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  • The Heroic in Literature and in Living
  • Madeleine L'Engle (bio)

Picture a middle aged man slumped in a wheel chair, unable to move, unable to speak except through a mechanical voice. It is difficult for him even to swallow his own saliva. And he is a hero, married to a heroine.

His name is Stephen Hawking, and he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the same disease that killed Lou Gehrig. This disease usually kills in two or three years, but in Stephen Hawking it has moved unexpectedly and unusually slowly. After the diagnosis of the life-threatening disease, he fell apart; but then the disease did not progress and he met and married his wife, Jane, fathered three sons, and has become the most exciting physicist since Einstein. His wife has kept him in the world, preventing him from being isolated by his illness, traveling with him, giving dinner parties, refusing to let his disease deny him the stimulation and challenge of fellow human beings.

He is a hero because he has overcome fearful odds, because his mind is unfettered as it roves the universe, seeking for the Grand Unified Theory which will put together Einstein's theories of relativity with the discoveries of particle physics. He is a hero because he can still laugh, see the humor in life, and announce, "My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is and why it exists at all."

The heroic personality always has unusual odds to overcome, and ultimately enlarges our own understanding of the extraordinary universe in which we live. As Hawking says, "We see the universe the way it is because if it were different we would not be here to observe it." For our universe is made in such a way that it has taken a great number of seeming coincidences to produce a potential habitat for human life. For instance, if our gravity were even a fraction less than it is, all stars would be red dwarves and human life would be impossible; if it were a fraction greater, all stars would be blue giants and human life would be equally impossible.

So, in a sense, Creation has done the heroically impossible in giving us a universe which is capable of producing strong young suns with planetary systems, and an atmosphere that is precisely right for the arrival of human beings who grow, question, wonder, search, tell stories.

I had a lot of heroes and heroines when I was a child, and I believe [End Page 120] that heroes are essential for our own development, because they are models for us, giving us hope that we, too, can do amazing things, beyond ordinary capacity. I still need heroic people to look up to in order to live my own life creatively.

My favorite heroine when I was nine or ten years old was Emily of New Moon. Emily was the creation of L. M. Montgomery, better known for her Anne of Green Gables series. I liked Anne, and still do, but Emily was special to me. Emily's father was dying from diseased lungs; my father was dying from lungs which had been mustard gassed in that war which was supposed to end war, but which started a century of war. Emily had some rather frightful and manipulative uncles and aunts who might have smothered her Emilyness if she had not stubbornly resisted. Emily helped me keep my own Madeleineness. Emily wanted to be a writer, and so did I. Emily was ecstatic over the beauties of this planet, and though I lived in a very different geography, Manhattan Island being nothing like Prince Edward Island, I, too, could move from grief to joy at the sight of a tiny new moon curled around a star. Emily understood that there is more to the world than the limited realm of provable fact; she had a touch of what the Scots called Second Sight, a fearful gift which occasionally brushed by me. Emily gave me the courage and the will to go on writing my stories and poems when my middle grade teachers thought me stupid and worthless. It is not easy...


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pp. 120-128
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