- The Heroic Ideal—A Personal Odyssey
I have subtitled this essay "A Personal Odyssey." Hackneyed though this is, I think it is relevant in more than one way. I have never been able to think of heroes or the heroic without taking them to some extent personally—particularly when I was asked to talk about these topics in relation to my book Fire and Hemlock.
As a child, I was an expert in heroes. The eccentricity of my parents meant that there were almost no books in the house except learned ones, or books they used for teaching—and I was an avid reader. So before I was ten I had read innumerable collections of Greek myths, including Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales, and the unabridged version of the Morte d'Arthur, in double columns and tiny print, from which, besides being very puzzled about just what Lancelot was doing in Guinevere's room, I made a mental league table of the Knights of the Round Table: Galahad went even below Kay, as a prig—my favorite was Sir Gawain. I also read Pilgrim's Progress and folk tales innumerable from all over the world, including all of Grimm—and also a certain amount of Hans Andersen, but as Andersen reputedly made his stories up, my parents only admitted him to their house in limited quantities. I then went on to the Odyssey, which I preferred to the Iliad.
In all this, I was saddened to find that as an eldest child and a girl I was barred from heroism entirely—or was I? I puzzled long over the story of Hero and Leander. Hero did nothing but let her lover do all that swimming. Obviously the girl was a wimp. But she had that name. When I was nine, much pleading wrung a frivolous book from my parents—The Arabian Nights, bowdlerized. Sheherazade, I was delighted to find, was an elder sister. So even though she did nothing but tell stories (literally for dear life), maybe there was some hope. I found it later in that book, in a tale in which the Sultana's jealous sisters tell the Sultan that his wife had given birth to a puppy, a kitten, and a log of wood. The log of wood was a girl, and she most heroically set things to rights. Good. It was possible for a girl to be a hero, then.
By this stage, I had acquired a firm mental grasp of what a hero is. A hero, first, is the one you identify with in the story. (Although this is not [End Page 129] quite intrinsic to heroism, it is a fact that keeps flowing back into the definition and influencing it in all sorts of ways. When I later read Paradise Lost, I saw at once that Milton had made the mistake of ignoring this.) Otherwise, heroes are brave, physically strong, never mean or vicious, and possessed of a code of honor that requires them to come to the aid of the weak or incompetent and the oppressed when nobody else will. In addition, most heroes are either related to, or advised by, the gods or other supernatural characters. The gods (even if they only appear in the form of Fate) are important for heroism for two reasons. First, they supply a huge extra set of dimensions that put the hero in touch with the rest of the universe and render his actions significant for the whole of humanity. Second, the fact that the gods are watching over him serves to keep the hero up to his code. If he does chance to behave in a mean or vicious way—or break any of the other rules, for that matter, which are part of the world of that particular story—then he is at once punished and corrected.
But above all, heroes go into action when the odds are against them. They do this knowingly, often knowing they are going to get killed, and for this reason they impinge on a hostile world in a way others don't. When they die, their deaths are glorious and pathetic beyond the average.