When writing about James Joyce last month, I got to thinking about the word hero. Two things made me think about it: the fact that an early draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was known as Stephen Hero, and how often I referred to Leopold Bloom as the hero of the novel Ulysses.
On the surface, it seems like a fairly straightforward word. You can think of its meaning pretty easily, I’m sure: someone brave, with exceptional abilities. Someone we can look up to. And this has always been the meaning of the word. It comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), meaning protector or defender, and was often specifically used in Ancient Greek myths to refer to heroes of divine ancestry such as Heracles. So, not so different from how we use it today. Except, as I alluded to in the first paragraph, when we use it as a literary term.
This use of the word seems quite different from how we might use it to describe, for example, a firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save people’s lives. Any protagonist of any work of fiction, strictly, is the hero of their story. Mickey Mouse, Captain Kirk, Peppa Pig: all heroes, in this sense. At least Captain Kirk is quite heroic, and Mickey Mouse has his moments, but I can’t imagine Peppa Pig performance any great acts of bravery.
But of course the obvious apparent reason we use hero to refer to a protagonist of a story is simply because most protagonists are heroes. This was certainly the case in classical times, when people wanted to hear about great men like Achilles and Odysseus. As stories continued to focus on such larger-than-life characters over the centuries, the word hero gradually became synonymous with protagonist. In fact, the idea of the hero of a work of a fiction not being heroic is a relatively recent trend. In 1848, for example, William Makepeace Thackeray added the subtitle A Novel without a Hero to his work Vanity Fair. In the early 20th century and the advent of the modernist movement, works such as Ulysses really reconsidered how heroic the hero of story need be, and placed the average person, with all their faults and failings, at the heart of the narrative.
That being said though, how much have things really changed? Yes, the hero of a story need not necessarily be heroic, but think about most of the stories you’ve encountered lately, whether they’ve been in books, or on film or TV, or in any other medium. There’s a good chance that those stories featured pretty heroic heroes. Sure, they’ve become a little more complex, but they still come through for us when we need them, and they’re very easy to find. On my last two trips to the cinema, I watched the feats of a 15-year old who uses the unexpected side-effects of radiation poisoning to help people in his neighbourhood, and a resolute and brave chimpanzee fulfil his destiny. And look at how popular superhero films are in general.
Though tastes may change somewhat over time, it seems like we’ve always admired a true hero, and this is why we still use hero to refer to any protagonist. I think it indicates the fact that even though art can be about anything, we still often look to it for escapism. We know deep down that we’re probably not really heroes, and that we’ll never get to save the day or the guy/girl. So we look outward for heroes so that we can experience the thrill of their lives vicariously, and tell ourselves that it is possible for someone like us to be a hero. We need great examples to aspire to, and if we can’t find them in real life, we make them up.
And this is probably why superheroes have remained so popular for so long. But more on that tomorrow…