May 25, 2011

Sing, O Goddess...

Nearly every book has a protagonist, but they don't all have heroes - not real heroes. There are two definitions of the word:

hero - hɪəroʊ –noun, plural -roes; also -ros.

1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.

2. the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc.

But being the second doesn't make a character the first. In ancient literature the leading player was almost always a hero - a great and courageous fighter, like Achilles for the Greeks or Cu Chulainn for the Irish. "Noble qualities" did not necessarily entail high morals; rather they were those virtues that were considered manly, like cunning and daring. If a man made a name for himself through his warring exploits, through the taking of more booty and spilling of more blood than his companions, he was a hero.

The influence of Christianity has changed the concept of "hero" in real life and literature. Take superheroes, for instance. Sure, they have great powers and strength, but they are not given the title "hero" unless they use those powers for "the greater good." Those who use their powers for their own ends are villains, whereas in the ancient epics, most of those men who were called heroes were focused wholly on self-aggrandizement. I'm currently reading The Odyssey, and Odysseus is a prime example of this. I had always thought that the story was about him facing the odds and enduring hardship to return home to his wife and son. Not the case. He kind of dawdles around the Mediterranean, collecting loot; spending a year with Calypso, then a few weeks with Circe; collecting more loot; and then finally deciding that he might as well head home to his own land now. But his wiliness and courage make him a hero by the Greek definition.

The difference between how we view a hero now and how he was viewed then can actually be seen in Disney's "Hercules," where Hercules progresses from "zero to hero" by the popular definition, but never becomes a true hero until he sacrifices his life for Meg. Being a hero means more than defeating your enemies; to be a hero is harder than that. It is easy to kill, but harder to show mercy. It is a simple thing to destroy, but a harder thing to exercise justice. Even gaining riches is easy compared with the hardship of giving up everything for another.

Some of the best tales are ones that combine these two elements of a hero. Adding the thrill of a victorious warrior to the depth of a godly man makes a truly great character, like David. Not every protagonist will be a fighter, but every hero ought to that inward strength that sets him apart as a great man, a man who reflects Christ. For who so completely embodies the heart of a hero as our Lord?


  1. I've been thinking these same thoughts myself, only in a confused, muddled sort of way that I've never quite been able to get out clearly. You've put it beautifully. The idea of hero has progressed. I'm not a poetry scholar, nor a student of the Scandinavian situation, but it seems that Beowulf is a good transitional image, melding the two ideas of hero together. This is one of many things that makes me like him so much: he was a man of great courage, inestimable worth, both virtuous and mighty in military prowess. He was an experiment of the divine hero, I suppose: something fantastic, and trying, while keeping the trappings of an epic poem of the land, to be Christ-like.

    And you're right, of course, which is what I've been trying to say all along. You have only to take a step back and look at the whole of Jesus' work on earth, and you see the work and hear the words of a Hero. When you sweep aside the familiarity born in us out of countless hours spent in the Sunday School classroom, droning on about Jesus healing this person, Jesus healing that person, Jesus and the parables, etc. - all of a sudden the whole image takes on the shining golden glory of a hero-feat, of a real hero-feat, and all of a sudden your heart is in your throat and you can't quite see the image anymore because there is suddenly something wet in your eyes.

    We like hero stories, and there is nothing wrong with that. We are Human, and the Human is a fantastic figure, not quite steady on the turf, as it were, not quite here and not quite there, being both spirit and matter at once. So it's natural that we long for the Hero, reaching, as it were, in old stories toward what we once were. But among all peoples, we have the best Hero Story of all, because it's real, and close, and living, and active. There is a wrath greater than Achilles', and a mercy greater than Beowulf's, and we know it -

    Till the sun grows cold,
    And the stars are old,
    And the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold.

  2. There's a loyalty that's deeper than mere sentiment
    And a music higher than the songs that I can sing
    The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance
    I owe only to the Giver of all good things.

    And the best stories are the ones that reflect that as best they can.

  3. So if I stand let me stand on the promise
    That You will pull me through.
    And if I can't let my fall on the grace
    That first brought me to you.
    And if I sing let me sing for the joy
    That has born in me these songs.
    And if I weep let it be as a man
    Who is longing for his home!


  4. Very good points, Abigail. In my literature studies for school, I've learned that there is a difference between a protagonist and a hero, though the two are used interchangeably in normal conversation. I love your musings on heroes--so true and deep!

    Thanks for sharing. :)

  5. Musings = ramblings in this case! The post was inspired by the large amounts of Achilles-pictures I have in my images folder, and from reading The Odyssey. I'm glad you enjoyed it, though, despite the rambling!


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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