Among the jokes which clog my mind is the one about the young English woman who, after a shipwreck, had recently been rescued, from an island on which she and fifteen crewmen were marooned for several weeks. She is telling her story to a very strait-laced older woman, who can’t help exclaiming: “Oh, my dear! You and all those men! Tell me, confidentially, were you chaste?” To which comes the reply: “Chased? – You bet I was! – all over the bloody island.”
This invariably makes me think of the much shorter “Tale of the Limping Nun: Hopalong Chastity.” For younger readers, I suppose I have to explain that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, there was a very popular hero on TV westerns named Hopalong Cassidy. In case you are wondering where the name Hopalong came from – the character was created as far back as 1904 by the author, Clarence E. Mulford. Cassidy, as originally depicted, was rude and rough-talking, and Mulford gave him, among other attributes, a wooden leg, which caused him to “hop along.” Subsequently the character was totally cleaned up, and, in the process, lost the wooden leg (but not the name).
Getting back to the chase, the literature of many cultures gives prominence to the theme of a pursuit or quest. There is, of course, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), a novel whose very name identifies the object of the hunt, a murderous white whale to which (speaking of lost legs) Captain Ahab had lost one of his own. In a much earlier era, we had the Knights of the Round Table, and their quest for the Holy Grail. More recently, there has been Dorothy’s search for the Wizard of Oz, and Peter Benchley’s maritime horror, Jaws. In fact, in his book, The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker has listed “The Quest” as number 3.
Throughout human history and pre-history, the quest for edible prey has been an epic struggle for survival.
But the Chase, or the Hunt, is much more than a theme for books or movies. In fact, throughout human history and pre-history, the quest for edible prey has been an epic struggle for survival. And vestiges of it endure to this day – not only in what remains of wilderness among still-gun-loving Americans and other relatively untamed peoples, but even in such supposedly civilized societies as England, where a long colorful tradition of organized fox-hunting, with horses and hounds, lasted until 2005, when the whole “sport” was, after many years of controversy, finally banned by an Act of Parliament.
The foxes were of course not “edible,” except by the hounds, who, when they caught one, tore it to pieces. But many still argue that something valuable was lost when the ban took effect. There was indeed a thrilling element to the early-morning assembly of crimson-coated riders, and howling hounds, all responding to the call of a hunting-horn – followed then by the dash across open country. The song “D’you ken John Peel,” is probably one of our best reminders of that hunting spirit.
Another kind of reminder are certain place-names such as Chevy Chase, derived from Cheviot Chase, a parcel of hunting-land in the Cheviot Hills which straddle the border between England and Scotland – and made famous by a song called “The Ballad of Chevy Chase,” about a violent confrontation which supposedly took place there in the Fourteenth Century.
But great hunters have been legendary since ancient times. Orion was celebrated in Greek Mythology, and has his own celestial constellation. Diana, the huntress, was a goddess to the Romans, and the name of Nimrod, described in the Book of Genesis as “a mighty hunter,” has become a synonym for “hunter.”
There was also, of course, the pursuit into the Underworld by Orpheus, in quest of his departed wife, Euridice. Which brings us back to where we started, with men chasing women. But Al Capp, the creator of Li’l Abner, inverted that idea by concocting Sadie Hawkins Day, an annual event, in which unmarried women are allowed to pursue bachelors, and (at least in the comic strip) any man who was caught, was legally obliged to marry his captor.
In the world of hunting, of course, it is usually the wild animals which are chased by people. But, to conclude this catalog of pursuits, let my exit line be a quotation in which the roles are reversed. It appears in the Third Act of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and is not a line of dialog, but has become his most famous stage direction:
“Exit, pursued by a bear.”