|Robin Hood, Milo Winter|
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|
So what gives? Well, maybe Sir Galahad can help explain things.
|Sir Galahad, Joseph Noel Patton|
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|
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|
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!