We talked a lot in class about different heroes and what they had achieved to deserve the title hero. This left me with a burning question, what exactly does it mean to be a hero? It is a term we often apply, but rarely take the time to digest and analyze. To start I would like to examine the function of the hero. First and foremost the hero is a role model whom we choose to take as our exemplar. The hero inspires us to follow in their path and to adopt their qualities and characteristics into our own lives. In acting as this role model they become the protagonist of their story. (that being said I do not think all protagonists are heroes, simply that all heroes are protagonists) The hero is the character in whom we invest ourselves, and cheer on to victory or the fulfillment of their aims. As the protagonist the hero takes on a key role within the story, serving as a focal point around which the narrative can develop. In fact the narrative is on its most basic level a story about the hero or heroes and their struggle. Because the hero is the focal point of the story we gain an understanding of the world from their perspective. As beings who have limited knowledge (last I checked none of us were omniscient, if you are I have some questions) we are also beings of limited perspective. In taking on the perspective of the hero they become our access point into the world of the story which has been created for us. Because we experience the story from the hero perspective it is only natural that we build and develop sympathy with the character which draws us deeper into the plot. (I should take a moment to clarify that by perspective I don’t literally mean first person perspective, but even following these characters through a third person narrator still limits our perspective of the world to what these characters experience.) This sympathy is what enables us to elevate the character to that of role model. We see the heroes and the qualities which the exemplify, we admire them for those qualities, and through sympathy we attempt to sublimate those qualities into our own existence. But why should we do this? Why is the hero necessarily a role model?
Essential to the figure of the hero is the context in which he/she exists; namely conflict. As obvious as it is for me to state, heroes require a conflict, or a struggle, in which they can be challenged. This challenge provides the hero the opportunity to demonstrate his qualities in undertaking a particular struggle, and it is these qualities which we admire and laud them for. It is nonetheless and interesting fact that a hero must exist in the context of conflict. Even those heroes who embody tranquility and peace do so in the context of conflict. Take the Buddha for example; he is the embodiment of compassion, non-violence, and the serene tranquility of perfect peace. However even these qualities are only achieved through his struggle with daily life and his attempt to find meaning in the world. He must overcome many challenges before he can attain enlightenment. The fact that conflict and struggle are at the center of the hero narrative is critical for understanding why they fulfill the role model function.
They act as our guide as how to deal with struggle and conflict, and show us how to persevere through difficulty. On the one hand conflict is simply a critical element of a good story, because without it the story would be dull and not at all compelling. However I think it also gets at one of the central anxieties of being human. As people we live in a world of conflict and struggle and we all face our own challenges every day. Heroes act as exemplars who help us struggle through, who give us a sense of how to act or comport ourselves. They give us an ideal towards which to strive.
There are as many different kinds of heroes are there are different kinds of people. People will construct the hero which is most suited to their time and place. The perfect example of this is the contrast between the selfless hero and the selfish hero. The Lord of the Rings heroes are all perfect examples of selfless heroes who battle evil at great personal sacrifice, and routinely putting their lives in danger in order to serve the common cause. This selflessness is characteristic of the ideal Christian hero. They are willing to sacrifice their lives for the greater ‘salvation’ of their world. The fact that hobbits play such a central role reinforces this idea. After all it is the meek who shall inherit the earth, and the lowest may rise up to challenge the mightiest of foes.This is in stark contrast to what I will here call ‘selfish’ heroes, who act not out of a desire to help others but rather for their own glory and self-interest. Beowulf is I think a good example of this, challenging and defeating monsters for his own personal advancement and glory. That being said I haven’t actually read the entirety of Beowulf, so I will instead refer to Achilles who I believe is also a selfish hero. He fights for glory and the desire to be remembered throughout eternity. Achilles refuses to fight once Agamemnon slights him, refusing to serve a king who shows him so little respect and who clearly views Achilles with contempt. It is then Achilles’ selfish desire for revenge which gets him to fight again. Who does revenge serve if not Achilles? Revenge is an inherently selfish act carried out in order to achieve personal satisfaction. Achilles is clearly an extraordinarily selfish character and yet he is the poster boy for ancient Greek heroes, embodying their ideal of the strong warrior who seeks out fame and glory. The point I am trying make with this is that heroes will reflect the ideals of their time, but these ideals are not static. So if you wish to understand the virtues and ideals of a particular time and place, it is best to examine what qualities can be found in their heroes.