Shane Re-Envisioned

James C. Work

In 1946, Argosy magazine published "Rider From Nowhere," a three-part serial based upon Wyoming's Johnson County War in the 1880s. Jack Schaefer, the author, was editor of a small Virginia newspaper.

In 1949, Houghton Mifflin published "Rider From Nowhere" as a book titled Shane. Jack Schaefer had quit journalism and was struggling on "short rations" to become a full-time fiction writer.

In 1953, Paramount Pictures filmed Shane with a screenplay version by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. The film became a classic in the Western canon, and Jack Schaefer was an established writer. By 1979, the seventy editions of Shane included thirty foreign translations.

What is behind Shane's steady popularity? Marc Simmons wrote that "the novel addressed an entire generation" of post-war Americans struggling to comprehend a suddenly ambiguous world; Schaefer preserved virtues that "were increasingly being dismissed as outdated or unattainable." Gerald Haslam credits Schaefer's style, which he calls "direct, detailed, and sensitive" in depicting the "paladin figure called Shane."

In 1979, my own article, "Settlement Waves and Coordinate Forces in Shane," made the argument that the novel dramatizes Turner's thesis; the fictional conflict of primitive forces and the forces of civilization produces a new American breed which is an amalgam of both. However, this does not explain Shane's popularity since only a very small percentage of its readers have read Turner.

Some years after I finished the Shane critical edition, John Milton asked me to write about Oakley Hall's novel, Warlock. That was the beginning of my interest in parallels between Western American literature and classic mythology. And not "mythology" in the general sense, saying, for instance, that Shane is a paladin figure; I refer to demonstrable parallels between canonical works in Western literature and Anglo-Saxon predecessors. In Shane we are looking at a story with archetypal overtones which give it much in common with a story straight out of the dim mists of oral bardic tradition, put into writing sometime after the fourth century and sometime prior to the tenth century.

I refer to the story of Owain, one of several Arthurian "riders from nowhere."

In an exchange of letters during our work on Shane: The Critical Edition, Jack Schaefer wrote that he did not think in mythological terms while writing his fiction. His reviewers, however, did. In The American West from Fiction into Film, Jim Hitt writes: "What made Schaefer's novel so effective and original were the mythical qualities he gave the story. The novel is almost an allegory . . . in a world where no one else can win, Shane can." (213)

Bob Baker's article, "Shane Through Five Decades," expands on the allegorical/mythic interpretation:

Even in 1953, Shane seemed a slightly unreal, mythical figure--the Joey perception. More precisely, he can be seen as expressing, again and most centrally, two opposite/complementary ideas. . . . First, Shane as the embodiment of all the social qualities of the traditional Western hero. But it is the anti-social aspect--his "moving on" ethos, his solitariness--which the film most hauntingly evokes. (p. 220)

Nearer to my own premise, Rita Parks in The Western Hero in Film and Television postulated that

"the portrayal of the gunfighter . . . gives evidence of two strong characteristics: first, he is a dramatic means of splitting the persona of the hero into Jekyll-Hyde dimensions . . . ; second, he is perhaps the most allegorical and directly mythological figure of the Western hero types." (p. 51) Parks also calls Stark Wilson "one of the classic characterizations of the evil persona, the malevolent gunman," and goes on to say that ". . . the pared-down, directly mythological version of the savior-figure was Alan Ladd in Shane."

Parks downplays the importance of historical authenticity, "for he is no longer a particular Western man, but rather the Man of the West--the result of myth being applied to history." (p 56) A dominant characteristic of this mythical Man of the West is that he is torn between the interests of peace and the necessities of violent physical behavior. Think of the Virginian, forced to choose between a gunfight and a wedding. "[The Western hero] is almost always a man with one foot in the wilderness and the other in civilization," Parks observes, "moving through life belonging to neither world."

Another stricture governs the archetype. As in Shane, as in The Virginian, or even in the English example, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, protagonist has the attribute of being able to move between two opposing worlds. The one is usually savage and violent and dominated by passion, while the other is cultured and civilized and dominated by reason. Sometimes, one world is that of the mortals and the other is that of the immortals. The protagonist, he with the ability to move from one to the other, must keep them separate. If he attempts to live in both at the same time, or if he attempts to bring a member of one world into the other, he is cursed.

In the ancient story of Achelous, the river god could change form. He could appear as a human figure with the head of a bull, change into a monstrous snake, or change again into the form of an entire bull. Achelous fell in love with a mortal, and tried to bring her to the immortal realm. Jealous and wrathful at the transgression, Heracles seized Achelous and after a fierce combat humiliated the god by breaking off one of his horns. Like Sir Gawain, Achelous was left with a disfigurement as an outward sign of his attempt to "cross over" between worlds.

Like Gawain, Shane is tempted by the world in which Marian Starrett dwells. As long as he remains a solitary, roving gunman he is invincible: but Shane allows himself paternal feelings toward the boy, Bob, and lets himself communicate on an emotional level with Marian. Shortly afterward, in the gun battle, Shane is wounded.

