Do you ever think about the different roles heroes play in our favorite literary tales? Here is a look at two archetypes of our heroes.
When we think of a hero in literature, often we think of a muscle-bound warrior setting things right in through use of brawn and sometimes wit. Often such a hero is carrying a weapon, a sword for days past or a six shooter for more modern times. Every once in a while a female will take the role, but in the minds of many readers the idea of a hero is planted deeply with thoughts of the male, though this is changing in recent years.
Often enough storytellers, including Hollywood, have played with expectations of such a hero. For example, the John McClane character in the original Die Hard film knows the right end of a gun, but he does not have tons of muscles and quite often finds himself in ridiculous situations, such as having to face a small army of terrorists without the benefit of shoes; this creates comedic relief in Die Hard, but it is a step away from the more traditional heroes from tales by the likes of Robert E. Howard, Homer and to some extent J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien’s heroes are an interesting study in that they come in a wide variety of styles. Tolkien has several of the burly, sword-swinging characters, such as Boromir and to some extent Aragorn, but his best-known tales focus much on the hobbits, creatures barely half the height of a man and with little brawn and not much skill in matters dealing with war. Tolkien’s heroes also display a diversity in personalities, intellect and even spirituality. Some are quite boorish, others bordering on angelic. Boromir, for example, is quite strong, honorable in many ways, an experienced swordsman, a leader among men and quite noble. But they do come smarter and with more strength of will. Gandalf too has some skill in war and though no muscles are in sight upon this character, he shows few physical weaknesses, at least during action sequences, but is generally described not as a towering figure. Gandalf, however, is quite intelligent, intellectual and even spiritual, though this is not overt in Tolkien’s tales unless one goes looking for it. It also helps Gandalf that he is not mortal, as Tolkien called the character an “angel incarnate” in his letter #156. The hobbits themselves are often full of a rural intelligence, though lacking in experience while sometimes being adventurous. No hobbit, however, could be called a hero in the most traditional sense.
What this leaves us with is a swath of different types of literary heroes. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, colors and backgrounds. They come from differing nations, religions, planets, universes. There are so many potentially different types of heroes that it could be argued any one of us, at least within literature, has the potential to be a hero. Which might be part of what Tolkien was suggesting through his use of hobbits as the central point of much of his own mythology, and even as modern a fantasy writer as J.K. Rowling foretells through her use of someone as seemingly unnoticeable, at least at first, as her Harry Potter character.
Though literature abounds with a variety of heroes, to break such a study down further leads one toward two basic archetypes.
One is the more typical, with a weapon held high in arms bubbling with muscles. He is generally handsome, appealing to the opposite sex. He might or might not be overly intelligent, but generally he has some wit and what one could call common sense or street smarts. He rarely pauses to reflect upon his actions, but rushes into any dangerous situation. He is a self-made man, with rarely a need for companions, or at least companions who help him to save the day. Conan the Barbarian fits the bill nicely for this hero.
The other type of hero is less common, though often looked upon highly. This character rarely if ever carries a big weapon. He rarely is weighted down with muscles. Often enough it is his intelligence and knowledge that gets him through a situation, though he is more than willing to take on companions who are able to come to his aid. Sometimes in literature this can be a spiritual character, a spiritual hero. He is not necessarily religious, but at least seems in tune with the ideas of metaphysics. The Dr. Who character from the BBC television series leans strongly toward this type of hero.
In a series of lectures on religion given at the University of Edinburgh from 1901 to 1902, psychologist William James spoke of the “perfect man.” He broke down the idea of the perfect man into two types, which fit quite well to the notions of heroes.
One of James’ perfect men was basically a warrior, or general.
The other James thought of as a monk or priest.
In James’ opinion, the two are quite opposed, at least in the eyes of the general public. The warrior is the more accepted perfect man, but the monk will frown upon the fellow for his audacity of trying to change the physical world while disregarding the spiritual world. The monk-like character is often considered “effeminate” and cowardly by the warrior, mainly for focusing upon the next world and not this one.
Though James was not specifically speaking about literary heroes, the relations would seem obvious. During his lectures, James eventually surmises that both types of “perfect men” are necessary for mankind, that both fulfill needed archetypes for humanity.
Where does this lead us? If nothing else, to the notion it is possible to write and read of heroic characters who are not typical, not traditional.
In real life, a soldier who storms an enemy barricade is performing a heroic act. But perhaps so is a teacher who wakes up every day and drives to a school to teach our children. Each is a differing type and level of heroism, but that doesn’t make either less heroic. Without one type of hero, we might not have the other, and that works both ways.
Within my own writing, I have focused upon this duality of the hero quite overtly. In my Kobalos Trilogy, the main character is Kron Darkbow. He dresses in black, and his moods and thoughts lean heavily in that direction. Kron is no saint. In fact, he can be quite murderous. The flip side to Kron is Randall Tendbones, a young mage who wears white and acts and thinks in quite opposite ways from Kron. While Randall is not the main character of the trilogy, it is ultimately he who is changed most by events in the overall tale.
While splitting my heroes into literal black and white tropes, I did not want them to face easy tasks nor villains so vile their choices would be easy ones to make. Many of my villains tend to be worthy figures in their own right, men and women who have character and can be as noble as my heroes. If a villain is completely evil, there is little need to differentiate one’s heroes.
One could argue The Kobalos Trilogy oversimplifies this duality of the hero, but that was intentional upon my part, and I leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not such a fictional study works in the end.