“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 literary fashion. They say it is idealized, simplistic, tired, and, above all, untrue. The good guys were never that good. Frontiersmen and settlers displaced noble people already occupying the land. Coarse immigrants came in droves to desecrate a pristine wilderness. Eulogized heroics usually involved vigilantism, which offends those who honor the rule of law.
The same mythology escapes criticism in fantasy and science fiction, so why is it disparaged in Westerns? They’re all made-up stories, but morality plays in these other genres find acceptance. The battle between good and evil, selfless sacrifice, idealized heroics, and venturing away from home are popular themes in extremely popular genres. Few doubt that the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings, or the work of Arthur C. Clarke and H. G. 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 we answer 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 major elements, with many tributaries. The first is the romance of a new beginning. The second is the battle of good versus evil. The last element is the lone warrior who sets things right.
The West, outer space, the future, or a make-believe land represents a new beginning in a fresh place away from home-the shrugging off of disappointments and a chance to start all over again. The romance and adventure of frontiers draws people desperate to escape the travail of their current existence. We’ve 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’re poor, your family makes you miserable, you’ve committed an act that offends society, or wanderlust has gripped you, then the adventure and limitless opportunity of a frontier beckons like a siren’s call. Emigrating to a frontier means you get a do-over in a land with no rules, no fences, no referees.
Real life is a gray scale, somewhat skewed to the darker side of the spectrum. A new life wouldn’t entice us if we had to bring our old baggage, so we see our new world as black and white. There’s strength in righteousness, perseverance and risk are rewarded, good people do right, and bad people get their just deserts. This is a world of hope. Hope for riches, hope for justice, hope for a different path in life. Good fights evil and good always triumphs. This is a theme that has been part of storytelling in every society since the first cave drawings.
We know we’re weak, so good needs help. A raw frontier is dangerous. The elements and carnivorous animals threaten at every turn. People fight ruthlessly to claim a piece of the terrain for themselves. No civilization means no restraint on bad people doing bad things. Help comes in the form of an idealized hero, possibly an antihero who overcomes his moral deficiencies to help the innocent. This person is usually visualized as a lone warrior, like the one eulogized by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. The hero is capable of violent action, but he is basically good. The gunman in Westerns carries a simple solution on his hip. Frodo has the ring and Potter his wand. In these mythical realms, the hero risks his life to save the day and demands nothing in return.
Western mythology beguiles us because it promises a world different from our own. Hard work gets 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 land and the land 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 easy chair.
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 frontier was a myth. No matter how attractive the theme, this gives a huge advantage to fantasy and sci-fi, which aren’t bound by reality. In the real Old West, bad guys often won. More accurately, the strong and willful won, many times using bullying tactics. In the gritty real world, Native Americans were vanquished by hordes of pioneers. Miners raked the surface of beautiful countryside and then ran off 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?
Authors, however, 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 storylines and nuance the stereotypical plots. Their books are populated 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 genuine experience of pioneers and Native Americans.