Friday, January 10, 2014

Heroism and True Heroes, Part 2

Last time, I wrote about my definition of a true hero and some examples of characters who aren't true heroes (at least in the stories that we have of them). Today I want to talk about someone who is. I'm going to choose Bilbo Baggins because his status as hero was what started this exploration.

Let's look at the first half of my definition of a hero: doing the right thing even when the easy path is open or something you've chosen in the past. The shining moment in which Bilbo does this is when he is in the goblin caves with Gollum, wearing the Ring and holding the sword Sting. Bilbo knows that Gollum would kill him without a second thought if their situations were reversed. He also knows that Gollum has already been a threat to his life. Yet, Bilbo determines not to kill Gollum if he can avoid it. He chooses to see Gollum for the pitiful creature that he is, and that pity goes on to not only keep Bilbo's own soul untainted by murder but to inspire Bilbo's cousin Frodo. Bilbo's pity keeps Frodo from killing Gollum many years later, and because of that choice the Ring is ultimately destroyed and Sauron is defeated.

But Bilbo doesn't just choose not to kill someone when he could. There are several other moments in his story when he chooses what is right over what is easy. He also chooses to attempt to save his dwarf companions from the trolls when he himself is captured, rather than giving them over to save himself. He chooses the same thing when he and his friends are captured by spiders in Mirkwood, and when the dwarves are taken to the Elf-king's dungeons, he works tirelessly to find a way of escape for all of the company. He does these things despite the fact that most of the company see him as a nuisance at best and at worst a burden that Gandalf has foisted upon them.

The final moment of Bilbo's doing the right thing in the face of adversity coincides with his fulfilling the second half of my definition: " doing the right thing whether or not it will be known, appreciated, or 'worth it' and regardless of who benefits from your doing the right thing."

It is when Bilbo decides to use the Arkenstone as his bargaining chip in order to save Thorin and the other dwarves from their own greed. Though Thorin sees Bilbo's actions as a betrayal, Gandalf understands the hobbit's motivation. Bilbo saw Thorin's destruction coming to him and did what he could to save his friends. In the end, Thorin asks Bilbo's forgiveness, making things right between them, but at the time of Bilbo's "betrayal" there is no guarantee that his actions will lead to the result he desires. In fact, there is very little hope that any of them will live past the end of the day, since there is such a large battle looming over all of those involved.

While Bilbo is not perfect – there is only one compelling Hero who is – he does fit my definition of a hero. He is not alone in fitting this definition, but he is a prime example.

So, which characters do you think are heroes, based on this definition or your own? Are there other (and perhaps, better) definitions for a hero? Are there things missing from this definition?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Heroism and True Heroes, Part 1

Recently, a friend of mine posted that about a revision of The Hobbit in which Bilbo was gender swapped. One of her main issues with this is that instead of creating a new female hero, the reviser simply did damage to one of the few true male heroes in existence*. She listed the three true male heroes she has encountered as Bilbo Baggins (of The Hobbit), the Doctor (of Doctor Who), and Agent Coulson (from the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Obviously these are all fictional characters, but the conversation seemed to be concerned mainly with fictional characters rather than real-life heroes. This post will be following in the same vein.

In reading her post and the ensuing discussion, I started to think about heroes I had watched or read. I also began to wonder about my own characters and whether I had written any true heroes of either gender. That thought led me back to something I had written in a previous discussion on heroism with another friend:

Heroism is a) doing the right thing when the easy path is open and/or something you have chosen in the past and b) doing the right thing whether or not it will be known, appreciated, or "worth it" and regardless of who benefits from your doing the right thing.

This definition is a bit complex, but when I wrote it, I was covering my bases. Anyone can face a temptation and walk past, even a great temptation, if it's never been an issue for them. But tell a thief to walk past a dragon-guarded treasure because the fate of the world depends on it, and he becomes a hero if he succeeds. Also, doing the right thing even if your enemies benefit demonstrates not only a strong moral code but also the faith and strength to trust that doing the right thing will work out in the end. This may sound sappy or saccharine or even feeble-minded, but let's be honest. We cheer for the guy or gal who doesn't kill the villain unless forced. The person who simply wants to keep people safe instead of hurting them is to be cheered. Action "heroes" like Rambo and the Terminator** are all well and good, but they aren't people you would want to spend any amount of time with. They aren't what my friend or I would call a true hero.

Using the phrase "true hero" means I have to touch on the Disney film Hercules, since his goal in the film is to become a true hero. For Hercules, this happens when he is willing to sacrifice himself trying to save the woman he loves. This is a heroic action, but I'd say Herc isn't a true hero because of this one action. At least, not in the sense we're dealing with. This is likely the beginning of his journey as a true hero, rather than the end, since this (and his attempts to stop the Cyclops from destroying Thebes) is done in the face of overwhelming odds and such. It's true that Herc isn't a true hero before this sequence because he's basically a celebrity hero, which isn't much of a hero at all. Remember what we said in the definition above: a hero does the right thing even if it won't be known or appreciated.  I suppose that makes it seem like doing the right thing if it will be known or appreciated makes the deed un-heroic, but that's not my point. The problem with Hercules' actions is that they are both examples where someone is going to know and likely appreciate his efforts. In the case of the latter action, sacrificing himself for Meg, he gets promoted from demigod to god as soon as he reaches Meg's spirit in the Underworld. Should heroes be rewarded for their deeds? Of course. But Hercules doesn't do anything in the sidelines. His whole goal is to join his parents on Olympus, not to do the right thing for the sake of its being the right thing.

I'll talk about an example of a true hero next time. Feel free to offer suggestions and rebuttals below.

*Note 1: Not to say that being a female is inferior or any such tripe. The intention of the statement was that a true hero is inspiring to people regardless of gender, and changing a character's gender in order to be more PC or feminist or what have you is insulting to the character and does nothing to improve him/her.

**Note 2: I haven't seen any of the films in these series from start to finish with the exception of Terminator: Redemption. If you think one of these characters qualifies as a true hero, please provide me with your argument. I'm always open to learning something new.