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.
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.
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?