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The word hero is commonly applied to many different types of people

performing wildly varying acts. For instance, extraordinary acts of physical

strength and courage, such as saving a stranger from a burning house or
standing up to an armed assailant, are feats we would typically label heroic.
Physical courage is not the only component of heroism, however. Those who
exhibit moral courage, such as people who put their own lives or reputations at
stake to do or say what is right, rather than what is merely popular, are also
called heroes. Heroes can also be those close friends or loved ones whom we
admire and treat as role models, calling such a person “my hero.” We routinely
use the term for our popular and talented sports figures as well, whether or not
their behavior off the playing field can be considered heroic.We even use it to
refer to people who are inspirations to others, inspirations that do not necessarily
hinge on physical strength or moral superiority. With all of these varied uses,
clearly explaining the allure of heroism as a literary theme is difficult.
Compounding that difficulty is the fact that in literary studies, the term hero is
used to refer to the central character of a work.
According to John Dryden who first used the term hero on 1697 still
commonly accepted as a synonym for protagonist, even when the protagonist
does nothing particularly heroic. We have long used the word heroic to refer to
acts that are special or extraordinary. The exploits of professional athletes, the
life-saving missions of soldiers and firefighters, the bravery of whistleblowers,
and even the lives of fictional characters in our most cherished works of literature
seem, in our minds, to certify them as “heroes.” Getting at the heart of what
qualifies behavior as heroic may explain why Dryden’s arguable misuse of the
term has had such staying power. The word hero is of Greek origin, and in Greek
mythology it referred to those who were favored by the gods or had “godlike”
qualities. The Oxford English Dictionary describes heroes as “men of super
human strength, courage, or ability.” The emphasis here is on super, an adjective
that suggests heroism goes beyond what human beings are expected to do.

According to Joseph Campbell, who has written some of the best-known

works on mythology and heroism, echoes Carlyle when he says: “The hero,
therefore, is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his [or her]
personal and local limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms”. In
other words, heroes begin life as normal people, but through some extraordinary
gift, they are able to begin on and succeed at the journey upon which they will
prove their heroism. Carlyle and Campbell both stress that human beings need
heroes—that our response to them satisfies a basic human impulse. We need,
apparently, the inspiration and motivation derived from believing there are heroes
in the world to whose example we may aspire.
According to Nietzsche, a 19th- century German philosopher, wrote in Thus
Spoke Zarathustra (1883). Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the übermensch
(sometimes translated as “superman”) speaks to this concept of going beyond
human ability. that in the modern world, God, or the concept of God, had ceased
to give life meaning. This void, he wrote, could be filled by the übermensch, a
superior, transcendent human being who would give new meaning to life. All
could seek to reach this status, thus creating a world in which all were motivated
by a love of the present world and the present time.

According to a Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1840, would

agree that the heroism must be life affirming, although he would not agree that
religion had ceased to give life meaning. In fact, in On Heroes, Hero-Worship,
and the Heroic in History, he wrote that “all religions stand upon” the worship of
heroes, and that Jesus Christ could be considered the “greatest of all heroes”.
Carlyle goes on to set up criteria for what makes a hero or a heroic action: He
says a hero must conquer fear, otherwise he is acting as but a “slave and
coward”. Further, he must be earnest and sincere and have a vision that
penetrates beyond what the average eye might see. Finally, he must be an
inspiration to others, someone who can “light the way”. As Carlyle was one of the
first to write on the subject seriously, many of his criteria have lasted and are
reinforced by theorists of the present day. Carlyle and Campbell both stress that
human beings need heroes that our response to them satisfies a basic human
impulse. We need, apparently, the inspiration and motivation derived from
believing there are heroes in the world to whose example we may aspire.

Heroes are “motivated by a profound respect for human life,” that their vision of
what is possible goes beyond that of others, that they possess great courage,
and that they are not motivated by public opinion.(Polster, 1992) One of the
examples Antigone, from Sophocles’ play Antigone, who at great personal risk to
herself buries the body of her brother Polynices against the wishes of her uncle,
the king. Antigone is a hero here because her driving motivation is respect for her
brother’s life. She knows she must honor this life, even in death.

Polster goes on to note that hero and heroism are words that have long been
associated with men because of the popular focus on physical courage and
strength. Indeed, the word first appeared in Homer’s The Iliad, when the name
was given to all those who had participated in the Trojan Wars and about whom a
story could be told. But, as Carlyle and Campbell both stress, possessing great
moral courage is just as rare and should be honored with as much fervor. For
example, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane displays more moral courage
than anyone in the novel, standing by her friend Charlotte Temple, standing up to
her evil Aunt Reed, refusing to marry St. John Rivers because she is not in love
with him, and returning to the injured Mr. Rochester. Jane’s efforts are
consistently heroic because they affirm life, they are selfless, and they inspire
others to good. In contrast, Henry Fleming’s actions in Stephen Crane’s The Red
Badge of Courage are not so consistent. Fleeing his first battle, Fleming acts only
out of fear. However, when he returns to battle a changed man, Crane seems to
suggest that he is still acting out of fear. He is now motivated by his desire not to
be seen as a coward. Tim O’Brien, author of the Vietnam War novels Going after
Cacciato and The Things They Carried, has asserted that men have killed and
died “because they were afraid not to.”

