Do We Still Believe in Heroes
by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
I’m not really sure when it all happened, but it did, and we have begun to grow more cynical ever since. Now, I’m not old–I’m not young, either–but I remember a time before cynicism, before darkness was sexy, before the time of the anti-hero, a time of universal love for what Tolkien calls “fairy stories.” In these stories, the good guys were good, and vengeance was tempered by mercy; heroes lived by a code of ethics that was so intrinsic to the nature of hero that to betray it was to lose oneself. But we like our protagonists a bit darker, a bit grittier nowadays, don’t we? We seem to be titillated by the idea of fighting fire with fire: no quarter given in a fight, and winning by any means necessary. There are dark places within the human soul, and sometimes we like to dwell there, to seize power, to act as if we have no compassion at all. Justice and vengeance, right and wrong, revenge and strength: all of these are equated with one another, and we begin to lose sight of something that has been part of the human experience since the very beginning: the fairy story, the story of the hero. So, maybe the real question is this: do we still believe in heroes at all?
Let’s look at the Avengers movie. Here’s Agent Phil Coulson, who loves heroes, and the whole idea and mythology of the hero. He believes they’re the good guys: loyal, honest, upstanding, strong, courageous, and so forth. Then we are told by Nick Fury that these ideas are considered old fashioned. It is quite clear that Tony Stark feel they are. In other words, the childlike belief in heroes doesn’t have a place in the modern world. We’re too evolved for fairy stories. People can’t be that good. Endings can’t be that happy. When watching the Avengers, and encountering these scenes, I immediately began to think how often I hear that if there’s a happy ending to a story, that it’s too “Disney,” too fairy tale-ish, and not real. Which again begs the question, do we believe in heroes? Are we yet capable of childlike wonder?
I believe wholeheartedly that the answer is yes; we do believe in heroes. We can’t help but believe, even when we decry such fantasies as “Disney-esque” fairy tales. In spite of ourselves, there is something which draws us to heroic characters and stories, and it’s not simply that heroes kick a lot of ass. Violence is easy. It’s cheap. Superpowers, machine guns, or alien DNA do not make heroes. No, it isn’t simply violence. Nor, do I think, is it vengeance and revenge. You may not believe this at first, but I think the reason that true heroism strikes such a chord with us is its innocence, goodness, and self-sacrifice in the face of a seemingly absolute darkness. Throughout the Hero’s Journey, the hero is tried and tested. He descends into the underworld, and in many cases almost losing himself as self, undergoing terrible trials and sacrifices to be reborn as his true self. While enduring the test of the underworld, it is imperative to the hero’s own personhood that he not lose that which makes him the icon of Hero. In other words, he doesn’t lose the innocence and goodness that we see in him. Perhaps unconsciously, perhaps consciously, we desire–or better yet, we need–the hero to beat back the darkness that threatens to swallow the world, but without succumbing to that darkness. He must maintain who he is for us to look to him as hero.
When I was a kid and fully prepared to believe in heroes and fairy stories, I read of mercy staying the sword of a Hobbit. For pity’s sake, after Bilbo had swindled the Ring from the creature, Gollum, he refused to kill the wretch. He refused to kill, even though Gollum would not have hesitated to kill Bilbo, and probably eat him to boot. But mercy won out. Later, in Lord of the Rings, Frodo thought back to Bilbo refusing to kill Gollum, and he, Frodo, felt the same pity, and refused to kill Gollum even with the knowledge that the creature would kill Frodo and Sam if given the chance. These acts of mercy and kindness set against the backdrop of violence and war altered the course of the history of Middle Earth. Because Bilbo , and then Frodo, spared Gollum, the One Ring was destroyed. According to Tolkien, himself, no mortal–not even Frodo–could have willingly thrown the Ring into the fires of Mt Doom. But Gollum, who was spared from certain death, was the undoing of the Ring. The darkness that covered Middle Earth was ultimately cast down by an act of pity.
