The “Northern” or “Tale of the North” is a genre of popular fiction that focuses upon the frontier of the North American League above the Great Lakes. Typically, the story takes place between 1850 and 1910.
As a genre, the Northern got its start in the “penny dreadfuls” of the mid-19th century, based on legends and rumors about the outlaws, lumberjacks, lawmen and Natives of the great north. Generally dismissed as trivial by critics of the day, the genre was nevertheless extremely popular. By the 1880s such stories had reached Europe, where they again sold extremely well and created an ongoing audience. Plays, novels, songs and puppet shows followed. By 1900 there were genuine attempts to write books and stories of merit in the same vein, and by 1930 the Northern had achieved a degree of respectability.
Motion pictures also seized upon the Northern as an excellent source of stories, a trend that was not limited to American film-makers. Although there were numerous successful t.v. series that followed the Northern format during the 1970s and early 1980s, the genre dwindled considerably since then. However, it has enjoyed a sudden resurgence in the last few years as the motion picture trilogy Rangers of the North (2004) and its sequels Dead Man's Axe (2006) and At World's End (2007) have become world-wide hits.
As of the 1890s, more and more Northerns include something overtly mystical, including local tales of such myths and stories as Owl Man, the Siobhan Gallagher and the Wendigo. A similar trend showed up in the novel series about the Haunted Horseman.
Essentially, there were and are several classic (or, if you prefer, cliché) elements common to virtually all Northerns (although the popularity of each varies with time):
- Escaping the Past – The idea of the Ontario frontier as a place to disappear and start over was a popular one. Criminals might flee there, as would those burdened by scandal or tragedy. In a Northern, the audience can count on at least one character having some kind of secret about their lives before coming to the frontier.
- The Magic Native – Characters often encounter some kind of a magic or spiritual knowledge possessed by Natives. Most often this consists of some Native who will make a prediction that comes true (“The man who kills you is not yet born” to an outlaw, who will be slain by a woman, for example).
- The Contest For A Lady's Favor - It is not at all unusual for two rivals to engage in a race or some other kind of athletic contest, usually for and/or in front of a woman both seek romantically. Dog sled races are common such contests, as are wood-chopping and log-running.
- The Long Chase - An outlaw is pursued across difficult and dangerous terain by an agent of the law and/or vengeance. This can be a twist because sometimes the pursued is an innocent and the chaser or chasers criminals.
- Ghost Towns - Ontario was and is scattered with tiny towns that didn't last. One feature in later Northerns is the suggestion that such places are actually haunted. One common theme is to see similar acts re-occur.
- Ontario Rangers - In the frontier, efforts at law enforcement were sometimes very difficult and much has been made of the so-called Ontario Ranger who did what he could to keep the peace. Northerns make much of these individuals and their exploits.
- Sinister Frenchmen - Usually but not always from Louisianne or New Francy, a stock character used as an easily-identifiable villain. Sometimes a variation was used, i.e. the Sinister Russian (from Alyaska or Oregon). The counter-point of this was to see the British (the English, Scottish and Kemrese) as protagonists and/or victims.
- Evil/Virtuous Halfbreed - Probably the single most changed icon of the genre. The image of someone half-European, half-Native began as a stock villain--a man with no place and no loyalties--sometimes tinged with a tragic sensibility. But later the genre took the Halfbreed and made him (or her) a figure of unique perspective, in effect a bridge between two worthy civilizations.
- The Terrible Winter - Settlers coming face-to-face with the harshest weather they've ever known and it testing their mettle.
- Wolves - For some reason wolves came to symbolize the wilderness in the genre, so there were few stories within it that did not feature the creatures in one way or another.
TO BE CONTINUED...