The notion that some people are classified as heroes and others as villains has always intrigued me. Growing up, fairy tales and histories with their respective protagonists captured my imagination. More recently I have been thinking a lot about heroism because both of my main characters in The Edge of the World have inherited that interest of mine.
It would be odd to proclaim yourself a hero. You’d risk looking insane unless you have successfully installed yourself as the leader of an illustrious dictatorship perhaps. Instead, you could be called a hero by those around you after fulfilling a challenge of some gravitas. Two aspects of that process fascinate me. The retrospective nature of declarations of heroism is one, the subjectivity of that dubious honour the other.
When we talk about those that are lauded in history books and tales of old, we clearly see their journey of action and reaction. We see a beginning and an end. Yet, the individual we talk about would not have had the same luxury. No one has, after all, the gift of foresight. While some people are incredibly gifted when it comes to predicting what might happen, they can still only act in the way they deem most suitable given the circumstances. There’s always an element of gambling involved when picking one action over another. The more controversial the choice at hand, the greater the gamble. The more extreme the choice, the greater the likelihood you might be crowned a hero or be branded a villain.
The way actions are interpreted retrospectively is far from objective. The judgement heavily relies on the status quo of the time. On the narrative that shapes society and on the challenges it faces. A daredevil can be a hero in one place and a villain in another. Statues can be erected to honour someone one year and they can be overthrown when the political tide turns. A person that is declared a hero by some, can simultaneously be branded an enemy by others.
This would suggest that heroes, and villains for that matter, play a role in the functioning of society. To justify, perhaps, some of the more questionable choices that were made when the ways to the present were paved. To embody the values that are praised in said society and discredit what isn’t deemed worthy. By doing that, the figures that feature in history’s most famous episodes lose their human complexity. What makes them human is discarded in favour of the few characteristics they possessed that elevated them in the first place.
Heroes become commodities. Products with a very specific, singular purpose. To embody a sentiment, to embody a value. To create a tangible reminder of what we should or could model ourselves on. They are no longer recognised as faces and minds with a medley of character traits. They become masks without eyes, bodies frozen in time. They become beacons needed to keep humanity on track, yet at the same time, they become the leashes that keep mankind tied to its past. Until the status quo is overthrown and what was perceived as valour, selflessness and determination may suddenly be interpreted as cunning, cruel and immoral.
“We cannot be chained by the memories of a past, no matter how fascinating that past might be. How can a country that is held hostage by its history truly be progressive?”
In art, the binary division between heroes and villains is not as common as it used to be. Whereas no one would ever speak out in favour of the dark lord Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, it’s considerably more difficult to pick a side in A Song of Ice and Fire. Many people agree that characters with hero-potential are complex. They aren’t good or bad. They are a balance of both and depending on the side you are rooting for, the balance tips to one side or the other. It’s that fine line that made it so excruciating to see Daenerys Targaryen attack Jaime Lannister and Ser Bronn after the sacking of High Garden. It’s the lack of complexity, however, that made the battle against Lord Voldemort slightly anti-climactic.
In real life, seeing all shades of grey is more difficult. We are no spectators on the side. Instead, we tend to be involved in one way or another, personally, or because we are bound to our nations, communities or families. Unlike with fiction, the consequences of the actions we endorse are not always logically measurable. There is no clear end or beginning.
There is a never-ending fascination for heroes and celebrityhood though. Stars are depicted in the media as brands and masses laude their masks, often blind to the complexities underneath. The souls of the past are remembered. Those who were sacrificed for freedom. Kings, presidents and other noteworthy individuals are remembered for their deeds. Heroes without detailed faces, with auras of stone.
I don’t think it’s bad to look at historical figures and mythological creatures. But I do think we should not aspire to live their lives in the present. Doing so would hinder our development because it generates a sense that all was better in the past. Yet the ink of history has dried and cannot be erased. We cannot be chained by the memories of a past, no matter how fascinating that past might be. How can a country that is held hostage by its history truly be progressive? We shouldn’t be shackled to the lingering ghosts of a past that will never be again. Not if we want to grow.