Noble Savage

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NCWyeth the Indian in His Solitude.jpg

They have things like the Atom Bomb
So I think I'll stay where I am

Civilization! I'll stay right here!
Danny Kaye and The Andrews Sisters, "Civilization".

A character who is, due to their race or ethnicity, a member of a barbaric or savage tribe (or a group simply perceived as such by others), who is nevertheless portrayed as nobler or of higher moral fibre than the norm. (Often regarded as living the Good Old Ways). The savages in question are quite often American Indians, so you could probably call them Mary Sioux. Rare nowadays, except as a Sci Fi alien - though it has made something of a comeback with the idea of Magical Native American people being more in tune with nature than the greedy white people.

Older Than Feudalism—Tacitus wrote of the noble Germanic and Caledonian tribes to contrast with his view of Roman society as decadent and corrupt, and even wrote eloquent Roman-style speeches about liberty and honour for "his versions" of Calgacus and Arminius. The trope has gone in and out of fashion over time, usually contrasting a decadent distrustful "city life" that a thinker feels has tarnished the essentially good nature of humanity. In the USA, Noble Savage came into style in the mid-1800s, about the time a lot of Western states/territories got their names. This left many geographical features with names of Indian (or at least Indian-sounding) extraction.

Frequently overlaps with the Proud Warrior Race Guy. Easily leads to Unfortunate Implications, a major one being that any problems a Noble Savage faces is a problem of not living up to an idealized character rather than the simple social implications of the world they live in.

Arcadia brings in the same contrast, with a pastoral (or agricultural) society. The Noble Savage is usually of a different race than the city folks, where the Arcadians are of the same—by whatever definition of "race" is current for them.

Compare with Mary Sue, Mary Suetopia, Magic Negro. Contrast with the Corrupt Hick, Mighty Whitey (although the modern form of Mighty Whitey often co-exists with this trope) and Low Culture, High Tech. Occasionally refers to being "Of the People".

See also: Closer to Earth, Barbarian Hero, and Nature Hero. Overlaps with Nubile Savage (the character's natural ways living by wits and strength have developed his/her body in a way that a softened city dweller never can).

Examples of Noble Savage include:

Advertising[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Iron Eyes Cody, the famous Crying Indian in the "People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It" public service announcements of the early '70's. Ironically, he wasn't actually Cherokee—he was Sicilian.
    • And from New Jersey, to boot.

Film[edit | hide]