Sir Gawain faces two trials in his quest. First, he is tested to see if sensual self-indulgence will overcome chastity and chivalry, from whence he draws his strength. Second, he faces the terror of death at the hands of the Green Knight.

Owain the Adventurer is one of King Arthur's three principal Knights of Battle, the others being Cadur the Earl of Cornwall and Launcelot du Lac. The two tests of Gawain are merely the beginning of Owain's odd adventure. Like Gawain, Owain is tempted by pleasures of the flesh. Also like Gawain, he must face a death-dealing adversary--not the Green Knight but a seemingly invincible warrior clad all in black armor, the Guardian of the Fountain and of the Lady of the Fountain.

Another knight of King Arthur's court, Kynon, tells of a strange joust he had with a knight who wore black and protected a magic fountain. The Guardian knight easily defeated Kynon and then humiliated him by taking away Kynon's horse but not his arms and armor. (Shane, you remember, is drawn into the gunfight when he hears how Stark Wilson had humiliated and murdered Ernie Wright in a unequal fast draw confrontation.)

Intrigued and angered at hearing about the uneven battle forced upon Kynon, Owain sets out to try his own skill against the Guardian of the Fountain. Like Kynon, he discovers the Castle of Abundance where he is pampered by a group of temptingly beautiful women. There is a parallel when Shane happens into the Starrett farm where Marian offers biscuits and pie and emotional comfort.

Paralleling the way Shane is told that Stark Wilson is waiting for him in town, Owain is told where to find the Lord of the Wood, a one-eyed giant in black, who in turn tells him to go to a certain fountain and throw water upon a stone.

When Owain does this, another black knight appears. The Guardian of the Fountain. After fierce and lengthy battle, Owain wounds the Guardian, who flees to his castle and there dies.

In the course of time, Owain takes his place; he agrees to marry the Lady of the Fountain and become her defender of the source of the water. Three years pass: Owain goes to visit Arthur's court and forgets to return--after three more years have passed, a damsel one day rides into the hall and accuses Owain of infidelity to the Lady of the Fountain.

Ashamed, Owain flees into the wilderness and becomes a wild man/beast, wandering aimlessly in rags and living like an animal. Eventually, another lady discovers him sleeping and restores him to his former dignity. Back in the full strength of his chivalry again, one day while riding he comes upon a lion being harassed by a serpent. Owain slays the serpent, and the lion becomes his loyal companion, bringing him meat and fighting by his side in many combats.

Owain is reconciled with the Lady of the Fountain after vanquishing her enemies, with the help of the lion, and returns with her to Arthur's court where they live out their lives. This lion is a symbol of Owain's ability to tap the animal ferocity within himself and become the remorseless killer.

In an essay, "Duel in the Sun," Robin Wood writes that

"the point to be made about the wilderness/civilization antinomy, and its close relative and derivative, wandering/settling, is that both sides of the opposition are simultaneously valued and deplored."

Owain is certainly an example: it seems admirable that he would leave his chief to go in search of adventure, then it seems wrong of him to leave his mistress to return to his chief. It seems understandable that his guilt drives him to live like a beast, while at the same time it is deplorable that he succumbs to it.

Likewise, Shane is seen as a free, independent, unchained spirit whose mysterious appearance is considered a godsend, a paladin come to aid the settler; but we are never allowed to forget that he will and must go wandering again, riding away from any consequences of his acts.

Shane is a law unto himself, a cold-blooded shootist; he is also civilized, discussing the latest fashions in haberdashery with Marian.

Shane's symbol, like Owain's "lion", is his Colt revolver, "the man and the tool, doing what had to be done." Shane is a lion-man: "He was the symbol of all the dim, formless imaginings of danger and terror in the untested realm of human potentialities. . . . " (p. 249) Shane is unbeatable because he can tap into that potentiality of primitive, lawless, instinctive reaction. Which he uses, in this instance, in defense of civilized values.

Owain becomes the knight with the lion, unleashing a power that knows no check of law or restraint. In the legend of Heracles and the lion, Heracles overcomes the lion, killing it with his bare hands. Afterward, Heracles dons the lion skin. It clearly symbolizes the primitive, primal, "lion" half of his being. Think of Richard the Lion-Hearted, slaughtering thousands in the cause of Christ and Christian law. Think of Vishnu, becoming Narashima--he of the human body with the head and claws of a lion--to vanquish with pure physical force the demon who was out to destroy the order of the world.

Fundamentally, the archetype teaches that the quest for peace can necessitate reversion to primitive violence. Animal instinct, paradoxically, is sometimes the only tool we have for perfecting civilized behavior. It is a necessary momentary surrender to the instincts of instant non-rational reaction.

As a society moves toward self-individuation, myths spring up in which the people recount such confrontations it has had with its former animal-like nature. Or Hyde-like nature.

And if a society perceives that there is a difference, even a dichotomy between humans and animals, value systems begin to evolve which will either account for the difference or will dictate the correct human behavior toward the animal world.

