The Hero: A Reshaping of the Word

Stories of heroes always seem to have a certain pattern to them. There are people that are in trouble, and it’s up to the hero to either help rescue them. Usually, there is some sort of sacrifice or obstacle the hero must face and overcome to save those in need. However, the most important characteristic that one must have in order to be considered a true hero is that when their loved ones’ lives are at stake, they must sacrifice everything and fight with all they have. A hero should also have other unique qualities, such as loyalty, bravery, a love for others, and whatever other outstanding traits their society sees as heroic.

A good example of giving everything up for someone you love is the character, Prometheus, from Aeschylus’, Prometheus Bound. The story is about the god Prometheus, who befriends humans and gives them fire, blatantly ignoring the decree of the new ruling god, Zeus. The interesting thing about Prometheus is that he can see into the future, so he knew Zeus would punish him for his actions (Vellacott 20-25). Prometheus is a hero because he knew of the consequences, yet he still valued his friendship with the humans more than a higher god’s authority. This is what it means to fight for those you love. Even while Prometheus suffered his punishment of being chained to a mountain, he still held onto the friendships he had with the humans, and used it to get through the pain and suffering he had to endure.

If a hero truly loves someone, loyalty for that person will come second nature. However, if someone says that they love their family, yet abandon them in their greatest time of need, the act of disloyalty clearly shows that love was never there in the first place. In the Bible story of Ruth, we see a true love Ruth has for her family, even in the hardest of times. Ruth’s husband dies and she is left with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and sister-in-law, Orpah. Naomi insists Ruth and Orpah leave her to find another husband and lead a better life than if they stayed with her:

Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband. (365)

Orpah heeds Naomi’s advice, but Ruth stubbornly stays with her. Ruth works out in the fields gleaning crops to support Naomi and herself. In the end, Ruth is rewarded for her loyalty to Naomi and finds another husband in the town while still staying by her mother-in-law’s side (367-68). Ruth is considered a hero because her love for Naomi is the reason why she fought against the temptations of finding another husband elsewhere and abandoning Naomi for a better life. Ruth also fought against the hard labor she had to work through to support Naomi and herself, which shows how unselfish her intentions were.

The hero must be capable of loving others. However, there are certain figures who seem to do everything with selfish intentions, yet some believe they are a hero. In the story, Paradise Lost, the character, Satan, struggles to defeat his own doubts and weaknesses to accomplish his goal of corrupting mankind (Milton 5-25). Some believe that because Satan was able to overcome his personal struggles, he should be a hero, but his motivation should be examined. Wanting to corrupt others is not a way to protect those you love. In fact, Satan was unable to love anything. God gave him a perfect love in heaven, but he rejected it and was ungrateful. He also thought he could overthrow and replace God, and had no intention of returning the love of his heavenly Father. It’s true Satan overcomes a personal struggle inside himself, however, it’s his selfish intention with which he acts that does not make him a hero.

The actions of a hero must also be deliberate. No one can accidentally save the day and be considered a hero. For example, it turns out that Ruth’s lineage provides the world with David, one of the Bible’s greatest kings (370). Some might think Ruth is a hero because of her lineage, but this is not the case. Ruth did not know that marrying her second husband would eventually bring David into the world, so in this sense, she cannot be considered a hero.

Not only must a hero have certain qualities, but there also needs to be an important circumstance which deals with them confronting an enemy they must defeat.

Of course, a hero must also have an enemy they must defeat. Whether this enemy is an authoritative figure or a fault in their own character, the hero must stand up to the enemy and fight with everything they have. Antigone is a good example of a character that had to face an authoritative figure to stand up for those she loved. In the story, two brothers meet in battle, Eteocles, who defends the city Thebes, while the other, Polynices, leads a rebel group against it. Both are killed, and King Creon declares Eteocles be given a proper burial, but says if anyone tries to do the same for Polynices, they will be severely punished. Antigone, who is their sister, feels she should be loyal to Polynices and decides to pour dust over her dead brother’s body, a type of makeshift funerary service. She defies her king’s orders even though she knows the consequences she’ll have to face (Fagles 59-82). Bravery like this is fueled from the hero’s desire to see their loved ones safe and happy, and it’s what ultimately motivated Antigone to stand for what she thought was right.

