The Iliad of Lobo and Seton

Illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Matthew Chase-Daniel
Illustration from Lobo graphic novel by Matthew Chase-Daniel

Seton wrote Lobo story in slightly fictionalized form. At its conclusion we know the fate of Lobo and Blanca, but not that of Seton. His attitudes about hunting and trapping unfolded through lectures and additional books in the early 20th century.

The meaning of the story became clear only after a decade passed from its original 1894 publication. He became increasingly adamant about the need to protect wild nature. In 1901 he wrote,

“I have been bitterly denounced, first, for killing Lobo; second, and chiefly, for telling of it, to the distress of many tender hearts. To this I reply: In what frame of mind are my hearers left with regard to the animal? Are their sympathies quickened toward the man who killed him, or toward the noble creature who, superior to every trial, died as he had lived, dignified, fearless, and steadfast?”

The story ended without our knowing that on the day of Lobo’s death Seton unexpectedly decided to leave New Mexico. Having touched Lobo and looked into his eyes, the wolf hunter could not bring himself to hunt another wolf. Ever. Nor could he remain in the place where Lobo’s death occurred.

I explained Seton’s personal transformation from wildlife killer to wildlife protector in Ernest Thompson Seton, The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist. The three-months covered in the Lobo story may be the most important period of Seton’s life. It was part of a longer nature journey beginning on the Canadian frontier and ending decades later in Santa Fe. The man who hunted Lobo and Blanca later came to bitterly denounce the wanton and senseless destructions of our wild relatives.

Ancient History

The importance of this relatively short period to the longer struggle has a literary antecedent, another, much earlier tragedy.

The Iliad of Homer describes just two weeks of the ten-year Achaean siege of Ilium.  Or two weeks of twenty years if one includes the subsequent travels of Odysseus. The Achaeans were Hellenistic peoples of the heroic Mycenaean period when the gods of Olympus were believed to have taken an active role in the lives of men at the siege of Troy and elsewhere. (Subsequently, following the mysterious fall of Mycenae, the gods retreated, and these peoples became recognizable in history as Greeks.)

Two warriors, Achilles and Hector, representing their respective armies, are pitted against one another. They have (at the start at least) no special antipathy for one another. They have no reason to be at each other’s throats except that terrible circumstances have brought them together. Achilles is fated to win their deadly competition because of his special advantages. This increases the pathos of the humiliating and ultimately pointless death of Hector. There is no honor in the way Achilles kills Hector, although Achilles is otherwise an honorable man by the standards of his time.

Similarly, the great warrior wolf Lobo wants nothing of this war with the invincible Seton, who for his part, holds no antipathy for Lobo. Their conflict is for Seton just a job he has traveled to from a faraway land. Seton gives us a hint that his attitude towards Lobo and consciousness about animals in general is beginning to change. The rest of his story, like that of Odysseus, comes later.

By 1901 in Lives of the Hunted, Seton seems to recognize the shallowness of his victory. (See quote above.) In 1905, he tells of witnessing another wolf hunt, but one in which he refuses to participate. He wrote “Badlands Billy: The Wolf that Won,” in Animal Heroes. Billy survived his encounter with human enemies, much to Seton’s approval.

It is only by knowing this sequel that we can understand the meaning of Seton’s life. The death of Lobo changed first Seton and then the world. I am tempted to write that maybe, knowing the outcome of Seton’s journey, we can begin to forgive him for his murder of Lobo. Or maybe not. Seton did not ask our forgiveness for his heinous act against the wolf. But without Lobo, there would have been no Seton Legacy. Seton learned important lessons about himself and about wildlife from his three months in New Mexico. One could read the balance of his life as a kind of atonement.

In another 3000 years our civilization may be as mysterious to the people of that time as that of the Achaeans is to us. The story of Lobo and Blanca will have become mythical, its author a shadowy legend. They will marvel at our pointless cruelty and mourn for that earlier time when the howl of the wolf could be heard in the West and was its most beautiful sound.

{The graphic novel based on Lobo, The King of Currumpaw, will be released on August 12. Original art work illustrations from the novel will be featured on the walls of the Seton Gallery. For more information, contact the Academy for the Love of Learning.}

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *