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Is the Mythology of the Old West Dead?
“The fascination that the Old West has will never die.” – John Wayne
The mythology of the Old West has been denigrated by the people who set the literary fashion. They say it is idealized, simplistic, tired and above all untrue. The good guys were never so good. Frontiersmen and settlers displaced noble people who already occupied the land. Rough immigrants came in droves to desecrate a pristine wilderness. Praised heroism usually involved vigilantism, which offends those who revere the rule of law.
The same mythology escapes criticism in fantasy and science fiction, so why is it denigrated in Westerns? They are all made-up stories, but morality plays in these other genres find acceptance. The struggle between good and evil, selfless sacrifice, idealized heroics and venturing away from home are popular themes in extremely popular genres. Few people doubt that the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings or the works of Arthur C. Clarke and HG Wells are respectable literature. An argument could be made that similar themes are even reflected in nursery rhymes. Could the difference be that the old west actually happened?
Before answering this question, we should take another look at the mythology of the Old West. It’s about more than gun slinging paladins. There are three main elements with many tributaries. The first is the romance of a new beginning. The second is the battle of good versus evil. The final element is the lone warrior who sets things right.
The West, outer space, the future or an imagined land represents a new beginning somewhere fresh away from home – shrugging off disappointments and a chance to start over. The romance and adventure of the frontiers attract people desperate to escape their current existence. We have seen this in real life with the migrations to the New World and the Old West, but today many people satisfy this longing vicariously with fiction. If you are poor, your family makes you unhappy, you have committed an act that violates society, or wanderlust has seized you, then the adventure of a frontier and limitless possibilities beckon like a siren. Emigrating to a border means you get a do-over in a country with no rules, no fences, no judges.
Real life is a gray scale, slightly skewed to the darker side of the spectrum. A new life would not beckon us if we had to carry our old baggage, so we see our new world as black and white. There is strength in justice, perseverance and risk are rewarded, good people do the right thing and bad people get their just deserts. This is a world of hope. Hope for wealth, hope for justice, hope for another path in life. Good fights evil and good always wins. This is a theme that has been part of storytelling in all societies since the first cave drawings.
We know we are weak, so good need help. A raw border is dangerous. The elements and carnivores threaten at every turn. People fight ruthlessly to claim a piece of the terrain for themselves. No civilization means no restriction of bad people doing bad things. Help comes in the form of an idealized hero, possibly an anti-hero, who overcomes his moral failings to help the innocent. This person is usually visualized as a lone warrior, like the one celebrated by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. The hero is capable of violent action, but he is fundamentally good. The gunslinger in Westerns wears a simple solution on his hip. Frodo has the ring and Potter his wand. In these mythic realms, the hero risks his life to save the day and demands nothing in return.
Western mythology seduces us because it promises a world different from our own. Hard work is rewarded. We have freedom of movement with horses and trains. We get vicarious revenge against the unpleasant people in our lives. And riches. Wealth comes from the earth, and the earth is free. The whole package is wrapped in idealized virtues that make us feel safe and hopeful. And we can experience it all by reading in our favorite armchair.
Which brings us back to our question. Are these themes less acceptable in westerns because the old west actually existed?
History shows that the idealized border was a myth. However attractive the theme, this gives a huge advantage to fantasy and sci-fi, which is not bound by reality. In the real Old West, the bad guys often won. More precisely, the strong and conscious won many times by using bullying tactics. In the harsh real world, Native Americans were vanquished by hordes of pioneers. Miners raked the surface of beautiful landscapes and then ran away when there was no more easy money. Historical records make it easy for someone to say, “But it wasn’t like that.” Does this mean that Western mythology is inappropriate for fiction?
However, writers need to approach Westerns as historical fiction. Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy already do. They tell stories that incorporate elements of Western mythology, but they use gradation in their stories and nuance the stereotypical plots. Their books are filled with realistic characters and they get the facts right. Fantasy and science fiction can get away with an idealized, binary world, but Westerns must move through the nineteenth-century frontier with realism and respect for the true experience of pioneers and Native Americans.
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