Tag Archives: Heroes

What Makes a Hero?

I’ve been thinking about heroes and heroism a lot recently. Maybe it’s because I’ve finally gotten back into reading more fiction (my day job requires a lot of reading, and reading “for fun” quit being fun for a little while), or maybe it’s because I’m also reading about the American Revolution, but it recently struck me that the virtue of heroism has captivated the human race since we first started telling tales of gods, monsters, and their offspring.

The first heroes were demigods, and the Greeks often revered them in their worship. I’m sure we’re all familiar with Heracles, Achilles, and Perseus. The original heroes were masters of all things martial. If something needed killing, they could do it. Their prowess with weapons and war were far beyond the skills of any mortal warrior.

Things starting changing, though, and the term “hero” began to apply to those of high moral virtue. St. Augustine first began calling Christian martyrs heroes over 1,600 years ago.

In my opinion, a hero is closer to a martyr than a man of martial prowess. Instead, a hero has a sense of altruism. Sure, there can be martial prowess there, but I think a hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice all in order to benefit others.

Batman and Robin

Note: Robin wouldn’t have died if Batman had offed the Joker the first dozen or so times he escaped. The Joker has killed over a THOUSAND people.

Take the Batman, for instance. By all accounts, he reminds us of the classical hero. No one can match his fighting prowess. He can out think and, more importantly, out fight all of his enemies.

But, where is his sacrifice? Sure, he’s lost a few friends along the way, but they probably didn’t have to die. Have you noticed how many people that the Joker has murdered? Have you also noticed that the Joker always gets out of Arkham Asylum to kill again? Honestly, I think Batman would be more heroic if he was willing to sacrifice his own morals in order to save countless lives. But, he isn’t.

Besides, you could argue that the Dark Knight is absolutely terrible for Gotham City. He works outside the law to catch criminals, but then relies on the corrupt system that he eschews while capturing the bad guys in order to prosecute the criminal. I’ve actually never had the sense that Bruce Wayne really cared about the people he was protecting. Instead, he fights crime to make himself feel better. I find him living in a perpetual martyr fantasy.

And don’t even get me started on Superman.

So, which fictional character do I consider a hero? Frodo Baggins.

Though Frodo begins as the unwitting hero, by the time of the encounter on Weathertop and his healing in Rivendell, we find Frodo to be a hobbit of great courage.

From the council where they were trying to figure out what to do with the Ring:

“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

Frodo shows courage, even in the face of the unknown. His mission is to save the Shire, but as he works to complete his mission, he begins to change. By the time he reaches Mordor, he has already gone through so much tribulation that he can barely walk on his own. His reasoning is certainly off, for he abandons Sam in favor of Gollum. By the time he succumbs to the Ring and Gollum falls into Mount Doom, he is basically a shadow of his former self (tragically ironic, since he has a Morgul blade piece embedded in his body).

Frodo saves the Shire, but he is forever different. The Shire begins to shun him in favor of his hobbit buddies. Merry and Pippin leave the Shire a little bit immature, but come back as powerful, confident adults. Sam also comes back with some worldly wisdom and a sense of confidence (demonstrated by his asking Rosie Cotton to marry him).

But, Frodo is basically shunned into seclusion. He spends his time working on his book while his friends get a lot of the glory for saving the Shire. Frodo doesn’t feel like he can ever belong. And he can’t. He’s fundamentally changed. Perhaps he has the fantasy novel form of PTSD. The battle of wills with the Ring (which he lost, by the way) has broken him.

This will make me cry every time. Even when I read the books.

This will make me cry every time. Even when I read the books.

And that’s what makes him heroic.

He had an easy life. He was rich, cared for, and lived in an Englishman’s paradise. And because he loved that life so much, he saved it, and realized he could never again be a part of it. Then, he leaves Middle-earth forever.

As it turns out, Frodo wasn’t up to the challenge, and that’s what makes him such a great hero.

As I reflect on that, I think of the ending of Harry Potter. Did you ever notice that Harry is virtually unchanged by the events of the Harry Potter books? At the end, we see him married, with children, and probably a wizard celebrity. How does one die and not remain unchanged? How is one so closely connected with the greatest evil of his generation and not be fundamentally changed by it? I find that Harry’s magical journey is actually diminished by the fact that a happy ending was required.

So what makes a hero? In my mind, courage, will, and altruism are what is needed. As my son’s favorite show Jake and the Neverland Pirates would say, “the strength to be a friend.”


So, what do you think makes a hero?

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The King Beyond The Cover: John Says More On A Song Of Ice And Fire

I’m almost exactly half way through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series, and I’m still writing about it because it’s all I think about. Every day.

