Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Such Heroic Nonsense: They Will Stumble

My previous post sparked something of a conversation on my Facebook.  It was a good discussion, and one that led me to think a little more about heroes and why we need them.
The discussion centered around the definition of "hero" as "one who does great things" or "protects and serves."  Someone like Achilles, for example, wouldn't be a hero in the eyes of the Trojans.  Furthermore, casting Troy as the villain in those stories is problematic due to what happened to the city in the end.  The very idea of "heroes" then is something to avoid, because it automatically casts villains (especially sympathetic ones) as "losers," thereby cheapening their good qualities.

There are two fair points here, and I'd like to discuss first one here.  First is the notion that the city of Troy is miscast as a villain in the Greek epics, and that the actions of the Greek heroes should disqualify them from the term "hero."  The simplest counter to that line of thinking is that of course Achilles and the rest are heroes.  To the Greeks.

It's a common mistake when talking about any kind of story (especially from an ancient and/or foreign culture) to impose our own cultural biases on the text.  Achilles isn't a hero because he slaughters hundreds, including innocents!  The Trojan people are the victims because they were put to the sword or sold into slavery!  The people shouldn't have to suffer because their Prince (who wasn't elected!) decided to sleep with another man's wife!

Those are all natural reactions.  They are all also wrong.

The thing that's so easy to forget about the past is that the values that we hold dear haven't been shared by everyone at every time.  Heck, many values that we take for granted, like women having the right to vote, are startlingly new inventions.  They just seem so obvious and permanent because we've known them all our lives.

The Ancient Greeks were not us.  True, they held many values that would become the foundation of Western Civilization; but they also held values that would be anathema to modern society.  Most Greek city-states were ruled by kings or other dictators (it's where we get the word, even).  Most Greek city-states had slaves--often from cities that they had conquered.  Greek society practiced pederasty, which tends to be frowned upon nowadays.

We can make judgments about ancient Greek culture and their values all we like.  But should the fact that we don't share all of those values mean that characters like Hercules or Achilles shouldn't be regarded as heroes?  Of course not.  The Greeks regarded them as heroes, therefore they are heroes.

All heroes are reflections of the society that created them.  Take the example of Captain America.

Captain America represents what we value as Americans: strength, honesty, the courage to do the right thing, Nazi-punching, etc.  Cap has a lot of qualities that people from all around the world can aspire to emulate--but he's still very much an American creation aimed at inspiring Americans to be better.  And since he is such an American creation, there is plenty for someone from a part of the world that doesn't like America to despise.  They might in turn cast Cap as a villain and call upon a hero of their own to take him down.

Our heroes reveal a lot about the cultures that create them--not only in their deeds, but in their failings as well.  Let's go back to Achilles for a moment.  What was it that ultimately led to his downfall?  It wasn't his infamous heel; that was his weakness, not his failing.  No, Achilles' failing was his petulant arrogance--his hubris.  Achilles makes plenty of mistakes during his story.  He destroys the temple of Apollo.  He refuses to take part in a major battle because he was angry at Agamemnon, leading to to the deaths of many Greeks.  His petty refusal to fight then gets his cousin killed when the boy dons Achilles' armor to fight in his stead.  After avenging his cousin, he refuses to return Hector's body over to the king of Troy.  This in turn angers Hector's brother, leading him to kill Achilles with an arrow to the heel.

Achilles' story serves as an inspiration to the ancient Greeks, but also as a warning.  We are supposed to emulate our heroes' courage and deeds, but we must also make sure to avoid their mistakes.  Odysseus teaches us to use our heads when things seem impossible; his long stream of hardships teaches us not to be a braggart.

We can see the same dynamics at play with modern superheroes.  Spider-Man uses his powers for personal gain until his Uncle Ben is killed by a mugger that Spider-Man chose not to stop.  Batman fights crime in Gotham to make sure that no other 8 year old boy has to lose his parents to criminals.  However, his obsessive focus on the systems (crime) blinds him to the true disease in Gotham (corruption, gross economic inequality).  There's also his insistence on recruiting minors to help in his crusade, despite the danger that such a career entails.

Do these faults make Spider-Man or Batman lesser heroes?  No.  Those faults make them more compelling characters.  Oddly enough, I think that a hero's flaws are just as important as their powers and triumphs.  Flaws lead to mistakes, but they also lead to learning.  A good hero will learn from their mistakes and will grow as a result.  Other heroes will be done in by their shortcomings, and that's fine too.  Such heroes literally gave their lives so that we might be better for it.  And isn't that what being a hero is all about?


  1. This reminds me of something Linkara said in one of his videos. I can't quite remember, but he said that Marvel Heroes are more focused on their conflicts and DC had more idealized characters. Or was it the other way around? I can't remember. Maybe someone else does. Still, I'd be interested in an article going over the fundamental differences between the two from you.

    1. Linkara was saying that Marvel heroes tend to have more flaws and hardships, so as to be easier to relate to. DC heroes tend to be more idealized, filling more of an inspirational role. Both of those models work, and I don't know if either can be considered "better" than the other.

      You are right that it would make a good subject for a future post, though. :D