An example of someone who overcomes a personal obstacle is Arjuna, from the Bhagavad-Gita. In the story, Arjuna is faced with the decision to either participate in a civil war where different parts of his family will be fighting against each other. He doubts the purpose of the war, and turns to his master, Krishna, for advice on what to do about his uncertainties (Miller 21-27). In the end, Arjuna makes an important discovery within himself:

Krishna, my delusion is destroyed,
and by your grace I have regained memory;
I stand here, my doubt dispelled,
ready to act on your words. (153)

Through Krishna’s teachings, we see Arjuna eventually conquer his doubting feelings, and overcome his personal struggle. However, Arjuna cannot be considered a true hero, because those he loves are the same people he is willing to fight against in battle. Thus, he is not fighting to protect anyone, but only following the commands of his superior.

With any definition of a hero, there are characters that will not fit the description, even though many believe they should be considered a hero no matter what. For instance, many people see the character, Achilles, of Homer’s epic story, The Iliad, as one of the greatest warrior-heroes of all time. However, he is actually the perfect example of what a hero is not. It’s true that Achilles killed many men of the Achaean army, and led the Myrmidons to many victorious battles, thus making him a very successful warrior. However, he cannot be a true hero because his motivations to fight were not out of love and desire to protect his people and comrades in battle. His motivation was for self-glory, and to make sure that people remembered his name. Others may think Achilles was fighting to avenge his dead friend, Patroclus, but there are things Achilles says and does that proves otherwise. For example, at one point in, The Iliad, Achilles leaves his army and prays to the gods that the Trojans would destroy them because his commander, Agamemnon, took away a woman he kept for himself after raiding a city (Fagles 62-66). This also shows that Achilles doesn’t even care about his army, and would rather see them die than try to resolve the conflict with Agamemnon. Throughout the story, if something happened where his pride was hurt, it would fuel his rage and motivate him even more to become a stronger warrior.

Another figure in literature that many call a hero is the king of England, Henry V. In William Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, the English priests convince the king that he has legitimate reasons as to why he should claim the throne of France (1.1-2). Thus, the war between England and France was started out of Henry’s egotistical reasons. In fact, it’s possible that instead, The Dauphin, the King of France’s son, could be considered a hero. The Dauphin is the man who rose up against the English and led the French army to protect those he loved, which exemplifies the true definition of a hero. However, his overconfident and cocky attitude keeps him from accomplishing complete heroism, and is partly to blame for the French’s loss to England.

An argument some might make against this definition of heroism is that the characteristics seem too feminine (Haynes 100). If a woman displays them, then it’s fine and she is a hero. However, if a man portrays the mentioned qualities, he might seem too feminine by his peers, who would need some proof of masculinity before deeming him a true hero. The problem with this argument is that the opposition seems to believe that the terms, “heroism,” and, “masculinity” are synonymous, when they are not. Though both words are based on how one does something, they are totally different. Heroism pertains to doing something for good (Webster 543), while being masculine only means doing something that is characteristic of a man (Webster 714). A man can lift up a heavy box, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a heroic act. If that same man used his masculinity to mug someone, his actions aren’t heroic at all, because they weren’t used for anyone’s good but his own. This is the opposition’s biggest fault, in that they see being a hero the same as being masculine.

Someone can kill thousands of evil men, or free hundreds of cities under oppression, but is not a hero if it was done with selfish intentions. A true hero stands up for those he loves, and lays everything on the line for them. Many characters in literature follow this mold, such as Prometheus, Arjuna, Antigone, and Ruth, to name a few. They show the loyalty, bravery, and most importantly, love for others, that’s needed in a hero. In addition, it is because of these traits that the characters are able to overcome an emotional or physical obstacle that is in the way of their goal. Thus, the true hero is not defined from what they do, say, or accomplish, but by their intentions and how much they are willing to sacrifice for their loved ones.

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