One of the things I learned from Tolkien, and my own upbringing, was to respect my own mythos. England is an old, old land with lots of myths and legends. They have Arthur, Vikings, Robin Hood, and even Tolkien’s work functions as a myth for England.
I’m not British. I have roots there, just like I do in Ireland and Scotland. (Both have wonderful mythologies and legends.) But, what about here in the young, young land of the United States? We have the Revolution. We have exploration, the constant push west. We have the Civil War. We have winning two World Wars. We even have a bit of Vietnam. All of these shape us, our laws, and our culture. They’ve influenced us for generations. But, my favorite (other than WWII) is our cowboy mythology. Yes, most westerns aren’t historically accurate, or they have many inaccuracies. But, they’re part of who and what we are. We are the drifter who is more than what he seems. We are the gunslinger, the card-shark, the cowboy, the cowgirl, the rancher fighting those who would take all he has. We are long wagon trains. We are laying tracks for technology all the way across the country. We are all of this and more. My favorite element is the man who rides into town, gets drawn into a conflict on the side of the underdog, saves the day, and gets the girl.
When I was a kid, probably around twelve, I read all my Dad’s Louis L’Amour books. Devoured is maybe a better word. I loved every minute of them. I loved the men. I loved the women. I loved the action. The adventure. I loved his fist fights. I loved the Sacketts. Oh, the Sacketts. My first dream as a writer was to be as prolific as Louis L’Amour. I just wanted to write the same story over and over and over, and only change the settings and names. Why? Cause that was what I loved reading. (I still love reading things like this, just like I enjoy action flicks that are basically the same guy in different settings.)
I also loved True Grit. That book was one of my favorites as a kid. Here was a girl not being anything but a girl, but getting this old guy to help her avenge her father, it was perfect. I loved it. The writing is top notch, and the adventure is one of the best. If you haven’t read it, you need to.
Now, my favorite western is Firefly. Yes, it’s a SciFi show, but really it’s a space western. They’re cowboys in space. It has all the right elements. It has the rough around the edges hero with has his ragtag crew. They’re pushing out from the government to make a life for themselves. They have a code and each other.
After Firefly, comes The Sackett movie, the Magnificent Seven, Quigley Down Under, and Tombstone. Doc Holiday is a great example of why I love westerns. He’s loyal to a fault. He’s willing to do everything for Wyatt Earp. He may not be safe, but there is something you love about him. The Magnificent Seven is a redemption story. You have seven guys who’ve lived by their guns their whole life, and now they’re called to sacrifice everything for a small town who can’t pay them. They see this as a way to redeem their souls from all the wrong they’ve done. (I know that theologically they can’t earn salvation, but redemption stories, be they ever so humbly human, are still an expression of us knowing we need redemption. It is a great way to start a conversation about the fact that we know what we’ve done will damn us.)
The Sacketts is a great family movie…meaning it’s about a family who will do everything for each other. When the word goes out that they need help, the Sacketts all come running. They are the kind of guys you would want your sons emulating.
Another beloved one from childhood is Down the Long Hills. What could be better than a story about two kids and their horse? I watched this movie so many times growing up. It combined two of my favorite things: kids shouldering the hardest elements of life and coming out ahead, and horses.
We also watched a lot of John Wayne growing up. I still love to hear his voice and see him walk. As I’ve developed my style over the years, I’ve found westerns popping up all over. My characters keep leaning towards long coats and tied down guns. They keep riding in on bikes to take out the bad guys and get the girl. They use rifles, shotguns, and revolvers. All the years of soaking in L’Amour pours out between my stories of magic, doors, and worlds.
I realized I was writing modern, faerie story westerns.
Instead of turning away from the subtle themes, I decided to embrace it. Westerns may not be super popular right now, but they are special to me, and these are my stories. I embrace the mysterious man who saves the day. I embrace the woman who knows how to shoot. I embrace the kids with guts. I embrace strong friendship themes, land themes, and family themes. I embrace the man who is mistaken for a backwater yokel who is rich with wisdom and insight. I embrace friendship between natives and newcomers in the middle of war. I embrace hunters, wild places, dangerous animals, and range wars. I embrace the lawless and the lawman.
These themes push their way into my stories, sometimes without me even noticing. Westerns flavor my work with grit and gunpowder. I’m a Texan reaching deep into my countries own myths and legends.
Do you have a favorite Western? Book or movie? Let me know in the comments!