'Lord Grizzly': Celebrating a Minnesota literary classic

Frederick Manfred, 1955
Frederick Manfred autographing "Lord Grizzly" in 1955.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Long before the movie "The Revenant" there was "Lord Grizzly."

In 1954 Minnesota writer Frederick Manfred published "Lord Grizzly," a novel based on the epic, true tale of frontier scout Hugh Glass.

"At first they thought this new movie 'The Revenant' was based on Dad's books," said Freya Manfred, Frederick's daughter and a poet in her own right. "And they soon realized it was based on the other book, 'The Revenant' book. So that was very sad for all of us."

The creation of "Lord Grizzly" is a tale in itself. Freya Manfred says her father, who died in 1994, loved classical myths, but felt America should have its myths too.

Tom Pope and Freya Manfred
Tom Pope and Freya Manfred at home. They hope to raise the profile of Frederick Manfred's novel "Lord Grizzly" as a much better telling of the Hugh Glass story.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"And one of them would be the story of this astonishing real person who was mauled by a grizzly bear, and crawled 200 miles across very dangerous territory, to safety and to get revenge," said Manfred.

"The American Odysseus," interjects her husband, Tom Pope.

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Fred Manfred took researching the book to extremes, said Pope, first reading some sixty books and other accounts of frontier life in the1820s. He then strapped a make-shift splint on his leg, which Glass must have done after the grizzly shattered his limb, and began crawling around his back yard in Bloomington to see what that was like. And then there was the challenge of food. Unarmed, Hugh Glass could only eat what he could grab with his hands, so Pope says Fred Manfred did that, too.

"He actually ate ants. He trapped little mice. He actually became Hugh Glass in his back yard," said Pope.

"He tasted grub worms," laughs Freya.

"And he advised grasshoppers over ants," Pope adds. "I think they taste better."

On one level "Lord Grizzly" is an adventure tale. In a Minnesota Public Radio recording from 1979 Fredrick Manfred read when Glass comes face to face with the grizzly and her two cubs.

Lord Grizzly is more than just an adventure: it's an examination of human character and emotion. Glass is left for dead by two comrades after the attack, an act Glass finds so despicable Pope says he refuses to give up till he has made them pay.

"The rage saves him at first," said Pope. "And then he has to give up the rage at the end. And that's the paradox."

"Lord Grizzly" is ultimately about finding the way from rage to forgiveness.

"Lord Grizzly" by Frederick Manfred
"Lord Grizzly" by Frederick Manfred
Courtesy of publisher

Pope wrote a screenplay of "Lord Grizzly" but Hollywood had turned away from westerns. The book has always had its fans, including Star Tribune feature writer Kim Ode. She first met Frederick Manfred when she reported for the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D. Manfred was living in Luverne, Minn., 30 miles to the east.

"Hugh Glass's struggle actually is still a very modern struggle," Ode said. "And I didn't appreciate that the first time I read the book, and, no, I was reading a story of a very modern emotion."

Ode, Manfred, Pope and a host of other friends will gather at the University Club in St. Paul Tuesday evening to read from Lord Grizzly. Ode just wants to remind people about a forgotten gem.

"Just to share with people again the power of a true story told truly," she said.

Another reading from "Lord Grizzly" is scheduled for 1 p.m. on June 12 at the Blue Mounds Interpretive Center in Luverne.

Correction (May 9, 2016): An earlier version of this piece had the incorrect date for the scheduled reading in Luverne.