Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Mythology of the Old West

For me, there are three major elements of good western. The first is the romance of a new beginning, the second is the battle of good versus evil, and the third is the lone warrior who sets things right.

Hopalong Cassidy
 as illustrated by Frank Earle Schoonover, 1905 

  • The old west represents a fresh beginning in a new place away from home - the shrugging off of disappointments and a chance to start all over again. Emigrating to a frontier means you get a do-over in a land with no rules, no referees, and no fences. 
  • The mythical old west is a black and white world. Good fights evil and good usually triumphs. In stories of the Old West, ordinary people are capable of extraordinary heroism. 
  • But raw frontiers are dangerous, so even courageous pioneers need help. No civilization means no restraints on bad people doing bad things. Help comes in the shape of an idealized hero, a paladin who risks his life to save the day and asks nothing in return.

These themes have been a part of storytelling in every society since the first cave drawings. You'll also find these elements dominate fantasy and science fiction. The frontier in these genres can be the future, outer space, or a make-believe land. The gunfighter has a simple solution on his hip, while Frodo has the ring and Harry Potter the magic wand.

You can read my article "Is the Mythology of the Old West Dead?" by following this link.

western storytelling
Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

1 comment:

  1. I have always liked Schoonover's illustration for BAR 20 above. Such a difference from William Boyd. Mulford actually created a somewhat different old west from the traditional one you describe. His cowboys are mostly overgrown boys who do very little but have themselves a roaring good time out where there are no constraints on their behavior. Hopalong in the illustration is participating in a days-long shootout with the cowboys of another ranch. If I remember right, there are numerous fatalities.