I’ve already written about power in Westeros and how much of a disappointment Ned Stark is.

Read Part 1 On Power

Read Part 2 On Power

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out whose story it is. Political power in ASOIF is fascinating (to me), in part because we attach our concepts of power to ideas of right and wrong. In books and other media that usually means a righteous protagonist uses power to fix injustices.

That’s because protagonists are stand-ins for the triumph of our values. Generally, these are Judeo-Christian ideas about right, wrong, sacrifice, and love.

I’ve asked before, but why is it every movie has an underlying love story? Why is there such a strong connection between overcoming fantastic opposition and finding the one true, perfect love that was meant for you? Seriously, it’s in every movie about anything. It’s virtually omnipresent in American cinema. So much so that when it’s absent movies feel wrong or “French.”

In that same vein, why does the hero always win? Seriously, 99 times out of 100 the good guy wins after great personal sacrifice. Books. Movies. Television. Everywhere but Breaking Bad. To be fair, there are plenty of places where the good guy loses… just at a fraction of the amount that he or she (probably he) wins.

It’s because the hero is the personification of our beliefs. When Luke Skywalker is honing his mastery of the Force, that is really us, collectively, preparing to stand in the face of great hardship. When Aragorn comes back from a terrible fall, that’s us knuckling down against our own obstacles. When Harry Potter resists temptation, he fulfills our own sense of right… generally speaking.

Aragorn falls off a cliff from The Lord of the Rings… by Anyclip

The hero beats the bad guy, who represents our struggle for moral righteousness  And obviously the righteous get the girl because she (right or wrong) represents going to a state of happily ever after. In that state you get to live in peace and have kids because you’ve won out over adversity.

Which is why most of us hate it when good doesn’t triumph over evil and why foreign films and indy flicks with morally ambiguous characters don’t sell as many tickets. Buried will never make more money than Green Lantern. It will only cost less to produce.

If you’ve ever seen The Grey you know what I’m talking aboutRecently widowed  Liam Neeson is forced to fight for survival for what seems to be no reason. His reliance on rugged individualism fails him. His cries to god go (literally) unanswered. Win or lose (and we don’t know which), it feels strange because we (or at least I) find myself asking what was the point?

That’s because there’s no moral lesson to take away unless that lesson is: sometimes bad things happen even when you try really hard and do the right thing. Not very stirring.

I’m not sure ASOIF is that kind of story, given that we don’t have an end yet, but it remains that point of view characters have a powerful connection with the reader. We learn their histories, desires, fears, and vices.When you understand why a person does what they do, it’s hard not to find them sympathetic. Every man is the hero of his own story.

So whose story is ASOIF? Who’s acting out our ideas of good?

I used to think it was the Starks by sheer numbers of POV characters. Ned, Catelyn, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and John are all narrative windows. And all of them are centrally important to the movement of the plot. Not sure why Rob didn’t get any love. Oh, and all the Stark children are wargs; a special distinction in a world that seemingly has no magic.

But then Ned, Catelyn, and Rob all bite it in the first three books and Winterfell gets burned to the ground (spoilers). Meanwhile, all the Lannister characters start creeping into the mix. Tyrion was always a POV character, but Jaime and Cersei are added in later books.

Jamie is one such character. He was originally cast as an incestuous villain and oath-breaker– having killed the previous king he was charged to protect. As the story unfolds, Jaime’s motives for killing his king and making war against the Starks are shown as much for loyalty and honor as self-preservation. Speaking to Catelyn Stark he said the following:

“How can you still count yourself a knight when you have forsaken every vow you swore?”

Jamie reached for the flagon to refill his cup. “So many vows. They make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets, do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.”

He took a healthy swallow of wine and closed his eyes for an instant, leaning his head back against the patch of nitre on the wall. “I was the youngest man ever to wear the white cloak.”

And the youngest to betray all it stood for, Kingslayer.”

“Kingslayer.” He pronounced it carefully. “And such a king he was.” He lifted his cup.”To Aerys Targaryen, the second of his name.”

I think that’s what excites me the most about these books. All of the people I thought were going to be my favorite characters are dumb and/or dead. I want to see whose tale this turns out to be. Mayhaps it’s the tale of Daenerys restoring her family’s throne. It could be about the ascension of John Snow from humble man of the Night’s Watch to protector of the North. But I wouldn’t count Bran Stark or any of the Lannisters out yet.

Maybe these books aren’t about a specific group of people at all, but about something that just happens the same way things in large groups of people often do.

Maybe it’s a case study on what it takes to create a king. In which case we should probably just read The Leviathan.

Next week I promise I’ll write about something else.

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