “pussy” has
today. Given Cartmill’s interest in myth and the breadth of
his historical research, one may be surprised that he never
mentions the mythical/metaphorical Hunt of the Unicorn so
important to the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For this
hunt, the hunters use a maiden as bait; the unicorn lays his
head in her lap, and so seals his doom. From what Cartmill
says about stags finally turning back and surrendering to
their hunters when exhausted, it would appear that the uni-
corn hunt must have its roots in the equally aristocratic deer
hunts of the Middle Ages.
A View to a Death in the Morning is a richly infor-
mative book that ranges widely through history, literature,
anthropology, biology, film-making, and ecology. It is
worth reading for anyone interested in the history of hunting
in the western world. Yet within it may be a more tightly
focused and even more interesting book struggling to get
out: a book on deer hunting and its associated myths from
ancient times to the present.
A minor quibble is that the system used for foot-
notes can make finding references difficult, particularly for
older works which appear in modern editions or translations.
One quotation from Beowulf, for example, is cited only as
“Beowulf, 20.” The number must refer to a page in an
unspecified edition, since the passage in the poem is lines
1357-1357––and if Cartmill had given the line numbers, any
reader could find the passage in any edition. Cartmill’s edi-
tor ought to have been more alert, but scholarly footnote
trouble should not distract the general reader from a book
both learned and enjoyable.
––Nicole Clifton
[Nicole Clifton recently earned her Ph.D. in
medieval women’s literature from Cornell University, and is
now an associate professor of English at the Northern
Illinois University in DeKalb.]
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