The Persistence of American Folklore in Fantastic Literature

In the summer of Wonder Woman, we haven’t heard much about Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind, the woman who could wrestle alligators, run faster than a wildcat, beat up all nine of her older brothers, and be so nice that the bears would let her hibernate with them and the hornets would let her wear their big nests as Sunday hats. Maybe that’s because traces of Sally Ann from Tennessee are already there behind the golden tiara of Diana, Princess of Themyscira, hiding in plain sight. Wonder Woman may have a golden lasso, but Sally Ann made her own—by tying six snakes together and using it to pull helpless Davy Crockett from a tree.

It’s a writers workshop truism that great storytelling, especially in fantasy and science fiction, often draws on classical mythology. Wonder Woman isn’t the only adaptation of Greek myths to contemporary settings—Rick Riordan has built his own pantheon of Olympian-American kids, and burlier versions are all over the superhero comics. Norse mythology is the taproot of English-language fantasy, from Tolkien to Stan Lee’s Thor, the power of the sagas and characters recounted in Michael Chabon’s essay on D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths and Neil Gaiman’s new nonfiction book Norse Mythology. And everyone knows how the hero’s journey monomyth distilled by Joseph Campbell from all of the above and more provided the core architecture of Star Wars—and countless other efforts to update the oldest human stories. But for Americans there is another body of heritage stories out there worth considering, one so deeply embedded in popular culture that we tend to forget it.

American folklore is a homegrown “mythology” so fresh it usually draws on historical persons or incidents, transforming them into fiction with a characteristic mix of exaggeration and wry humor. The real American Gods aren’t Odin in a Cadillac (as cool as that is). They are characters like Gaiman’s barefoot and buckskin-clad John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. Calamity Jane, John Henry, and Mike Fink, king of the flatboatmen, typify the larger-than-life avatars of early American life whose stories first appeared in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, in tall tales, popular song, regional almanacs, and embellished biographies. They show up in westerns, stories of the industrial revolution, the vanishing hitchhikers and organ thieves of urban legend, and even the eye-popping fabulism of online clickbait and fake news.

Many of these characters seem antiquated, weird relics of an America that disappeared more than a century ago. But they are really very young compared with the ancient myths—stories no older than our young country, true byproducts of its creation—and of the idea that this is a place in which each person gets to invent their own fresh identity. The characters are often shapeshifters, many of them narrative immigrants adapting to survive in the new land. Folkloric figures of the American past don’t disappear, they just morph into new forms, remaking themselves just like us. Learning to see their contemporary manifestations can help us tell fresh tales, become more aware of the sometimes problematic roots of our internalized archetypes, and better understand the uniquely American approach to the fantastic that runs through all our storytelling. These are stories of a new society coming to terms with its own diversity, conflicts, blessings and sins, and understanding those roots can help us imagine the better society we want to grow for the future.

A consideration of some of these American folkloric archetypes gives a sense of their range and contemporary persistence:

The pioneer woman is a singularly American type, often the strongest character in a body of stories full of masculine boasting. Sally Ann Thunder blazed the trail for Molly Pitcher, Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley, Bonnie Parker, Sarah Connor of the Terminator films and TV series, Katniss Everdeen, and Rey from The Force Awakens.

The Yankee peddler is an all-American proto-capitalist trickster—in the original tales, the lanky trader who rolls into town with a cart full of shiny trinkets, only to sell the gullible locals things they already own. Descendants of this original traveling salesman include the Duke and Dauphin from Huckleberry Finn, the Wizard of Oz, the grifters of noir fiction and film, Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Harold Hill of The Music Man, Duke from Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, Han Solo, Gordon Gekko, and even Serena Joy from Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The master of the backwoods is the feral American who exists in, and embodies, the liminal space between settlement and wilderness. Jacksonian era originals like Sally Ann and her husband Davy Crockett, Mike Fink and the Hunters of Kentucky echo through figures like Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, Tarzan, Jeremiah Johnson, Bigfoot, Conan the Barbarian, Rambo, Katniss Everdeen, and Wolverine.

