Thursday, February 28, 2013

Zero to Hero

Robin Hood, Milo Winter
Why are heroes so stupid?

I mean, really. Think about it. Nearly every iconic hero has at least one moment of total idiocy. "Wily" Odysseus just has to give all his contact info to the god whose son he just blinded. Beowulf deliberately tackles a dragon single-handed when he's way past his prime. Arthur ignores Merlin's very specific warning about not marrying Guinevere. Even Robin Hood, possibly the cleverest hero out there, slaps on a disguise and walks straight into Prince John's perfect trap just because he might get to make puppy eyes with Maid Marian. What's going on here?

In the structural sense, of course, there's a very good reason for their stupidity: without it, we'd have no plot. But there's got to be something else going on here. Sure, in some cases codes of honor factor in; for Odysseus to slink off without shouting his address at Poseidon would be to relinquish the fame and glory that comes with having outsmarted and incapacitated a Cyclops. Beowulf's stupidity has its roots in his own very well-established character. And we can forgive Arthur's
The Blinding of Polyphemus, Pellegrino Tibaldi
problematic choice of wife because when he chose her, he was very young and head over heels. But other brainwashed-hero moments come out of absolutely nowhere. Rama twice questions Sita's virtue, even after she's literally walked through fire to prove her purity. Aladdin might not want to admit the source of his power to his new wife, but he never even tells her that his old battered lamp is kind of special. The archery contest changes its ending depending on who tells it, but often the trap works, as Robin really should have seen coming.

So what gives? Well, maybe Sir Galahad can help explain things.

Sir Galahad, Joseph Noel Patton
First off: Sir Galahad. What a boring prig. Everything this guy does comes with its own angelic chorus and glowing light. He puts not a foot wrong. If you're in trouble on the Grail Quest, regardless of whether you've been previously established as a total badass, Galahad will swoop in and save you. He can sit in the Siege Perilous, he can defeat anyone, he alone achieves the Grail. He's so perfect it makes my teeth hurt.

And that is dull. There's no suspense when Galahad is involved. If he's on the scene, he's going to win. There's no such sweeping guarantee for any of the other knights, including Lancelot; he wins at contests of arms, but the story always reminds you that he's a failure at moral purity, and sometimes that symbolism trips him up (most notably on said Grail Quest). But Galahad only has to decide he wants to do something for it to get done. He is the reason I never much liked the Grail Quest storyline, because nothing is at stake for Galahad. It was such a relief to let him die at the end of the quest and go back to Lancelot and Guinevere and the very human, very dangerous, oh-so-relatable love that destroys a kingdom.

The Fall of Beowulf, Devin Maupin
But when Beowulf fights the dragon, I am there. I bemoan the bravado that leads him to attack the dragon alone, but it hurts to read the moment when he falls. It will never not be horrible to see Robin Hood in chains. Aladdin's despair when he comes home to find home, bride and best friend vanished moves me every time. Sure, these guys made stupid - stupid - mistakes. But that's what makes them real enough to feel for. Without those disastrous moments of failure, they'd be too perfect, like Galahad; good fortune would come to them too easily; we would never see the price that they pay for their success.

And we wouldn't see ourselves in them. Does anyone want to be Galahad? Didn't think so. But you've imagined fighting a dragon, haven't you? You've planned out your three wishes, you've rescued your beloved, you've beaten every other contestant for the prize. Everyone wants to be these heroes, not regardless of the mistakes they make, but because of those mistakes. To err, after all, is human. Robin and Aladdin and Rama are beloved because we can see their humanity, and because they suffer for it as well as triumphing through it.

Hamlet, William Morris Hunt
...which is not to say it can't go too far in the other direction.

There's a reason that Hamlet is the quintessential tragic hero, rivaled only by Oedipus. He grapples with the great dilemmas of human existence: what is life, what is death, what are humans? And he does it in exquisite poetry that speaks like prose. I honestly believe that the reason no interpretation of Hamlet ever pleases everyone is because Hamlet speaks to us individually like no other character in drama; you'll never be satisfied with someone else's Hamlet, because it's not your Hamlet. We all know him far more intimately than we know Oedipus or Jamie Tyrone or Willy Loman.

But oh dear god, do we have issues with Hamlet.

If Galahad's problem is that he's too perfect, Hamlet's problem is that he's too flawed. People have been imagining themselves into revenge scenarios for the whole of human history, but would you want to be Hamlet? Of course not! He sits on his hands for three hours and then murders everyone he knows. He's too introspective to be a successful action hero, too morbid to be a role model, too Oedipal to be a sex symbol, and too destructive for us to want his life. We love to watch him; we love to get inside his head; but in this case, the answer is definitely not to be.

So the classic heroes, the ones who fill our daydreams with swashbuckling adventure, are ultimately winners. But never all at once, and never without fighting for it. When they struggle, and sink beneath adversity, we know they're like us; when they break triumphantly free, we know we can be like them.

Who did I miss? What heroes do you admire, and why? Leave me a comment and let's talk!


  1. If I had to pick one of the big four tragic Shakespearean heroes to be, I'd probably go with Macbeth. At least, upon realizing his fate, he faces it head on.

    Yesterday I was thinking about Icarus and America. Like, for most people, the story of Icarus is a moral tale not to exceed your own limitations. From Europe, you get paintings of Icarus falling or fallen. For America? Icarus is the perfect role model, and we get pictures like this - he's the one who dares to fly higher, dream bigger, go farther. He embodies the 1920s. Does he fall? Yeah, but he touched the sky first, and isn't that all we were ever trying to do anyway?

    Anyway, I was thinking how the American ideas of a hero are really different from Europe's. Getting back to your post, Americans aren't too upset by heroes who do stupid things, as long as those stupid things are also great.

    1. Point. No wishy-washy flipflopping for Macbeth. And out of all four, he has the least trouble with his sanity, not that that's saying much.

      See, now I feel like I should just get you to do a guest post about Icarus, because that's fascinating. And you're right, the American hero really does burn his candle at both ends (or at least the modern American hero). And even Washington has his moment of stupidity-begetting-greatness with that freaking cherry tree.

      The funny thing comes, I think, in the universality of heroes. And a lot of American heroes just don't translate as heroic outside of the American headspace. Johnny Appleseed just bops along doing his bit of good; it's sweet, but kind of Galahad-ish. Paul Bunyan's incredible feats of strength never strive for anything much beyond his (ironically) small world. John Henry is a classic Icarus in terms of ambition AND tragedy, and he doesn't even prove his larger point; sure, HE can drill faster than the steam engine, but he's a superman and he also DIES doing it. And Gatsby... hoo boy. IS he a hero? He's certainly an Icarus, but there's a certain amount of moral bankruptcy going on that makes him tricky even if you've been raised knowing about the American Dream. It's hard to root for an American hero if he's too good, too troubled, or just too doomed. We can definitely admire their greatness, but they're also not people we'd want to BE, in the end.

    2. Also Macbeth can't be fooled by a mere underling. No, he's fooled by witches! And King Lear is just... omg. there is no reason to want to be King Lear.

      I would absolutely guest write or co-write a blog about anything American with you. Send me an email.

      I think you're picking the wrong heroes. lol. We don't particularly love any of those characters. On the other hand, we are OBSESSED with people like Babe Ruth and all of John Wayne's characters and Huck Finn, and I think these are all American heroes and icons we worship that have transcended American culture.