Glance through the headlines in any newspaper or magazine, skim through the online news feeds, watch an hour of the news (local or otherwise) and you will undoubtedly come across multiple instances of the word “hero”. If modern media is to be believed we live in a society teeming with extraordinary examples of courage and fortitude. And yet, if you are looking for actual heroes, I think you will go wanting.
In America we have a long tradition of heroes beginning with the great men who founded this nation. We have erected temples and statues unto them like the classical gods of Greece but the passage of time and a less romanticized understanding of history have revealed them to be as flawed and human as the rest of us.
Next there were the war heroes. Traditionally these were men who had either served and died in the course of some brave deed; saving their comrades from certain doom or single handedly breaching enemy lines, or they had returned from almost certain death at enemy hands and lived to tell the tale. Since 9/11 the patriotic urge to celebrate military service has tumbled out of control and anyone who wears a uniform has been granted the title of “hero”.
What of the sports hero? Be it Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali or Jessy Owens, these were men who once seemed to exceed the physical limitations of the flesh and accomplished feats of physical skill unmatched by common men. Unfortunately the great athletes of our time have traded heroism for celebrity, sponsorship deals and performance enhancing drugs.
In a world where heroism is treated as both a commodity and a mark of validation to be handed out to anyone deemed worthy, by any criteria, we remove from the word any useful meaning at all. There was a time when heroism meant more.
The true heroes, the heroes of our ancestors, were far more than the diminished do-gooders of today. Part men and part god, they forced their way through the mythologies of their time and personally challenged great armies, terrible monsters and sometimes even the gods themselves for the protection of their tribe.
These men were warriors and sorcerers of a magnitude beyond their more common kin. They typically lived brief and bloody lives but were remembered in story and song long after their descendants had passed away. I am speaking here of the likes of Hercules, Beowulf and Cúchulainn. I am speaking of Heroes!
“His great valor brings to mind Cúchulainn of Murtheimne, the hound of Culann, full of fame. Who he is I cannot tell, but I see, now, the whole host colored crimson by his hand.”
The Táin Bó Cuailnge – Kinsella Translation
The dominant spiritual mythology of modern western culture has no heroic tradition and the true heroes have fallen away from us as we have lost touch with the legends upon which western civilization was originally built. We seek a tangible heroism among those of our own kind but still we crave the hero of myth.
If you need evidence of that you only had to visit the Dallas Comic Con with me this weekend. Walking among the thousands in attendance, I personally encountered hundreds of men and women dressed as both superheroes and villains in an almost religious celebration of, what is, the closest thing we have in the western world to a living mythological tradition.
The superhero is the modern expression of the ‘heroic ideal’ presented in the mythological sagas. Some are strange visitors to our world with abilities beyond those of mortal men. Others were driven by cruel fate to travel the world learning the skills necessary to protect the innocent until finally taking on an animal form to strike supernatural fear into their foes. Superheroes are place-holders for the legends of old, linking us to a past that most of us can’t remember but to which we are deeply connected.
More people than ever before are flocking to conventions to see and hear and touch and in many cases wear the (metaphorical) skin of their heroes. Superhero movies and games grow ever more profitable and the comic book has risen to greatness as a popular art form. As the fan base grows, I wonder how much of that growing fervency is built from desperation?
The fatal flaw of the superhero is that he exists within a fictional world churned out by publishers and studios. The heroes of old roamed a landscape that their followers could believe in because they walked it themselves every day. When we stopped telling those stories, and believing in them, we lost something vital within ourselves.
We have abandoned our connection to the mythological and to find our way back we are going to need heroes we can believe in. However much we may thrill to their adventures, the Dark Knight and the Avengers represent a bandaid solution to a very real problem.
Perhaps we are doomed to live in a world without heroes. Or perhaps the cultural embrace of the superhero mythos is a sign that we are ready for a return to the true heroes of old. Only time will tell, dear readers.