I’ve been binge watching the third season of Hell on Wheels since it appeared on Netflix earlier this week. It’s one of my favorite shows that’s currently running, and there are a few reasons for that. Primarily, I enjoy the interactions of the main character, Cullen Bohannon, with the world in which he finds himself. Hell on Wheels is a postbellum (or post-Civil War) story, and Cullen is a former Confederate cavalryman from Meridian, Mississippi forced to live in an unfamiliar, even alien, world building a railroad into the west.
You may be wondering what this has to do with the fantasy genre, and you are right to bring that up at this point. You see, to a mainstream audience, a Western or other sort of mid-19th Century period piece may be more palatable than a tale of knights and wizards, but it has a lot more in common with Avalon and Middle-Earth than you’d initially think.
Much like a good fantasy story, a solid Western places a somewhat familiar person–an idealized version of how we see ourselves, perhaps, or a blank slate character we can imagine ourselves becoming (think Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name)–in a barely unfamiliar place. Indeed, the world(s) shown in most Westerns is/are simply a creation of early 20th Century pulp writers and mid-20th Century filmmakers. Further, it was Stephen King (when speaking of his ideas for The Gunslinger) who pointed out how The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly made the Wild West seem like an alien world where distances seemed to work differently than the norm, raising all sorts of questions in the minds of attentive viewers.
Let’s take stock of where we are so far: an unfamiliar, nearly magical world; a lost golden age created entirely through stories told and retold again and again; everyman (or everywoman, if you will) heroes meant to speak to a common decency we all keep hidden in our hearts; and fighting for a cause, even if it’s lost (in reference again to Cullen Bohannon, above). All of these effectively (if generally) describe both Westerns and fantasy stories.
And that is why I enjoy both. There’s more to be said, but those are my thoughts for now. What do you all think of the two genres? Let me know in the comments below.