This taught me something as a young nerdling. As insignificant as I felt in the food chain that was elementary school, there was still something in me that was heroic. I was a hobbit. I may have wanted to be an elf, but I was a hobbit through and through. That struck me, because the prevailing view throughout the larger, more significant, races of Middle-Earth was that hobbits are insignificant. They are beneath notice, backwards. They aren’t supposed to be brave, powerful, or talented. They are halflings, like me. Yet in the stories of Middle-Earth, hobbits could also be heroes. Bilbo and Frodo were given power over another’s life. They both had Gollum at their mercy. Armed with an elven blade and the Ring of Power, they each chose to let him live. They showed mercy. In that day, they were bigger, nobler, and more heroic than anyone else. Through them, I learned that character is how we deal with people when we hold the power, and true heroism is merciful.
Perhaps I can further explain my point with a couple of examples in addition to Frodo and Gollum above. An obvious one is Harry Potter. Harry’s story is a classic template for heroes. He is the chosen one, the fulfillment of a prophecy, destined to kill or be killed. If anyone can save the world from Voldemort, it is Harry. But Harry doesn’t do it by becoming like Voldemort or his Death Eaters. Since the story of Harry is so vast, I want to focus just on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In this book, when Harry and the Order of the Phoenix are attempting to move to a secure location (many of the Order having taken Polyjuice Potion to look like Harry), the group is attacked by the Death Eaters. As he is being attacked with the Death Eaters’ killing curses, Harry’s defense, his response in the face of death, is Expelliarmus, a dis-arming spell; he refuses to kill. Reaching the relative safety of the Burrow, Lupin berates Harry for this, tells him that it’s war, and in short that he has to kill. Harry’s response is that he will not become like them. This is further tested when the Death Eaters attack Hogwarts, and one of them is torturing children in one of the common rooms. Harry attempts the Cruciatus curse, and is successful in causing pain, but he does not use the killing curse.
Lastly, and most poignantly, Harry and Voldemort face off, after Harry’s seeming “death” and “resurrection.” This is it; the moment that will save the world or cast it into utter darkness. Many of us thought that this was the moment for the killing curse. If there was ever a time to take life, it was here and now. I know I expected it. But that’s not what happened, is it? As Voldemort screams Avada Kedavra, Harry’s yell echoes loud and clear: Expelliarmus! Expelliarmus: the dis-arming charm. Even in this moment, Harry does not attempt to kill. He doesn’t have to. He will not become like Voldemort, the agent of death and disfigurement. He retains his innocence, and death undoes itself. Death kills itself. The world is saved through an act of mercy, a refusal to kill.
Likewise, in Thor, and returning to The Avengers, I was struck by Thor’s dealings with Loki. There is no doubt that Loki has caused enough havoc and damage to “deserve” death. He betrays Asgard, Thor, Odin, and everyone who has ever loved him. He threatens our world with destruction, nearly levels New York with invasion in a mad attempt at ruling those he deems to be his inferiors. And Thor’s response is that of the true hero. Thor, god of thunder and lightning (Norse, at that, the Norse were known for their love of battle and destruction), faces his brother, Loki, in defense of the world; of Jane Foster; of Asgard; and all those whom Loki has betrayed. But Thor never attempts to kill his brother. Throughout the narrative, Thor simply wants his brother to be restored. Every time these gods do battle, Thor is victorious, and wants nothing more than for Loki to stop, to come back to himself, and to come home. Everything, it seems, will be put right if Loki could just understand that he is loved, that he was mourned, and that he can be forgiven. Thor shows mercy to his brother.
These are just a few examples of something that is part of the Hero: innocence and mercy. Vengeance in the Hero must be tempered with mercy, and that’s why, I believe, that we are drawn to the truly heroic. No matter how much we may deny it, no matter how cool we think darkness and anger is, we need (that’s right, need) our heroes to have an innocence about them, the innocence that we struggle to find in ourselves or that we think we’ve lost in ourselves. Thor, Harry, Bilbo and Frodo, among the countless other heroes, do not lose themselves in their defeat of evil. They are not overcome by the darkness. They show mercy, and it is this mercy which overcomes evil. Or to say it a different way, by showing mercy, the Hero forces darkness to devour itself. So, in the final analysis, it is mercy, innocence, and love, which are the truly heroic.
Yes, I believe in heroes. Do you?