Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hero on a Quest

This month, the Great Fantasy Traveling Round Table looks at "The Hero and the Quest." There are some thoughtful posts from host Warren Rochelle, Chris Howard, Carole McDonnnell, and Sylvia Kelso. Here' what occurred to me: 

Once upon a time, a hero represented a very particular character, an archetype if you will. He was invariably male, either a youth or in the prime of life, neither a child nor infirm with age; he was physically powerful and if not morally irreproachable, clearly a “good guy.” It was fine for him to have a flaw or two, so long as it did not interfere with his ability to accomplish great deeds and conquer mighty foes. Occasionally, the flaw would prove his downfall, as in the case of Achilles. The tradition that stretches from Odysseus, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh continued through King Arthur and his knights, to Tarzan, the superheroes of comic books, Doc Savage, and James Bond. True, there were occasional female-heroes in this mold, but mostly they imitated the men, only with brass bikinis, improbably high heels, and better fashion sense. What made them heroic, men and women alike, were physical prowess, lofty ideals, and larger-than-life goals. In other words, they were Worthy of The Noble Quest.

The Quest was always something beyond the reach of the ordinary person. No average plowman or shop-keeper could aspire to find the Grail or slay the dragon. The Quest usually involved what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey,” meaning that the central character must leave behind the familiar, venture into unknown terrain fraught with danger, and then return home. Sometimes he is changed by his experience, sometimes he merely puts himself back on the shelf until the next plea for help.

The function of this kind of Hero is not only as a Campbellian agent – that is, to guide the reader through a transformative journey – but as an instrument of Order and of The Triumph of Good. (Notice how the topic lends itself to unnecessary capitalization?) The world has veered toward Chaos, if not actually toppled headlong into the abyss, and the task of the Hero is to set things right. (I suspect that one modern incarnation of the classical Hero is the detective, who restores right social order by solving puzzles that lead to the apprehension of wrong-doers.) One of the implications here is that only those of noble birth, etc., and who are favored by the gods have the capacity to do great deeds. Aforementioned nobles undoubtedly relished stories that demonstrated them how superior they were and didn’t mind the peasantry being reminded of it. This propagated a hierarchical power structure in the same way as did the notion of the divine right of kings. It reinforced the notion that those with political power were inherently better (stronger, luckier, sexier, purer of thought, beloved by the gods) than those who had none.

In an interesting twist, if one wants to praise someone in the People’s Republic of China (or the old Soviet Union), one says he or she is a Hero of the Revolution.

One of the most interesting changes to come about with the development of the novel was the notion that stories about people of ordinary stature and circumstances could be interesting, and that such characters, however humble, might behave in admirable ways. Of course, “ordinary” is in the eye of the beholder and people who were illiterate due to poverty had little opportunity to see themselves in novel characters. Jane Austen wrote about her own fairly comfortable social class, people whose circumstances were familiar to her. One might consider her a Hero of the Novelistic Revolution.

With the shift to non-Heroic characters came the concept of a protagonist – one who acts -- rather than a hero, and the blurring of lines between a person who may do extraordinary deeds but is not of the aristocratic, chosen-by-God mode. We might encounter protagonists-of-noble-birth who are heroic in spite of  rather than because of their dynastic sociopolitical standing. Eventually, we also had anti-heroes, reluctant heroes, villains-with-hearts-of-gold, and women heroes (to distinguish them from the typical wailing wilting damsel-in-distress heroines). We had central characters who represented ordinary people who rise to extraordinary heights, people that could be you or me. We stopped calling them heroes for a while, but now often do so again.

Sometimes ordinary-people heroes go on quests, sometimes they get dragged kicking and protesting into adventures, and sometimes they simply ache with dreams until they wake up one day and take a small step toward realizing those dreams. In some ways, they carry us with them on their quest more readily because they are more like us. But with the specificity of character comes a different sort of distance from the reader. Many of the old-style Heroes were pretty bland as characters; they didn’t need quirks and failings and insecurities because they were, after all, Heroes. We now appreciate that in the hands of a skillful storyteller, superficial similarities (gender, race, socioeconomic status, nationality) fade in importance compared to the common human experience and aspirations. A sympathetic character trumps one who is “like me.” Added to that is the value placed on diversity and “exoticism” (which is another way of saying, the romantic aspect of strange lands and people).

I wonder if the shift from superhuman/aristocratic Hero to ordinary person acting in heroic ways also reflects a shift in empowerment. Once upon a time, not only could the people who comprised the vast majority of the work force hope to achieve anything notable, they dared not draw attention to themselves. I think now of the people who jump into rivers to save children, or land disabled airplanes under near-impossible circumstances, or place themselves between gunmen and the students in their care (or talk those same gunmen into laying down their weapons). These are true heroes and what they accomplish – often without planning or forethought – may not fulfill the classical definition of a quest. But to the children who are still alive and to everyone who hears these stories and gets tears in their eyes, these spontaneous acts of courage shine all the brighter.

The painting is Sir Galahad painted by George Frederic Watts 1888, public domain.


  1. Very interesting and I agree with you. There has been and is still a movement from the Hero to a normal person becoming heroic. Maybe that is because we, as a society, think more of the individual than the group or the 'chosen' people. Just a thought. Good post.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Lynn. Certainly, in contemporary America we value the individual over the group, so it would be interesting to see what the parallel is in cultures that value the group over the individual. I see a challenge in shifting metaphorical gears because even in "realistic" fiction, the protagonist is indeed a window through which each individual reader experiences the story.