Why Americans Love
When the masses support
something, it is called "popular." Popular movements are
trends. If something is popular for a long, long time, it becomes
"folksy." Folk music, folk dances, folk heroes. The attributes
of our Legendary Western Hero evolved out of folk heroes of ancient
times and based on Folk legends.
Remember these western
- The Lone Ranger wore a mask
and only Tonto knew his true identity.
- Red Rider with his side
kick, Little Beaver, was a Lone Ranger wannabee.
- Hopalong Cassidy: Did you
know that Louis L'Amour wrote several Hopalong Cassidy books under
the pseudonym of Tex Burns?
- Lash Larue had a lethal
bullwhip which he carried everywhere. He could disarm an outlaw who
was about to shoot him before the bullet could leave the barrel.
Legends are made of nearly impossible feats.
- The Cisco Kid and his
sidekick, Pancho, were among my favorite western heroes. I always
figured The Cisco Kid was based on the legend of Robin Hood. Their
circumstances were similar, I thought, except Cisco rebelled against
corrupt Mexican officials in the days before America won the Mexican
War. When I was little, I named my imaginary horse Diablo after the
gorgeous black stallion he rode.
- Zorro wore a mask like the
Lone Ranger, and like the Cisco Kid, he fought against the
corruption of high officials in California when it was still under
the rule of Mexico. Another take off on Robin Hood, I think. Cisco
and Zorro were Hispanic heroes, which is appropriate since half the
so-called West was Hispanic in the early days.
One can't underestimate the effect of the Hispanic culture on the
western frontier. On a side note, an editor once rejected one of my
books, because some of the secondary characters were Hispanic--she
thought they were in disfavor with readers. I recognized her
attitude as bigotry. Our earliest western citizens were Hispanic,
and one would have to twist history all around to change that. My
book has Hispanic characters and I'm proud to have them there.
- Gene Autry was good with his
pistols and he could sing, too!
- Like all legendary western heroes, Roy
Rogers and Dale Evans stood for what was right and worked
tirelessly to stomp out Evil. In addition, they sang some very nice
duets. As a child, I heard jokes about how Roy Rogers loved his
horse more than he did Dale. From that, I deduced that it was
important to have a horse if you wanted to be a real hero or
heroine. I enjoyed reading novels about Roy Rogers as well as seeing
him in the movies. Dale was one of the first strong female
protagonists I knew of. I recall yearning to BE Dale Evans and to
marry Roy Rogers.
- John Wayne starred
frequently on Western Theater when I was in grade school. At least
once in every episode, he would dive off a cliff into a river or
lake while astride the back of his trusty horse. John Wayne,
himself, became a legend, representing the classic western hero in
nearly every movie he played in.
- Clint Eastwood got his start
in westerns, playing the ramrod on a cattle drive in a TV show
called Rawhide. He had a long career playing western heroes. Often
he rode the Southwest and wore a serape which provided the essential
Hispanic flavor of his role.
For every TV and movie western, there
was a paperback series.
The western hero is not like other
heroes. The character is tied to a certain kind of story. You can't just
put a wide-brimmed hat on your character and call him a western hero.
How you plot your story is what makes him a legendary western hero. Not
all westernized characters have that legendary status. This
special plotting isn't something that is unique to the 1900s or the
western genre paperback book.
The Hero's Journey
is a traditional storytelling pattern that developed in various Western
cultures and lasted for hundreds of years. The plot of the story follows
an ancient pattern found in the world's myths, legends and folk tales.
These patterns may be familiar to anyone who has read fairy tales or
mythology: questing heroes, the heralds who call them to adventure, the
wise old man or women who gives them advice and magical gifts,
shapeshifters who alternately assist and interfere with the quest, dark
villains who are out to destroy the hero and those foolish sidekicks who
cause trouble but also bring comic relief. The Hero's Journey, as
a pattern, is tailor made for legendary western heroes.
Textbooks that deal with the Hero's
Journey include "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" by Joseph
Campbell and "The Writer's Journey," by Chris Vogler.
Campbell's work is theoretical and technical, yet fascinating. Vogler
has synthesized Campbell's theories and placed them into an easily
understood format easy to implement. You may find them good resources
for structuring your western novel.
Based on this structure, the
"journey" can be physical or emotional. In a traditional
western, it's often physical. In a western romance, it might be an
emotional journey, taking the protagonist from her normal life and
challenging her ideas, beliefs and current existence. A strong
independent heroine responds to such challenges, undergoing tests of her
moral fiber and emotional strength. Frequently she will have to examine
all that she has believed to be true. During a major confrontation, she
pulls victory from disaster. And it is here that she seeks to return to
normalcy. Many writers believe this is the end of the journey. But it
isn't. The protagonist has not finished learning the lessons of the
journey until she has released the old beliefs that had her stuck at the
beginning of the story. If she can't do this, she really hasn't learned
anything from her trials and tribulations. The final test often requires
she let go of something she has cherished or hoarded all this time. Only
when she has completed this final change can she return to a normal
state of affairs, but her life will have been inexorably altered.
Legendary heroes grow out of
tradition. America, as a country, is relatively new -- just over 225
years. That's nothing compared to China or Great Britain or Egypt. Yet
we do have traditions and legends unique to our country. Have you
When I was a girl, my favorite aunt
gave me a coloring book with pictures of children from foreign lands
wearing their national costumes. The boys from Slovakia wore brightly
embroidered vests and hats with the brim turned up all around. The Greek
fighters wore short white skirts over their leggings. The Macedonian
warrior protected himself with a heavy leather tunic. Some countries had
regional differences in costuming. These were based on the traditions of
those countries, harking back to their beginnings and the major events
in their histories.
At the time, I didnít realize that
America had a traditional costume. In my coloring book, though, our
legendary western hero was commemorated with a cowboy hat, vest, blue
jeans, and a kerchief around his neck. Since then, I've recognized
additional costumes from historical periods in America based on regional
traditions, such as the frontiersman with his fringed leather jacket and
moccasins--a style borrowed from the Native Americans--and the trapper
with his coonskin cap. Grade school children celebrate Thanksgiving by
dressing up in Pilgrim costumes and putting on plays. All these styles,
and variations on them, are unique to American history. They help us
remember our legendary heroes.
As far as appearance goes, men like William
Frederick Cody aka Buffalo Bill, born in 1846, probably influenced
how we first perceived the western hero. Cody worked as an army scout
and hunted buffalo for railroad camps, but later he organized and then
toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Up to that time, we had
borrowed styles from Europe and admired the class of European
entertainers who came across the Atlantic to put on shows, but Buffalo
Billís style was 100% American and gave us an image to identify with.
Annie Oakley gave girls someone
to relate to, as well. In the winter of 1902, "The Western
Girl" ran in theaters back East. It was a play written especially
to star Annie Oakley, and it succeeded because of her popularity as a
western performer. Before that, she was part of an act billed as
"The Great Far West Rifle Shots." Our idea of a Legendary
Western Heroine grew out of her popularity.
Later "The Will Rogers
Follies" reinforced the western style and introduced trick
roping in the process.
So that's how our love of westerns
began in this country, what our perceptions were based on, and how they
were shaped. Next part ....
Part I: The Legendary Western Hero
Part II: Why Americans Love
Part III: Western Heroes in American Literature
Part IV: Dime Novels and Early Westerns
Part V: Authors of Popular Western Fiction
About the Author, Rosalie More