This semester in my lit survey course, I decided to focus the theme of our readings around the idea of heroism, the hero’s journey, and the various and complicated ways heroics are played out in prose, poetry, and on screen. As it’s the first time I’m teaching the course in this way, there will be some wrinkles to iron out for the next time around, but thus far it has been fairly effective. My students have a working understanding of Campbell’s Monomyth and we’ve finally moved away from the stereotypical image of the hero as he (note the gender) who protects the weak and innocent from the wicked and powerful. There’s a lot more to it than that, as a cursory investigation into heroic figures will quickly show.
To wrap up the semester, we’re taking a look at two deconstructionist approaches to the heroic myth. First is Watchmen, the iconic graphic novel by Moore and Gibson. The second is The Big Lebowski by the Cohen brothers. Both stories feature ‘heroic’ characters in a certain sense – they solve the mystery, they save the world, they do justice to the unjust. However, there is an issue of intent and nature at play in both stories that holds the heroic acts (the external heroism, if you will) as suspect and hollow when taken in context of the personal intent of the heroes (the internal heroism of the characters). I don’t wish to ruin the ending of either tale, but it is hard to say that either the Dude or Rorschach are internally heroic or intend to do what is ‘right’ for the sake of it. If good comes of their behavior, it is primarily accidental or derivative.
So, that begs the question: Does a hero need intent? If you go out one morning and, purely by accident, foil a bank robbery by slipping on a banana peel and save the lives of seven people, are you a hero? Most of us would say no. Let me provide a different example: if you are forced, at gunpoint, to save a child from a burning house, are you a hero? The answer becomes less clear. Final example: If you are compelled by a psychological or social disorder to run around each evening beating up muggers and dragging them to jail, does that make you heroic? This last instance is where we so commonly come down on the side of ‘yes’, though we seldom have the question put to us so succinctly. Batman (and Rorschach) are compelled by trauma to do what they do in order to feel sane or whole. It can be convincingly argued that they don’t do it because of philosophical ideals any moreso than the guy who slips on the banana peel. If the outcome of the behavior in question is negative (the ‘hero’ does not run around bringing crooks to justice but rather assaults women in an attempt to steal their underwear), the insanity defense will readily and often successfully be deployed in their trial: “They are not responsible for their actions, your honor – this man is out of his freaking mind and needs intense psychiatric care.”
The issue of intent pivots around the long-standing debate over the existence of free will. Not to delve too deeply into philosophy and neuroscience, but in brief it goes like this: It is debatable that you make decisions based upon some concept of independent will. It can be argued that all of us are amalgams of environmental influence and genetic predisposition that dictates our behavior and that, outside of additional outside influence, we cannot change ourselves. Yes, yes – I know a lot of you disagree, and the argument in favor of free will is also robust, so this matter is very far from settled. The question, though, has a significant impact on how we identify heroism. Can you be a bad person but do good things and then be considered good? If I grudgingly agree to save the world, complaining about it the entire time, do I deserve the accolades of the masses for their salvation?
Furnishing answers to this question is far from easy. It is a concept I explore with my character, Tyvian Reldamar, in The Iron Ring. Like me, Tyvian doesn’t know either. Part of telling a story, though, is the exploration of our world, no matter of you set your tale in Alandar or alternate 1985 New York City or even in the City of Angels in the early 90s.