Hero & Quest: What is a “Hero?”

In today’s popular literature, the “anti-hero” has become the new hero. Why? Many claim this is in reflection of either A) reality (i.e. that no one is a “real hero”) or B) a symptom of the uncertain times we live in.

But haven’t we always lived in uncertain times? I can’t think of a single era or culture that was not lamenting the greatness of the past while gnashing their teeth at what they see as the destruction of the future (I mean, did nobody expect the Spanish Inquisition? *snerk*). So why has the tide changed against the “hero” in favor of the anti-hero? I don’t know but I’m desperate to discover why. Especially since my personal taste trends towards the typical hero.

I’m currently listening to a class, “Hero and Quest” taught by Dr. Larry George (subtitled “Heroes and Maidens”). This is a fascinating class thus far and it’s giving me great food for thought.

Today’s discussion was the “Mythic Hero.”

From Wikipedia: The “Mythic Hero Archetype” is a set of 22 common traits shared by many heroes in various cultures, myths and religions throughout history and around the world. The concept was first developed by FitzRoy Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan (Lord Raglan) in his 1936 book, The Hero, A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama. Raglan argued that the higher the score, the more likely the figure is mythical.

1. Mother is a royal virgin
2. Father is a king
3. Father related to mother
4. Unusual conception
5. Hero reputed to be son of god
6. Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather
7. Hero spirited away as a child
8. Reared by foster parents in a far country
9. No details of childhood
10. Returns or goes to future kingdom
11. Is victor over king, giant, dragon or beast
12. Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor)
13. Becomes king
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully
15. He prescribes laws
16. Later loses favor with gods or his subjects
17. Driven from throne and city
18. Meets with mysterious death
19. Often at the top of a hill
20. His children, if any, do not succeed him [i.e., does not found a dynasty]
21. His body is not buried
22. Nonetheless has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs

Several heroes were scored based on these archetypes:
Oedipus (22)
Theseus (20)
Romulus (17)
Hercules (17)
Perseus (16)
Zeus (15)
Jason (15)
Robin Hood (13)
Apollo (11)

The greatest of these heroes – thus far – would be King Arthur. Dr. George stated that King Arthur would receive 22 or more of these points (some items he scores twice).

Looking at this great list of [traits? Actions? Activity?] – holding numerous plot options – I can’t help but wonder why we get less epic heroes like Arthur but more rapist-killers like the MC from Prince of Thorns. Especially as I watch our TV and movies slide into “All Superhero, All the time” status (but with reboots that give our shiny heroes more tarnished armor).

9 thoughts on “Hero & Quest: What is a “Hero?”

  1. Agreed! I dislike the current trend of anti-heroes too. I like good guys and, as a writer, try making my heroes good, although none of them sports any mythological point from your list. Maybe because of that, not all readers accept my characters. Some readers disagree with my definition of good, apparently. :))
    But as a reader, I hate reading about killers and rapists and losers. I just started reading Big Maria and couldn’t go past chapter 1. The guy is repulsive on the first page. Although some readers consider it funny, I always think in terms of living with such a fellow. NO! No way. I want to be on the other side of town. Why would I want to read about him? Should I be more tolerant, I wonder?

    • IDK, if I hate a major character I’m likely not to finish the book. I hate, HATE anti-heroes and alpholes. Its just ugh.

      I refused to read a Game of Thrones and please – spare me the “realistic” comments. I mean, dragons much?

      Like you, I love a good guy – so I’m also not a fan of the make the superhero a dark guy thing. Superman snapping someone’s neck??! Acccck! I STILL can’t un-see that!

  2. Personally, I enjoy the anti-hero more because I find their psyches more interesting. I enjoy that I never can quite tell what they’re going to do. But not all anti-heroes are created equal. I enjoy the kind that have to dig to find the good in themselves, who actively try to be better. I really can’t stand the kind who are just assholes and do good in spite of themselves, or by accident.

    But there’s always something to be said for the good ol’ fashioned shiny hero. They also come in all kinds of flavours, my favourite being the ones who are are hard to like, but who can *always* be counted on the do the right thing and to follow the rules.

    It’s important to have both types, I think. The shinning Good Guy gives us an ideal standard, and the Anti-Hero gives a closer look at what we can actually achieve. I think the most attractive thing about anti-heroes is that their stories almost always involve redemption. They were never perfect and the more interesting ones, imo, actually try to redeem themselves. It makes them more relatable. I hear you on the Superman thing. He was never my favourite, but even I was disturbed that they turned him into a killer. I could literally feel him sliding down the scale of “Good Guy”.

    Then you have shows like Walking Dead, where the entire world has gone Lord of the Flies and you constantly have characters having to redefine what “good” actually means. A lot of people dislike Rick because he can be very impractical and emotional, but its because he stubbornly hangs on to ideas like fairness and justice. He’s proof of just how difficult it is to be the Good Guy.

    • I’ve been thinking about this comment – IDK, is there a difference between the anti-hero and the reluctant hero? Because a lot of what you describe I would nominally term “reluctant.”

      When I think of the anti-hero today (not counting Superheroes) I think of the MC of books like “Prince of Thorns” who gets a kick out of raping and killing. This, I do not understand and I can not like.

      • In that case, it would depend on why the hero is reluctant. Karigan G’ladheon from Green Rider wants a normal, conflict free life but she does what she has to. Then you have Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, who just doesn’t want to be bothered by any favours but who is more than willing to exact revenge. Any MC who balks at their “quest”, complains about it, undermines it or bends the rules falls into my anti-hero category. Basically, if they aren’t selfless, courageous, honourable or fair I consider them anti hero, but that’s just my own personal definition.

        I haven’t read Prince of Thorns (and it sounds like I never will) but I know that it’s gaining some popularity. I think everyone has their limits to what they’ll accept in “hero”. Most people (myself included) conveniently forget that Odysseus threw Trojan babies over the wall. I don’t think I could accept anyone capable of rape as *any* kind of hero.

        It’s its dangerous practice to set up a MC with all these awesome admirable qualities then, say “oh, by the way, he’s a rapist”. It runs dangerously close to equating good qualities with unforgivable actions. In the Walking Dead show (not so much the comics) they often talk about what you “can come back from”. Everyone has to do horrible things to survive or save loved ones, but there *are* some things that are just beyond forgiveness or redemption. It’s interesting that in Walking Dead, rape is one of those unforgivable things.

      • Sorta off subject (but not) re: Odysseus.

        When I read The Odyssey as a stand alone, I have sympathy for Odysseus. But when I read it in conjunction with or following a reading of The Iliad, I am disgusted and cool that it takes him forever and his home has been almost ruined.

        One of my bookclubs is about to read “Lord of the Silver Bow” and I’m nervous, lol.

        Re: Prince of Thorns – the MC is pretty much a sociopath.

      • I totally understand, Odysseus is tricky that way.

        Hope you enjoy Lord of the Silver Bow. I really enjoy historical fiction, but I tend to avoid re-tellings of epics – like you said earlier, it’s hard to un-see / un-read something!

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