The Puritan is maybe the oldest of these American archetypes, evident in the work of Hawthorne and Lovecraft (and in Lovecraft himself), in dystopias like Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale, and in characters running the gamut from Ahab to Solomon Kane, Batman and Jack Reacher.

The sleeping time traveler embodies the rapidly changing futures driven by American industry, while often comically expressing the loafer’s resistance to the quasi-religious work ethic driving that progress. Modern science fiction is packed with Rip Van Winkles, from Buck Rogers to the astronauts of Planet of the Apes and Joe and Rita of Idiocracy.

Tricksters in American folklore (in addition to the Yankee peddler) run from Huck Finn to Bugs Bunny, and often have roots in homeland cultures—notably figures from African-American folklore like Papa Legba, signifying monkey, and Br’er Rabbit, Coyote & other tricksters rooted in the pre-Columbian Southwest, and American adaptations of Reynard the Fox. Further north, Febold Feboldson was a kind of weather trickster, able to manipulate the climate of the plains.

Strongmen like Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Steelman Joe Magarac, Casey Jones, Big Steve and Stagolee feature widely, embodying the human labor that built the country, and the potential for liberation from bondage and proletarian servitude through personal strength. They show up in characters like Popeye, the Incredible Hulk, Luke Cage, and countless robots.

I rediscovered this material while writing my novel Tropic of Kansas. I wanted to repurpose narrative tropes and character types from American adventure fiction toward more emancipatory ends, and I quickly realized the pulp precedents I had in mind came from older ancestors. I serendipitously discovered the work of Constance Rourke, a pioneering historian, anthropologist and critic whose 1931 synthesis American Humor taught me that each of my core characters drew on a classic folkloric archetype—and that by better understanding where they came from, I could better reinvent them for a more liberated future, while at the same time making them more real. Many others have made similar discoveries—or knew it all along. It’s a topic of discussion at places like Readercon, with last year’s panel on “Cowboys of Space” and this year’s upcoming panel on “The Long Tail of the Tall Tale.” Fresh traces of folklore are evident in the work of writers as diverse as Andy Duncan, Kelly Link, Junot Díaz, Molly Gloss, Andrea Hairston, Nisi Shawl, Catherynne Valente, Daniel José Older, Christopher Rowe and Nathan Ballingrud—showing what rich ingredients this material provides.

The material of American folklore is both alluring and troubling, embodying the paradoxes of the place that generated it. These native stories of the United States are also the stories of the destruction of indigenous peoples, the ravaging of a bountiful wilderness, and of colonization enabled by slavery. They are often full of violence, ugly biases, and primitive fears. But they are also the material of real life, telling the stories of common people, often marginalized people. Reexamining these stories of our past through the prism of today, and learning the real histories behind them, empowers us to write truer fictions informed by a better understanding of the deepest currents of our culture.

By tapping folkloric roots, we can use the inherent liminality of these shapeshifting American archetypes to liberate characters—and readers—from outdated constructs of identity, the politics of the past, and the injustices at the root of our own national creation. We can learn to do a better job of identifying covert minstrelsy in our own work and the work of others. We can unpack the tall tales to rediscover a more authentic realism, and tell the stories they hide between the lines—of the violent conqueror behind the gentle pioneer, the puritan behind the paladin, the villains who were really the heroes. It can help us recognize the masks we wear now, see the true faces underneath, and discover ways to use that understanding to create better stories and new masks suited to the society we want to build on the foundation of the one we inherited.

Christopher Brown was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for the anthology Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including MIT Technology Review’s “Twelve Tomorrows,” The Baffler, and Stories for Chip. He lives in Austin, Texas. His new novel, Tropic of Kansas, is now available from Harper Voyager

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