Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Makings of a Hero

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favourite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. (Joseph Campbell)

In Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the author looks at the various traditions and archetypes that make up heroes in cultures from around the world and the common journeys those heroes must make.

Heroes are prominent in history, legend and literature. The hero is essential to storytelling. We have myriad examples of heroes and heroines from Greek, Roman and Celtic mythologies, Arthurian Romance and countless other traditions. Heroes might be flawless or, they might be of the dregs of society. Whether fighting beneath the walls of Troy or in the world of Tolkien, heroes dominate and drive story. As do their adversaries; the bigger the foe, the greater the hero.

But what makes a hero? What is it that sets the hero apart from the rest? The answer to this is not necessarily a simple one. The answer is also subjective, depending on a person’s perspective. A hero to one may be a villain to another. Take Achilles as an example. To the Greeks fighting at Troy, he was the ultimate hero; fearless, skilled, destructive to their enemies. However, to the people of Troy, he was their worst nightmare, spoiled, selfish, arrogant, the slayer of their city’s favoured son. We each have our own idea of what a hero is. Mine is shaped by the stories on which I was raised. I grew up on Arthurian romance, Tolkien and Star Wars. Arthur, Aragorn and Luke Skywalker were ever in my mind, firing my imagination and now influencing my own stories.

Heroes all have a journey to make. That is compulsory. Whether it is Herakles and his twelve labours or Joan of Arc from the time she heard the voice to the time of her death. The hero’s journey has particular steps along the way. At first there is a level of naïveté followed by an event that sets things in motion. There are challenges and adversity. There are choices the hero must make and ultimately, it is those choices that determine how others will view the hero, how the hero will view himself. For me, it might end with the hero putting others, or some greater cause, above himself. Gods (and stories!) often require sacrifice and the hero is the one who will step to the fore despite hardship, despite pain, despite fear.

When I started writing Children of Apollo, the first book in my Eagles and Dragons series, I wanted to create a protagonist who could stand out in ancient Rome while at the same time maintain a measure of honour. Making it big in ancient Rome certainly did not mean you were good. However, as with all heroes, I soon realized that it was going to be the journey that Lucius Metellus Anguis would make that was important. People grow with experience and the learning never stops. I have not completed the series and, being a writer who likes things to develop in an organic way, I do not yet know what sort of hero Lucius will turn out to be. He has a lot more to experience, fears to face, and not until his death perhaps, will I know if he has the makings of a true hero.

I have but scratched the surface of this topic, sketched a brief image of what are, I think, some of the main qualities of a hero. All people have the potential for good or evil. To me, the hero ultimately chooses the side of good. He may have made mistakes along the way, but that makes him human and someone we can relate to all the more.

Whether a peasant or a demigod, a warrior or a mother, a king who loves and defends his subjects or a father who loves and defends is family, we all have our own heroes, real or imagined. At the end of the day, heroes across the ages are those who inspire us to goodness. They are the ones who, even in the darkest of times, are that one spark of light and hope that will kindle the fire in which good can overcome evil. They are present now, in history and in fiction and their deeds will continue to resonate through the ages. 
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