Welcome to the final installment of David Hunter Strother’s The Mountains, in which the Old South’s ideas about medieval chivalry are on full display — and even mocked a little bit.
The tenth part takes place beneath the shadow of Hampshire County’s Ice Mountain, so named because you can find ice there year-round. It’s not called “nature’s refrigerator” for nothing.
I’ve never hiked Ice Mountain, but I’m planning to as part of my research into our friend Porte Crayon. I’m just waiting for the heat and humidity of summer to set in — should make any ice that’s found that much more striking.
Let me know if you want to come along. But if you want to go on your own, be sure to contact The Nature Conservancy. The group manages Ice Mountain as a preserve. As I understand it, it’s only open to guided tours, the better to protect its’ natural treasures.
Anyway, the tenth part of The Mountains comes to a rousing conclusion at a jousting tournament — jousting, in this case, meaning a sporting competition in which “knights” aboard galloping destriers attempt to spear rings with their lances instead of each other.
Such tournaments are still a thing. Jousting is the official state sport of Maryland and Virginia hosts what is claimed to be the oldest continuously held sporting event in North America, a jousting tournament at Natural Chimneys in the Shenandoah Valley’s Augusta County. It’s held annually in August, so I guess I know what I’m doing during the dog days. After all, Porte included an illustration of himself sketching the Natural Chimneys in his Virginia Illustrated series of articles for Harpers New Monthly Magazine. Might as well go take a look, right?
A potential road trip retracing Porte’s travels through the Shenandoah Valley is also something for me to do later this summer.
Let’s get back on point, back to The Mountains.
During the course of his story, Strother pokes fun at the reverence Virginians held for an old acquaintance, Turner Ashby — an accomplished and well known tournament rider who was Stonewall Jackson’s cavalry commander during the Civil War.
Ashby was known as “The Black Knight of the Confederacy” and indeed a mysterious “Black Knight” turns up in the tenth part of The Mountains. But as Strother’s biographer Cecil D. Eby, Jr. points out, Ashby also often rode at jousting tournaments “disguised as Hiawatha,” the legendary Native American leader who co-founded the Iroquois Confederacy.
Strother chose to dress Dick Rattlebrain, one of his fictional traveling companions, as Hiawatha in what Eby says was a “satirical” move that “would be plain enough for Virginia readers of that time.” Rattlebrain is described by Eby as “a Virginia man with more nerve than sense.”
Rattlebrain (jousting as Hiawatha) at first meets with some success during the tournament, but then takes a comic fall from his horse, something that never would have happened to a rider like Ashby.
Ashby was long dead by the time The Mountains appeared in print in the 1870s. He was killed battling Union forces near Harrisonburg, Virginia in June 1862. He was 33.
While researching this week’s newsletter, I discovered that Ashby is buried in downtown Winchester, Virginia — together with his younger brother Richard who was killed in a skirmish a year earlier. Their final resting place is at the Stonewall Confederate Cemetery, part of the Mount Hebron Cemetery. The two are among 2,575 Confederate soldiers buried there.
Winchester is only about a half-hour from my home in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, so I drove over there this week and snapped a picture of the Ashby Brothers’ monument.
It was a sunny day, but still chilly — typical weather as spring approaches. The jet black crows roosting in a tall tree, its limbs still bare and looking scraggly against the pristine clouds, seemed appropriate for a cemetery.
I mean, where else would they gather to ominously caw at the world?
In having Rattlebrain take a fall, biographer Cecil Eby says Strother was implying his opinion of Ashby, a man Eby called “the grand chevalier of the Confederacy.” Eby writes that Strother had “no patience with the mythmakers.” And that “the tournament scene in the final installment of The Mountains is by no means an unqualified commitment to the forms of Southern chivalry.”
I’m no literary critic. I wasn’t even an English major, a fact that unfortunately becomes obvious at times. But it seems to me that while Strother flipped Ashby worship on its head, his inclusion of a “Black Knight” in his story is the other side of the coin.
Strother’s “Black Knight” rides brilliantly, wins the tournament and is revealed to be none other than Lawrence Laureate, the main character of the story.
The Mountains comes to an end with Laureate beating the man of action at his own game, his rival in love Major Martial — and thereby winning the competition between them for the hand of the lovely Rhoda Dendron, the woman named for what would become West Virginia’s state flower.
Strother’s Laureate was a bookish fellow, a poet and a dreamer who rises to the occasion. Seems fitting that the series comes to an end with this illustration of a book that appears to have clipped the wings of Cupid, the Roman god of love.
The series closes with an illustration that includes the Latin motto “LABOR OMNIA VINCUT,” a phrase meaning “Work conquers all.”
In the end, that’s exactly what Laureate did to win the day.
Originally published at https://gilessnyder.substack.com on March 5, 2022.