Updated: Dec 16, 2019
“The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times ...”
Henry David Thoreau wrote those words in the mid-19th Century for his distinguished book, Walden. They rang true then and they ring true today. Of course there will be those who say we do not live in degenerate times, that we live in the greatest of all ages, that our technological and social achievements are pressing us towards some utopia, but those who are true students of history and have open eyes might argue otherwise, or at least they might hold more than a little skepticism about the potential greatness of the immediate future.
Whether or not we live in a degenerate age, we are in need of heroes more than ever. The Thoreau quote above concerns heroic books and not specifically heroic individuals, but I still believe it is appropriate to our current age.
But why do we need heroes? What do they bring to the table? After all, haven’t we shattered the myths of all our heroes from the past? Haven’t we discovered all the dirty little secrets about our real-world heroes? Haven’t we become so modern and avant-garde that the very idea of a fictional hero is quaint? Was not Tina Turner correct in her 1985 hit song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero?”
Perhaps. But I will argue otherwise.
First off, what is a hero? Various dictionaries offer similar answers to this, and each of us will have our own opinions, but here I’ll let the King James Bible speak for me when it says at John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” In other words, heroes put themselves in harm’s way in order to protect or save us. Those words might not contain a perfect definition for a hero, but they will do for most examples real or fictional. Altruism, a sense of giving of one’s self for another, to help others, to protect or save others, that is at the center of heroism.
What of real-world heroes? Why do we need them? Heroes within the real world do what the rest of us are afraid to do or are incapable of doing. Heroes fight the fights we wish we could fight. Heroes protect us. Heroes build the future. They protect our families, our loved ones, our children.
Often enough in the real world we consider heroes those who are in the ranks of the military and law enforcement. To quote George Orwell, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
However, not all heroes carry a sword or a gun. They do not all wear armor and helmets. Some carry books or pens. Some swing a gavel while wearing robes. Others make use of a stethoscope or bandage. Some teach our children, deliver our groceries, speak sermons to the grieving. Sometimes they are famous, though more often their names are unfamiliar to us. These folks might not be putting their lives on the line every day in a literal sense, but they are giving of their lives, of their time, their finances, sometimes their sanity and their souls. Heroes can come in all shapes and sizes, from all cultures and religions. They can come from any race or gender. Under the right circumstances, they can be anyone, even you and I. We need those people to shield us, to keep our world from becoming too insane, to allow us to build our own tools to fight back against the sometimes encroaching madness.
Robert E. Howard might have been correct when he wrote, “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” But also, he might have been wrong, or at least partly wrong. Barbarism might triumph, but that doesn’t mean it remains triumphant for all of time. Outside of the possibility of some mass extinction event which would wipe out all of life upon our Earth, as long as the human race endures, there will be times of civilization. Of course there also will be times of chaos, but that does not have to be permanent as eventually humankind would grow weary of such and would get its act together once more.
It is real-life heroes who help to keep barbarity at bay. On an individual level they can save lives, spread cheer, ease pain, educate. And they can do so much more.
As for fictional heroes, they can serve in a similar fashion, at least metaphorically, but one thing they have in common with real heroes is that they bring, or at least attempt to bring, a layer of stability to the world. They not only attempt to lessen our anguish, but they work to bring honor forth from within each of us. Fictional heroes also can entertain, but they can do so much more than that.
To quote author John Gardner from his book On Moral Fiction, “Every hero’s proper function is to provide a noble image for men to be inspired and guided by in their own actions.”
Of course Gardner was talking of literature as a whole, and he approached fiction only from a point of view of moral absolutism, but I believe much of what he had to say applies to heroic literature if not all of literature. To a hero, at least within heroic literature, morality isn’t relative. Situations and emotions and thoughts for the heroic character might change from page to page, but deep down the heroic figure will always know right from wrong, at least within the framework of the story. To do otherwise would make any particular tale itself not a heroic one, but some other thing, perhaps tragedy or even comedy, possibly horror. That’s not to say heroic literature can not reach for other depths, that a heroic figure can not be forced to change through circumstance and growth, but that such change should seem an organic one, that the change itself should not feel out of place for the heroic figure. The heroic character might come to some new ethical point of view, but at heart they will not betray themselves or the story itself. Again, to do otherwise is not to have a heroic tale.
Famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote much the same thing in several of his non-fiction books, most strongly in What is Art? Tolstoy’s take on art is quite extreme by modern standards and has a basis entirely in his own strict version of religion, but he is not necessarily off the mark with his point that art “is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and humanity.”
For Tolstoy, and for Gardner, literature and all forms of art hold a high purpose in setting examples of ethics in hopes of leading the individual to morality by choice, not by force or overt coercion. Such a philosophy of art might seem quaint today, perhaps even foolish, but that does not mean it does not have its time and place. While I do not succumb to Gardner and Tolstoy’s notions concerning all literature and art, I do believe it applies to heroic literature.
For authors of the heroic, a sense of morality is at the core of what is created, even if a particular author does not recognize it. Ethics can be argued, whether one is an absolutist or a relativist or something else altogether, but morality must be key to any form of heroic art. The hero of fictional creations exists first as an example of morality to the rest of us, to all of us. We can debate that morality, even argue over it, but that hero is still there to show us one particular point of view, one particular moral voice.
In the end, perhaps real-world heroes and those of the fictional variety shine best as examples of stability within what is oft seen as a crumbling, mad world. Howard’s notions of barbarism appealed to him and have appealed to many of his readers over the decades, but few individuals truly want to watch the world burn around them. Oh, some of us might want portions of the world to burn, but generally we do not want the world to burn entire, at least not the part of the world holding ourselves and those we treasure.
To go back to Thoreau and his quote which began this article, perhaps he is correct that “heroic books” shall “always be in a language dead to degenerate times ...” Whether or not we live in degenerate times is a matter of opinion. But there do seem to be more and more books and movies and television programs and other forms of entertainment which celebrate, even glorify the worst aspects of humanity. On the other hand, the heroic side, our media does still provide some examples of the heroic, from the fictional Captain America to the real Major Richard Winters.
The state of our world, the state of ourselves, all of that is up to the individual. But the hero is needed to keep that world turning round and round. The hero is needed to show us the way forward, to show us the best we can be. If we ultimately destroy that, if we override all examples of the good while glorifying only the deranged, then we are done. Our world will be finished.
However, my guess is that as long as there are human beings there will be heroes of one stripe or another. We need that. We have to have it. Otherwise, entropy will have won. And while the human race might be many things, over all it is not a race of quitters.
Originally from Kentucky, Ty Johnston is a former newspaper editor who now lives in North Carolina while penning tales of epic fantasy, horror and other literature. He is vice president of the Rogue Blades Foundation. When not writing or reading, he enjoys hiking, longswording, beer, tabletop role-playing games, target shooting, and his girlfriend. Not always in that order. He is the author of several fantasy series, including The Kobalos Trilogy, The Sword of Bayne Trilogy, and The Walking Gods Trilogy.
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