December 21, 2010

Heroic Heroes

The Itsy Bitsy Spider - a truly epic heroic hero?
        I am old-fashioned and unfashionable enough to like my heroes heroic.  These days literary trendiness demands anti-heroes and conflicted protagonists.  Especially in comic-books and their attendant movies it seems that Disturbing Psychological Issues are a prerequisite.  Nice guys and gals need not apply.  But for me perhaps the number one factor determining whether or not I will enjoy a book (or movie) is whether I like and respect the hero.  (I use hero as a gender-neutral term here, by the way.)  That doesn’t mean a protagonist can never make mistakes, or can’t be dealing with a troubled past, or can’t struggle with difficult decisions.  It doesn’t mean our hero won’t waver or lose heart at times.  It doesn't mean our hero isn't human.  But ultimately what I want to read about is people who try to do what’s right, and who are heroes not because they are the strongest people around, or the most powerful, or have the coolest gadgets, or because they refuse to let any moral considerations get between them and what they want.  I want to read about people I can respect because they are thoughtful, brave, creative, and moral in the face of difficulty.  (And not too much angsty whining, either, please.)
        This is why I've never been a huge fan of Greek or Norse mythology, or Arthurian legend.  All those so-called gods and heroes are no better than they ought to be.  We're supposed to cheer for one set of characters who are doing all the same lying, cheating and murder as the other set of characters whom we're supposed to boo.  Some are better than others, of course, but how can you respect such a wrangling, petty bunch of gods, not to mention Zeus's serial rape habit?  How can you respect Merlin after the episode of Uther and Igraine?
For a more modern example take the Earthsea series by LeGuin.  They're all beautifully written, and The Tombs of Atuan is one of my all-time favorite books – but I did not like A Wizard of Earthsea at all upon first reading, and the primary reason was simply that I didn't like Ged.  Of course that was the whole arc of the story - how Ged made a terrible error and how he atoned for it and made it right – but in reading the book I had no patience for his poor choices.  All I wanted was to take him by the shoulders and shake him and say “Quit being so stupid and arrogant!”  He was an awful lot like the posturing, bragging boys I never liked in school.  I didn't like him, and thus I didn’t like the book.  (It didn’t help that at the time I was of an age to be looking for female heroes - but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.)  Luckily, by the time we meet Ged again in The Tombs of Atuan, he’s as heroic as I could wish.
        I know that some people dislike a protagonist who’s too goody-goody.  Indeed, if every reader shared my taste for heroic heroes, then characters like Heathcliff, Holden Caulfield, the Black Knight version of Batman, and The Punisher wouldn’t be so wildly popular, and nor would Arthurian legend have such enduring appeal.  I know I’ve always been that much-despised creature: a good little girl.. but is it really so unreasonable to look for stories about people I can like and respect?  Am I really the only person in the world who wants to read about good people trying to be good?  What about you?

[Picture: The Itsy Bitsy Spider, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006.]

1 comment:

  1. Yes! Let’s hear it for heroic heroes! Now I prefer quiet faithful guys like Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, wry funny tales like Philip Gulley’s Harmony series, or complicated real people as in Deborah Cadbury’s Chocolate Wars. As a teenager I preferred swashbuckling historical novels to fantasy (after all I did grow up to be an historian). But the genre of fantasy hadn’t caught on and proliferated fifty years ago as it has now. The five books in the Otherworld series had not yet been written. I am quite taken with them and their heroine Svarnil who has integrity as well as intelligence, a quick wit, and physical endurance. In fact, any hero of mine has to have integrity. Of course it will be tested, and mistakes will be made. But they will be seen as mistakes, and the hero will learn from them.

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