All through our life, we are told stories. Young children have been told stories before they go to sleep since time immemorial, and storyteller is one of the oldest universal professions; being found everywhere from Scandinavia to China. This is because stories have power. It has been known that a good story can influence human thought since good stories have been told. Men have lived for stories, died for stories, and dedicated themselves to what ultimately comes down to nothing more than a story. It disturbs me, then, that the most important and most influencing part of the story has been so changed in the last century. The Hero has been lost, for what is now claimed to be the hero is in truth a different creature entirely.
Let us look at the modern, “hero,” who first appeared in the 1940s and 50s, but has come to true dominance today. Let us look at the protagonists loved and embodied in popular culture today. Ignoring for a moment the diabolical trend of the anti-hero, let us look at famous fictional characters such as Iron Man or Spider-man or the Doctor or any of the other heroes so popular now.
These are characters that you look at and say, “That could be me.” You watch them or read about them, and in all their actions you always think how you would be so similar if you were in there shoes. If you were Iron Man or Spider-man, you would party and abuse your power until the very moment when the chips came down. You look and think, “Wow, they have flaws just like me. They could be me. Why, all I need is superpowers or to be the survivor of an apocalyptic event, and I could be just like them!”
Now contrast this with what a hero has always been. This archetype, which still survives today, but is shrinking and shrinking with each passing year, is a character you see and say, “I wish I could be like that.” You read and you watch, and as the character develops, you think about how wonderful it could be if you emulated the character. You see characters like Beowulf or Gawain, and wonder silently to yourself whether you would be like them or like their enemies if you had their power and strength. The traditional hero makes you think, “Wow, look at what they are willing to do. If I could be even a little like that, maybe I could be pretty good too.”
The difference is small, but it is critical. Unless we try very hard to prevent it, identification with a fictional character will change the way we think. The difference between thinking, “All I need is a power, then I'll be a hero.” and thinking “All I need is virtue, then I'll be like a hero.” is vast. The fact is that few among mankind could be heroes if they had the opportunity, and that number will be far fewer when those who see the opportunity think that the only difference between a hero and a man is strength.
The hero of a story should be a tool of the storyteller to make his audience think of how much they could improve if they made themselves like this unattainable archetype, not a tool to reassure them that their lives aren't that bad. The larger than life archetype of inspiring virtue has been replaced with an exactly realistic archetype of just some man who barely holds it together as a moral person. In the name of realism and a good story, what the story is supposed to be has been destroyed.
And it makes sense, when you think about it, that the story would be destroyed in modern times. Just look and remember for a moment what I wrote in my previous article. The paradigm of democratic thought will not bear something to be possible for one group and impossible for another. If we can't make everyone as virtuous as heroes, then we shall make heroes as virtuous as everyone. The larger than life is no longer greeted with a chuckle at worst and an inspiring thought at best, but with a scowl every time; because it reminds modern philosophy that it is wrong, and there are some people who achieve what others never could.
So please, save the hero. Save the archetype, the ideal, the impossible dream. Characters such as Captain America prove that he has not died yet, but for every Luke Skywalker we get 2 Katniss Everdeens, and the spiral will reach its destructive conclusion before long. Everyone needs something that they can look up to, and if even one young boy is saved from nihilistic despair by an archetypical hero, than it will be more than worth making the stories just a little bit less interesting than they could be.