Wanted: Dead or Alive.
One of the stock Western Characters
, a fugitive from justice into the wilderness.
The term "outlaw" reaches back to at least Old Norse; it denotes a person who has been declared guilty of a crime in absentia and has chosen to escape for whatever reason, and is thus placed outside the protection of the law. Members of the community were forbidden to aid or abet the outlaw in any way lest they suffer the same punishment as the outlaw
, and as they were outside the protection of the law, they had no legal rights, meaning anyone could kill them with impunity
. Thus, the outlaw could not live in the community, but was forced to flee to the wilderness or another country to try to survive until their sentence of outlawry expired or their relatives could somehow lift it. At the time, there were no established prisons or dedicated police, so long-term imprisonment was rare. In the medieval age, an outlaw was called a "wolfshead," meaning that he or she was equated to a wolf in the eyes of the law, and was to be hunted down like one.
Several of the Icelandic sagas
have outlaws as main or supporting characters, and some versions of Robin Hood
will have this be the explicit status of the Merry Men.
By the time of The Wild West
, prisons and organized law enforcement were in place, so the old practice of outlawry was obsolete, but the term continued to be used for those who chose to flee into the wilderness or other jurisdictions to escape punishment for their crimes.
In The Western
, the outlaw is not completely removed from the protection of the law, but is wanted for crimes that make it impossible to stay in the community. Often, he will have a price on his head, making him the prey of the Bounty Hunter
. Most outlaws will continue to lead lives of crime while in the wilderness, unless unjustly accused.
An individual outlaw, or the leader of an outlaw gang, will often overlap with The Gunslinger
. Other members of an outlaw gang will generally be the Western's equivalent of the Mook
. If the Outlaw
is the protagonist, or otherwise meant to be sympathetic, expect them to be either shown as having a Robin Hood-like code of ethics as to who they rob, being an innocent person falsely accused
, or an Anti-Hero
who does "what he has to do" to survive in a lawless land.
The outlaw and the lawman weren't entirely separate, either; some outlaws eventually settled down and tried to go straight, and their gun skills made them useful as law enforcement in particularly violent communities.
As of the Twenty-First Century, the meaning of "outlaw" has continued to suffer linguistic decay; now it is often used by media to mean any criminal, or to add a "rebel" cachet to something (like "outlaw country music" or "outlaw motorcycle club
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Anime and Manga
- By the futuristic setting of Outlaw Star, the term has decayed even further; "outlaw" means that they don't have a formal allegiance to the government or a pirate gang.
- Berserk has the Band of the Hawk being declared outlaw (in the classical sense of the word) by the King after Griffith's indiscretion with Princess Charlotte gets him thrown into the Tower of Rebirth to be put to the torture.
- Terra-Man, a Silver Age foe of Superman, combined the trappings of a Wild West outlaw with alien technology, since he was actually born in the appropriate time period.
- Robin Hood and his Merry Men are perhaps the most well-known medieval outlaws in fiction.
- Famous heroic outlaws from the Sagas of Icelanders are Grettir Ásmundarson (The Saga of Grettir the Strong) and Gisli Súrsson. Grettir supposedly survived almost 20 years as an outlaw, Gisli twelve years, before they were tracked down and killed by their enemies. Outlaws also occur as villains in other sagas, as outlaws often would turn to robbery, waylaying or even murder to feed themselves.
- From the Icelandic Völsunga saga (a legendary saga): Sigi, the ancestor of the Volsungs, is outlawed in his home country for murder. Generations later, his descendants Sigmund and Sinfjotli, on the run from villainous King Siggeir, live as outlaws in the forest for years.
- Túrin Turambar from The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin and his Gaurwaith gang are modelled after medieval outlaws.
- The Seablite gang in Dark Life are undersea outlaws who prey on ocean-floor pioneers.
- The Jon Shannow books by David Gemmell, being set in an After the End western, has a lot of them, like Daniel Cade. They're usually the main antagonists of the book until the real Big Bad shows up.
- The heroes of the classical Chinese romance Outlaws of the Marsh.
- Cactus Canyon is full of them, most notably the three Bart Brothers (Big Bart, Bandelero, and Bubba Bart), who must be defeated to qualify for High Noon.
Real Life (may overlap with Folklore)
- The Jesse James gang, of both Real Life fame and many, many movies.
- Wyatt Earp was an example of an outlaw becoming a lawman.
- It seems as though many if not most renowned gunfighters have spent some time as both outlaws and lawmen.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tried going straight in Real Life as well, working as guards. It was the first time Butch Cassidy had ever killed anyone. In The Movie, they're given the Robin Hood treatment.
- Australian example: Ned Kelly, infamous for the home-made suit of armour worn in his last stand. During Australia's colonial days, outlaws were known as 'Bushrangers', and there's a number of songs about them.
- In the old days, pirates: assuming you weren't too scared to fight back or the crew didn't hate you enough to mutiny, you could kill them with impunity, as long as you could prove they were pirates. The only ones with an actual duty to try and get them to surrender before exterminating them were the captains specifically ordered to hunt them down, as some pirates had been forced to join and freeing them was a priority.