Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Heroes

What is it precisely that makes a hero? Heroes are one of the staples of our culture, those stories we are told at bedtime as children, the stories we will later grow to enjoy in books and movies and other media. Heroes are the people who choose good over evil, who take a stand and say “This far, and no further.” For whatever reason, they are people who have decided to stand in the way of what they believe is wrong and work for good rather than evil, and we immortalize them for it. That seems to be the basic premise of a hero; most heroes have little else in common. Achilles in the Iliad, for example, is a near-psychopathic killer who flies into a rage when a friend is killed, yet in the end he has mercy on the king of Troy. It seems unreasonable to compare him to more contemporary heroes such as Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, as Aragorn seems to be a paragon of virtue – he is a master swordsman and archer, he is courteous and kind, he is loved by those who are his subjects and respected by others.

So why is the study of the hero important, if they are so varied? Can characters like Odysseus be compared to characters like King Arthur? Is a person’s heroism greater or lesser because of how he goes about it? It seems there are different types of heroism, and each involves different things, though all seem to tie back to the general concept. First, the hero searching for redemption. This seems to be a fairly common heroic ideal, especially recently, with characters like Angel, or the lesser-known Skilgannon the Damned, from David Gemmell’s book White Wolf. Both of these characters have horrible deeds in their past; mostly, they seem to involve large amounts of murder, whether they felt sorry about it at the time they did it or not. Somewhere along the line, things changed and they decided to walk another path; for Angel, it was when he was given his soul, and for Skilgannon it was when he realized that his queen, who ordered the massacre of an entire city, told him that she would do it again for victory.

These sorts of heroes have a lot they want to atone for, and they try as hard as they can to do so, whether it is possible for them to accomplish this goal or not. Often these heroes are the most utilitarian, killing those who work for evil rather than trying to rehabilitate them, because they see things differently – sometimes, though, these heroes become the strongest proponents of rehabilitation, because they are trying for redemption – why can’t others? They often recognize real evil when they see it, for they have a great deal of experience, and they can be the most extreme heroes in many situations. They are probably the heroes most likely to see things in terms of shades of grey, as they have seen true evil and they know that not all bad things are Evil with a capital E.

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