Samurai, Gunslingers, and Fly Fishermen

Posted on January 31, 2015


Thanks to Writers on the Fly and being at a point in my life where it is safe to assume more of it is behind me than is in front of me, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing, and actually writing instead of thinking about writing. As mentioned in my last post, my friend Laura and I were talking about stories one time and how many Samurai stories translated well to Westerns. In fact we have set to watch The Seven Samurai (often listed as the greatest movie ever made) and the Magnificent Seven (which by the way is being remade) as a double feature some night. I mentioned that this worked because both the Samurai and Western heroes (often a gunslinger,  or a common man standing up to an unjust cause), are usually Knights Errant, a myth which is pretty fundamental to our culture:

From Wikipedia:

A knight-errant[1] (or knight errant[2]) is a figure of medieval chivalric romance literature. The adjective errant (meaning “wandering, roving”) indicates how the knight-errant would wander the land in search of adventures to prove his chivalric virtues, either in knightly duels (pas d’armes) or in some other pursuit of courtly love.

The template of the knight-errant are the heroes of the Round Table of the Arthurian cycle such as Gawain, Lancelot and Percival. The quest par excellence in pursuit of which these knights wander the lands is that of the Holy Grail, such as in Perceval, the Story of the Grail written by Chrétien de Troyes in the 1180s.

It is interesting that the Samurai are often Ronin or otherwise severed from their societal roots. Because for that culture belonging and following orders are paramount values. Most Samurai movies juxtapose the protagonist’s personal honor against his societal duties. This would make sense given that genre really blossomed after WWII, a time when many of the best swordsmen were in jail as being anti-war pacifists . Can you imagine their ordeal to turn against their country for their code? To put this in perspective, I believe the last 10th dan Kenshi may have died in prison, and that rank is awarded no more.

The Western hero is slightly different. He is also a stand-alone individual, separated from the people he often saves. The very interesting difference is that we celebrate his uniqueness. For him it is not a burden, it is the ideal, to stand alone.  While Westerns have been around for a long time, especially after WWII they transitioned to the “anti-hero” mold. The conflicted killer with a code of honor.

The protagonists in both genres face the same issue externally (ostracized either by choice or circumstance) but internally, it it is a very different struggle.  Neither fits into society: one wishes he could more than anything; the other wouldn’t accept it, no matter what.  This typifies the differences in these cultures and how they dealt with the transformations in their worlds as a result of the war. In Japan, such a fate is to be doomed. In America, such men are idolized.

And fly fishing? How does this fit into that? As Laura and I were talking, I was saying I hadn’t quite figured out what ties this genre together, but Laura instantly said, “The heroes are always trying to find themselves.” And I think that is probably true, on reflection it’s true of my stories ,and it gives me a lens to think about them. It’s certainly true of Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River, probably the most over-analyzed piece of fiction since Finnegans Wake.  There is something that we seek in water to heal us.  In our way we are Knights Errant, seeking only to define our quests, never quite finding answers to questions we can’t define. And doesn’t this say as much about our age as the Samurai and Western sagas said about theirs?

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