For instance, certain cultures have developed philosophies which anthropomorphize animals, making them co-equal with humans and according them the selfsame respect. Other cultures have seen the relationship as husbandry, believing in their own superiority while acknowledging a responsibility for "lower" animals. Still other societies, in Greek-like idealism, saw no bond at all between human and animal: the destiny of humans is to perfect humanity, while the destiny of animals is to become food, clothing, and labor. In this philosophy, the greatest terror is the thought of being transformed--as in Circe and the swine--INTO an animal, or to face in battle a half-man/half creature entity. Thus, thanks to Hellenic philosophy, we return again to the Lion/Man archetype.

In a book titled The King and the Corpse, Dr. Heinrich Zimmer writes, "under the dual influence of the Christian faith and the chivalric ideal," medieval thought turned to another synthesis--"not of killing the animal soul inside [ourselves] and setting ourselves apart from it, but of converting the beast to the human cause--winning it over, so that it should serve as a helpmate." (p. 128)

Not to be confused with physical domination of animals, this acceptance of the violent inner nature of man as his "helpmate" would become essential to Crusaders and conquistadors alike, spreading peace and Christianity with the sword.

"If the animal within is killed by an overresolute morality," Zimmer writes, "or even only chilled into hibernation by a perfect social routine, the conscious personality will never be vivified by the hidden forces that underlie and sustain it." This applies perfectly to Shane, whose "animal within" is lulled by the "perfect social routine" of the Starrett household. No wonder he leaves after gunfight that re-awakens that "vivifying hidden force" in himself. To stay would be to risk losing that which sustains him.

Schaefer describes Shane putting all his strength into heaving an old stump from its hole, his eyes "aflame with a concentrated cold fire."

"It was all of him, the whole man, pulsing in the one incredible surge of power. You could fairly feel the fierce energy suddenly burning in him, pouring through him in the single coordinated drive." (p. 107)

Later, the boy sees Shane standing on the road in the dusk:

He was tall and terrible . . . looming gigantic in the mystic half-light . . . a stranger dark and forbidding, forging his lone way out of an unknown past in the utter loneliness of his own immovable and instinctive defiance. He was the symbol of all the dim, formless imaginings of danger and terror in the untested realm of human potentialities . . . ." (p. 240)

And finally, after the gunfight, after Shane has been wounded, "Out of the mysterious resources of his will the vitality came. It came creeping, a tide of strength that crept through him and fought and shook off the weakness. . . . It welled up in him, sending that familiar power surging through him again. . . ." (p. 260)

Doctor Zimmer's general analysis of mythology also addresses the question of whether the boy narrator, Bob, could have such mature, intellectual realizations. According to Zimmer, "every infant" is gifted with this way of seeing life as "harmoniously integrated," but loses it "with the development of its self-conscious individuality." (p 131)

More relevant, though, is how Shane corresponds to Doctor Zimmer's summary of the man/lion archetype:

He achieves a harmonious fusion of the conscious and the unconscious personalities, the former aware of the problems and controls of the visible phenomenal world, the latter intuitive of those deeper springs of being from which both the phenomenal world and its conscious witness perennially proceed. (p. 131)

Shane's conscious personality is aware of the problems confronting the settlers and the ranchers, aware that civilization and its controls must succeed in the end. His ability to fight and kill in the name of society comes from an intuitive, deeper source--the lion power within the human form. Momentarily distracted--and wounded as a result--the instinctive power still triumphs.

As I said at the start, I still believe that Shane acts out the encounter postulated in Turner's thesis, the interface of primitive and civilized worlds, producing a third, new world in synthesis. But I believe the popularity of Shane, film as well as fiction, is owing to its success as a retelling of the Lion/Man archetype, a story more ancient than the Arthurian tales, here retailored in Western clothing.

What is the ultimate value of the archetype? Perhaps it lies in the preservation of some ancient knowledge whose worth is itself unclear even while a sense that it has worth remains with us. In Doctor Zimmer's words,

As we read, some dim ancestral ego of which we are unaware may be nodding approvingly on hearing again its own old tale, rejoicing to recognize again what once was a part of its own old wisdom. (p. 97)


Baker, Bob. "Shane Through Five Decades," The Book of Westerns, edited by Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye.

New York: Continuum, 1996. Pages 214-220.

Haslam, Gerald. "Jack Schaefer." Shane: The Critical Edition. Edited by James Work. Lincoln: University of

Nebraska Press, 1984. Pages 16-56.

Hitt, Jim. The American West from Fiction (1823-1976) into Film (1090-1986). Jefferson, North Carolina:

McFarland & Company, 1990.

Parks, Rita. The Western Hero in Film and Television. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1982.

Schaefer, Jack. Shane:The Critical Edition. Edited by James Work. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Simmons, Marc. "Foreword." Shane: The Critical Edition. Edited by James Work. Lincoln: University of

Nebraska Press, 1984. Pages vii-xii.

Wood, Robin. "Duel in the Sun." The Book of Westerns. Edited by Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye. New York:

Continuum, 1996. Pages 189-195.

Zimmer, Heinrich. The King and the Corpse. Edited by Joseph Campbell. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton

University Press, 1956.

©CopyrightJames C. Work