  • First straight but then cruelly and tragically subverted in The Thin Red Line. The first Melanesian village welcomes the AWOL private Witt with open arms, and there he realizes that the villagers know the true meaning of "love thy neighbour". However, when he's forced back into the army, he visits another village, which unlike the first village had been traumatized by the war and the villagers avoid him with disdain while arguing with each other for petty reasons, not caring about the sick and older villagers. Realizing that the closest thing to a paradise on Earth has been corrupted by the Hell of wars, Witt leaves.
  • Avatar. The Na'vi are arguably Noble Savages Recycled in Space. Specifically, there's been some debate as to whether their relatively simple lifestyle is portrayed as better for them or better, period. While the Na'vi have an enforced harmony with nature, it's shown that mankind needs to use science if it wants to improve Earth.
  • The first film adaptation of Doctor Dolittle featured a tribe of African extraction that lived on a floating island...somewhere (the island floats, see). They look the part, to be sure, until they break out the silver teapots and fine china and pleasant small talk.
  • Just about every Lakota in Dances with Wolves.
  • A variant appears in Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai; the general theme is in place in regards to the Japanese, but the film presents them as sophisticated and civilised, rather than "savage".
    • Colonel Bagley explicitly refers to the samurai as "savages with bows and arrows". In a bit of an inversion, the Japanese characters also consider the Americans savage brutes.
    • It's romanticized to an extreme in the film, but there's a degree of Truth In Television to the portrayal. The samurai were often poets, philosophers, and artists away from the battlefield, and placed a high value on demonstrating culture and nobility as well as unfailing courtesy even toward their enemies.
  • Pretty much every main character in Jeremiah Johnson.
  • The Aboriginal boy in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout.
  • Xi from The Gods Must Be Crazy.
  • Mani from Brotherhood of the Wolf
  • Totally subverted in The Last of the Mohicans (1992) with Magua. Played horribly straight in every other adaptation.
  • Richard and Emmeline of The Blue Lagoon, and Richard (son of the couple from the first movie) and Lilli of the sequel.
    • Although the original inhabitants of the island practice human sacrifice.
    • In the books, a savage state is portrayed as better in many ways, and the author shows the locals from neighboring islands as human, not better or worse.
  • Disney's Pocahontas. Historically Chief Powhatan was very much like the Native American version of Napoleon before the English arrived.
    • He is introduced as returning from a triumphant conquest, which ends up seeming out of character.
    • Heck, you can still hear about "the spirit of Pocahontas" as you pass through the remains of the Indian village at Disneyland.
    • For example, wouldn't an indian shoot a bear if he felt threatened? Or just hunt it for sport? (Yes, yes they would)
  • Sent up in Carry On Cowboy where Chief Big Heap is not only cleverer than most of the settlers (he clears out a saloon by yelling about a gold strike, and everyone charges out despite not knowing where they're going) but speaks with an posh British accent.
  • The Marx Brothers film Go West, being a send-up of Westerns, features an inevitable Native American village complete with a medicine man, but more or less avoids this trope. When Groucho tries to impress a comely girl with a necklace, she tells him she wants a Cadillac sedan instead. Meanwhile the Chief and Harpo end up performing a musical number.
  • Averted in Maverick by Joseph, who, although he's one of the more decent characters in the film, is still a talented con artist who's just playing up the Noble Savage idea to bilk money out of a wealthy Russian hunter.
  • The Togrutas from the Star Wars series, some of them even become Jedis.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • The Osu in David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series
  • Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper.
  • Conan the Barbarian, who might be a thief and occasionally a murderer, but who was at least honest about it. However, compared to what some of the civilized people around him did, he could come off as a saint.
    • Need a quote? Here it is:

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.

  • Discworld:
    • Cohen (yes, inspired by Conan, but rather more elderly) and most of the barbarians we meet in Discworld tend to be this. The approved method of 'assassination' used by barbarians is to gather all their enemies together for a feast, and then slaughter them while they're drunk, and if anyone survives there's no hard feelings (Cohen actually went bounty hunting for one of fellow horde members once). They consider "civilized" behaviors such as poisoning, mutilation and politics to be highly dishonorable.
    • Referenced in The Last Continent, in which the Dean thinks a book written in Ye Olde Butcherede Moreporkiane calls the Ecksian Aborigines "knobbly savages". There's then a discussion as to what "noble" actually means, concluding that behaving like nobility means "not paying your tailor", at which Ridcully takes another look at the illustration and comments "I shouldn't think that chap owes his tailor much."
  • The Illuminatus! Trilogy is highly cynical about almost every human organization in existence... except American Indian tribes.
  • The Dragonlance novels (and corresponding Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting) are in love with this trope. They give us, to name a few, plains barbarians (represented by Riverwind and Goldmoon in the original trilogy), mountain barbarians, ice barbarians, and Kagonesti (Noble Savage elves), all of whom are extremely noble and Closer to Earth than the "civilized" races. Even the sea barbarians, who have mostly degenerated into a culture of piracy, are portrayed as noble Lovable Rogues.
    • While this is largely true, the very first barbarians we meet in the series (Riverwind and Goldmoon themselves) are exiles from their tribe because they questioned their tribe's taboos, and Riverwind was only not stoned to death because Goldmoon intervened. Not entirely a rose tinted view then, though arguably the barbarians were eventually Flanderized into this trope.
  • Friday in Robinson Crusoe.
  • Queequeg in Moby Dick, although he's also somewhat sinister in his exoticness.
  • In Lee Lightner's Warhammer 40,000 Space Wolf novel Sons of Fenris, after Ragnor expresses a blunt opinion, Torin says one day he will teach him not to act like a barbarian. Ragnor retorts that you can trust a barbarian.
  • John the savage in Brave New World. He gets shunned by the others in his village for being the son of an outsider, and takes refuge from his loneliness by reading an aging collection of the works of Shakespeare, which he quotes throughout the book. In the end, instead of indulging in a life of stimulation and ecstasy he opts for the life of a hermit, living out his days in an old abandoned lighthouse. And then he (apparently) kills himself.
  • Alessandro in the novel Ramona. He is a young California Indian who is more noble, more faithful, and more honest than pretty much any white person around him. Not surprisingly, he winds up being Too Good for This Sinful Earth.
  • Dune: subverts this. The Fremen are a nasty lot. They leave their enemies wishing they were dead. They just suck them dry of their water. And by the time of the second book, they've become the shock troops of Paul's new empire and to have carried out the worst slaughter in the history of The Empire's existence.
  • Nation: To an extent, Mau, as contrasted to the "trousermen". But the book makes it clear that being a noble savage is a dirty job.
  • S. M. Stirling's Island in The Sea of Time plays this fairly straight with the Firnan Boholugi, subverts it with their enemies the Sun People and brutally, brutally subverts it with the Olmec (much to the shock of some of the more naive characters).
    • Also by S. M. Stirling, the Emberverse features plenty of Native American Characters, but most Native Americans appear just to be trying to survive in a post apocalyptic world.
  • The Drúedain in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings are depicted as a Noble Savage race.
    • Their relationship with the other peoples is depicted as difficult at best, though. The Rohirrim used to hunt them like animals, and they responded by shooting anybody entering to their woods with poisoned arrows. Only a common enemy managed to get them to cooperate. The Dunlanders in contrast were an example of a very un-noble savages sponsored by Saruman.
  • A Swiftly Tilting Planet: The People of the Wind in L'Engle's novel; they are close to nature and pacifistic. They are contrasted with greedy and corrupt whites.
  • Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus: Toyed with, then averted hard in the Orson Scott Card novel. One of the characters monitoring the past watches in dispair as European explorers rape, murder, and plunder their way through a tribe of "gentle" natives in the Caribbean, and resolves to intervene. It is then discovered that Columbus' voyage to America was the result of an earlier intervention from a different future people, because without European influence, the Americas would have been subjected to an even greater atrocity, the complete subjegation by a local culture fanatically dedicated to human sacrifice. There is even an in-universe aversion: a man of pure Native American blood has to work very hard to convince the more European characters that his ancestors, left to themselves, really would have been that bad.
    • There's also the issue of slavery. The watcher mentioned above who despares is of African descent and wishes above all else to find a way to eliminate slavery from history. Then along comes a Turkish meteorologist claiming that slavery was a good thing, considering that it replaced human sacrifice. According to him, it was Noah himself to advocated slavery, along with a nomadic lifestyle, after his homeland of Atlantis (It Makes Sense in Context) was destroyed by a flood at the end of the last Ice Age.
  • In the Hoka series, the eponymous LARPing teddy bear people used to share a planet with a group of sapient carnivorous Lizard Folk, who the Hokas managed to overcome by setting up their civilization to resemble the Wild West, right down to referring to the Lizard Folk as "injuns". Once they realized they were beaten martially, the "injuns" began intentionally invoking this trope with gusto, writing bestsellers about the decline of their civilization and noble culture, and snagged the planet's best oil lands as reservations. They promptly used all the funding to bribe their way offworld, at which point they dropped the noble pretenses and were last seen on a casino planet, partying.
  • Poul Anderson often has savages that have an interesting or attractive culture in many ways. He seldom has noble savages per se; they tend to be brutal and ferocious even when they are honorable. In other words they are about what you would expect.
    • The Ythrians in Technic History are honorable and poetic. They also can be cruel. They are not as militaristic as humans but the only reason for that is that that would require government. Finally by the time of most of the stories they are no longer really savages but maintain a high-tech culture.
    • The Vikings in Anderson's Viking stories behave like, well, Vikings. In other words they are brave and loyal to each other but vicious and vengeance obsessed. They are attractive and beautifully described, but hardly noble savages.
  • Alan Breck Stewart from Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped (and from real life) is a downplayed version. He is in contact with civilization but maintains the Scottish Highland culture of vendettas and clan loyalties. He is according to the book innocent of the assassination that is central to the plot, but one gets the impression that he was perfectly capable of it and the chief evidence of his innocence is that he swore it to a comrade and one could not quite picture him foresworn.

Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • The Lone Ranger: Classic example: Tonto, faithful sidekick of the Lone Ranger.
  • Two Rivers in The Forest Rangers.
  • The Stargate franchise is absolutely huge on the Noble Savage Recycled in Space, almost too many examples to count. The Stargate galaxy is chocked full of neo-primitive human tribes, many of which — though not all — live in some way harmoniously with nature, and some of whom have experience with or even utilize technology without losing their "natural" wisdom.
    • Stargate SG-1 subverts the trope with the Nox; they are actually a technologically advanced culture pretending to be Noble Savages.
  • Davy Crockett: This is how Indians were portrayed in Disney's mini-series.
  • HBO's Rome series portrayed Gallic (and therefore, savage to the Romans) leader, Vercingetorix, as some sort of noble victim of the decadent and scheming Romans.
  • Star Trek has a long history of using the Noble Savage, although typically in a cautionary role that makes a statement about people with power abusing those who are less fortunate or advanced than themselves.

Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • In Deadlands: Hell on Earth, one of the few groups to weather Judgement Day were the Sioux Nations assembled in the Dakotas. They had sensed mankind's technology would be its undoing, and so had sworn it off. No one thought saturation-bombing the Indian lands was a worthwhile use of nukes. It doesn't change the fact that "Old Wayers" have a bad rep in the setting, though: general sentiment is they sit around gloating about how they were right.
  • Warhammer 40,000: A non-playable faction of the Eldar called the Exodites has this as their hat: after The Fall of the Eldar, rather than taking the path of the Monk or the Hedonist, they chose to abandon all but the most essential of advanced technologies. It's their hope that they can be the noblest of Noble Savages, thus escaping the ravages of Slaneesh.
  • Initially played straight in the Shadowrun products, then subverted with the addition of Native nations that abuse the land as terribly as any Mega Corp, and the revelation that their "noble" use of blood magic to re-take their land helped draw the Horrors to Earth centuries ahead of schedule. Also appears in-universe, both in NAN propaganda and in how some metahuman neo-tribal groups emulate pop-culture Native American motifs.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Warcraft:
    • The Tauren fit the Noble Savage trope well.
    • Furbolgs would qualify, especially the Timbermaw (one of the few tribes which isn't being driven mad by demonic influence).
    • The Tuskarr, humanoid walruses based on Inuit and Pacific Islander cultures; and to a lesser extent, the Oracle tribe of Gorlocs (who are more a group of innocent Wide Eyed Idealists, except for one Deadpan Snarker). Although one of their quests has you steal wolven babies away from the tribe, and most likely incidentally killing their mothers. Ostensibly they're going to raised by the Tuskarr so that the Wolvar tribe doesn't get totally wiped out in the fighting, but there is no Wolvar orphanage to be seen only fat walrus men.
    • For that matter, the Orcs qualify too, as long as they are not under demonic sway. This is exactly why the Orcs and Tauren got along so well from the beginning of the Orc campaign in Warcraft III.
    • The Trolls are straight-up savages, though. The tribe that joined the horde being the one exception. They're still savages, just not as evil as the other ones. While the Tauren are based on native Americans, and the Tuskarr are based on the Inuit, the Trolls are based on native African tribes. (Don't let the Jamaican accent fool you.) The tribal music, the masks, the shamanism, and the predilection for cannibalism all come from "deepest darkest Africa" savage stereotypes.
  • The Serenwilde Commune of Lusternia. It was Seren druids who helped heal the ruined earth after the Vernal Wars, Seren wiccans who travelled to the Ethereal Realm to heal the fae... and years later, when Celest was on the brink of releasing The Taint, it was Serenwilde (and the other communes, who did not survive the resultant cataclysm) who advised against it. In the modern era they're more flawed, nuanced and interesting, but in the histories they were practically a Mary Suetopia.
  • At first glance, the Ashland Tribes from The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind seem to be this. They were cast away into the barren Ashlands by the Dunmer civilization, proudly keep the oldest Dunmer traditions alive—including their belief in the return of The Nerevarine—and are totally right about that. However, Ashlanders are actually a notable aversion to this trope. While most of them live by strict rules of honour and courtesy—at least amongst themselves—a good number really are violent raiders who attack innocent travellers without provocation. They're ignorant, violently racist and xenophobic (even by normal Dunmer standards) and openly rude and contemptuous towards anyone who isn't an Ashlander. And while some of their religious doctrines turn out to be correct, they still manage to conveniently 'lose' the parts they're not happy with (like the fact that the Nerevarine will be an outlander). Individually some of them are noble, but overall they're no better or worse than anyone else in Morrowind.

Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • The Clan of the Hawk fits this one to a T. They attempted to invoke this with William Ghostraven, but before the plague, he was a casino worker.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Futurama: Subverted with the native Martians — they talk a good game about loving nature and respecting their native lands and all, but, once they discover that the "bead" their ancestors traded away their land for is actually a giant diamond, they have no problem at all leaving their "sacred lands" behind.

Martian chief: We'll buy new land, and pretend it's sacred. With cash like this, who's going to argue? No one, that's who.

  • There was actually a character named Noble/Savage in the Beast Machines Transformers series.
  • Many of the less advanced tribes from Avatar: The Last Airbender fall under this trope. The Water Tribes (the home of the hero's best friends) and the Sun Warriors come to mind.
    • The Foggy Swamp Water Tribe are a bit of an aversion, as they're played for humor as the embarrassing redneck cousins, but the 'live in harmony with nature' thing comes up here, albeit from a shaman who specializes in controlling plants by bending the contents of their vascular systems.
  • In "The Burns and the Bees", an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa assumes Muck Mu is a Noble Savage, but he actually enjoys killing whales for fun.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • A major view held by Marshall Sahlins, who theorized the hunter-gatherer society, whom earlier anthropologists postulated were the lowest order of social evolution, were in fact the original affluent society. This was supported by the fact that former modern hunter-gatherer societies like the !kun of Southern Africa showed evidence of being far better off than any other more industrialized and thus "civilized" societies. Their varied diet, lack of rigid status and inequality, opportunity to move away from disease, little materialistic goods, leisure time, and knack for sharing with those beyond their immediate family formed the basis of Marshall's argument that hunter-gatherer societies are able to acquire a "Zen" road to affluence that a civilized society cannot provide.
  • The assumption of the Noble Savage is based off of generalizations on the second impression of Native Americans with less racism between the two cultures. The majority of Native American Tribes had vastly different values that from modern standards are quite noble. Although stereotypical, many tribes did say that people live within nature rather than lording over it, made war for less economically focused reasons, and were much more matriarchal in general. These ideals may be a generalization, but after the racism and violence of the Take Over of the New World the concept of Noble Savage seems quite true.
    • Like all other people in the world, modern Noble Savages are as rare/common as Noble people in every ethnicity. Due to forced and voluntary assimilation, values have changed. So people with those values seen as noble may not be as frequent as they used to be.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau all but stated that man was better off when we were little more than animals. He also said that in an unarmed fight a "savage" would easily defeat a "civilized man".
  • Certain schools of Taoism believe that true balance of yin and yang was once achieved when man lived in a pre-societal stage. Where his life is in harmony with the world around him. This was in protest against China's Warring States period, where kingdoms with their huge armies cause so much chaos and destruction all across China during the 4th and 3rd Centuries BCE.
    • This was more a call to being hermits actually.
  • People have been known to demand this trope from things like literary depictions of Aztecs, to the extent that they complain terms like 'provincial' and 'months' ought to be avoided in favor of 'country' and 'moons', because a fifteenth-century Mexica living in classical Tenochtitlan can't talk sophisticated, obviously. He's still an Injun, after all. T'weren't a proper empire.
    • Note that this is in despite of the fact that using 'moons' to render the Nahuatl term for 'month' would be ridiculous, since the periods were about twenty days long, subdivisions of the solar calendar with no relation to the moon at all.