Harris and Platzner assess that heroines don’t often “go on quests or engage in
combat with monsters or gods”. An evaluation of Ancient Greek sources such as
Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia, suggests that the main role of the female hero
was that of sacrifice. The female heroic figure is excessively seen with this
quality of self sacrifice, such as with Polyxena. Euripides explains that Polyxena
is self-sacrificial in nature for the sake of her people. As Euripides asserts that
through her sacrifice to Achilles, the Greeks were finally able to set out on their
voyage to Troy and the awaiting war. However Polyxena also expresses more
masculine qualities of wishing to obtain her honor and spirit by insisting on dying
with dignity, not as a slave, so she can be a willing sacrifice.
The female heroic character in Greek literature was however more than
sacrificing.. Most female heroic figures also expressed qualities of wisdom,
cunning and dignity. Pomeroy explains that “Aristotle judged it inappropriate for a
female character to be portrayed as manly or clever” but analysis of characters
like Penelope and Nausicaa in the Odyssey, indicates that female heroic figures
could, and did, hold these essentially masculine qualities. Homer explains that
Penelope outwitted her suitors for years by weaving and unraveling a huge web,
displaying a cunning mind and, in so doing, keeping her dignity. Nausicaa also
shows these qualities. Homer explains that she kept her distance from Odysseus,
even when she rescued him, for knowledge of the destructive powers of talk and
never lost her honor. Through this assessment we can see that the concept of
female heroism did exist as evident in the actions and qualities of certain figures
in relation to their portrayal in texts. But this concept of heroism is more passive
in some respects to the male literary heroes, their quests and obviously heroic

According to Roger Sales this much is true about the heroism of our century,
and it is probably truer of our century than of some earlier ones: it is rare, and it is
not easy to recognize . If readers of Tolkien in the fifties and sixties could not see
how he and Frodo (his fictional hero) are modern heroes, let us add right away
that no one seems to know, as yet, what postmodern or contemporary heroism is.
In his work, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created a saga in the tradition of
the ancient northern European myths and legends that he had studied for much
of his life. Yet there is an anomaly at the very heart of the story. The role of hero
is given, not to any of the bold warriors or mighty wizards that inhabit the pages,
but to “a three-foot high bundle of timidity with furry feet” (Helms 40) one of a
race of little creatures Tolkien invented and called “hobbits.”
Tolkien built extensively on existing traditions and could point to established
literary antecedents for almost everything in his tale. But the hobbits rustic,
pragmatic, usually stay at home folk were something apart. They were in many
respects his own special creation (Shippey 2002, xv, 1–7, and 45–47).

According to a anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, who expressed in

his seminal work on mythology, The Golden Bough (1922), his view that myths
were simply stories that the ancients had made up to understand themselves and
the world around them better. When writing of Christianity, Frazer made the point
that many civilizations, both pre- and post-Christian, had myths about a god who
dies and comes back to life, and about a king who must be killed for the good of
everyone else . Frazer’s contemporary Robert Graves restates Frazer’s view
thus: “What (Frazer) was saying-not-saying was that Christian legend, dogma,
and ritual are the refinement of a great body of primitive and barbarous beliefs”
(Graves 242; see also Hooper, 184-185, and Lewis 1994, 122-3).

According to Thomas M. Egan he observes that Medieval philosophers

accepted the unity of all aspects of Truth, assuming a hierarchy of pre-Christian
values which implicitly embodied Christian beliefs. Pagan philosophies were seen
as prefigurements of teachings of the Church. . . . Chesterton’s views anticipate
those of Tolkien, particularly in The Everlasting Man (published in 1925). Here he
explores the universal nature of myth and notes how the major threads of pagan
mythology finally come true in the Christian story: the stories of virgin births of
gods come true in the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation; the death-and-rebirth
fertility cults come true in the Resurrection of Christ; human sacrifice becomes
Christ’s sacrifice. (46-48; see also Zimbardo 134 and Pearce 161-2)
In a 1931 letter, Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis (not a Christian at the time)
describes a conversation with Tolkien and their friend Hugo Dyson about the
significance of myths, in which the two men explained their belief that the story of
Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others,
but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. The Pagan stories are
God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He
found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call
‘real things.’ (Lewis 1988, 288-289, emphasis in original)
According to these sources, in writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien saw
himself doing more than just telling a fairy tale or building on an ancient legend in
his own view, he was communicating fundamental truths. Although his story was
set in a “world of virtuous pre-Christian monotheism” (O’Hehir part 2, par. 9), he
would later write to a friend. The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally
religious and Catholic work; unconsciously of course, but consciously in the
revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to
anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the
religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. (2000, 172)
It makes sense, then, to study Tolkien’s unlikely hero as a Christian hero. Yet
many critics both those who have studied the Christian elements of the tale and
those who have concentrated on other aspects have been struck by the
dissimilarities between Frodo and the traditional Christian hero. They have often
gone so far as to set up another character as the hero. Yet in doing so, they are
overlooking other key elements in the character and in the story, leading to an
incomplete understanding of Frodo and a failure to realize the extent of the
influence of his creator’s Christian ideals on his characterization. Among these
elements are his humility, the nature of his quest, the mercy he shows to others,
his fight against temptation and, paradoxically, even his failure at the climax of
the story.