Why do we like heroes’ stories and why are they so much a part of our Christian heritage?
But now in this Valley of Humiliation poor Christian was hard put to it, for he had gone but a little way before he espied a foul friend coming over the field to meet him; his name is Apollyon. Then did Christian begin to be afraid, and to cast in his mind whether to go back, or to stand his ground. But he considered again that he had no armour for his back, and therefore thought that to turn the back to him might give him greater advantage with ease to pierce him with his darts; therefore he resolved to venture, and stand his ground. For, thought he, had I no more in mine eye, than the saving of my life, 'twould be the best way to stand. -- Pilgrim's Progress.
It is typical of any hero that at some time he reaches a point of no return: the deed he must do will cost him dearly, but to turn back will cost him everything. There is no convenient third option. The idea is always the same: the great prize the hero seeks has a great price attached to it, and the price will cost the hero all he has to give and even then be scarcely enough. There is no such thing as a go-slow hero. This we take for granted; the question is, why?
The answer is in the underlying perception we have that once a man has divined what is truly to his happiness, what he is made for, then his love of it must be made adequate for it, and this is done by his being forced to forego love for anything less. He is obliged to purge himself of any attachments, comforts or affections that in any way impede his great love from breaking out of its seed. The drama of the hero is that sometimes the lesser love he abandons seems scarcely inferior than the one to which he gives himself. In Christian's case the fear for his soul is counteracted by the fear for his life; for the Light Brigade a love of England that leaves no room for cowardice is counteracted by the perception that their death will be militarily futile. There is an interior struggle, the greater love triumphs and grows stronger in consequence.
Perhaps the point is better made by saying that no man will be happy in Paradise if he is not ready to be happy in it. The prince will not live happily ever after with the princess until difficult and costly deeds (like killing dragons) have forced his love to grow beyond the sentimental and become something like an ingrained virtue. In other words, it takes time, and great efforts, and great trials, to really mould the soul.
This is rich soil for the Faith. The whole purpose of the Christian life is not so much to avoid Hell as to make our souls fit for Heaven. God will have with Him those who are like Him and totally given to Him. Those who are like God are those who have the fullness of grace in their souls along with the supernatural virtues that enable them to think, love and act as God Himself would in their bodies. Those totally given to God are those who have shed all egoism, all lesser affections that were used to feed self love.
Here I must make clear that we are not expected to abandon lesser affections purely and simply -- our love for those near to us will last into the next life -- but only those affections that in any way detract from the love of God and hence feed love of self. At
the bottom of our souls we veer between love of God and love of self, and all other loves are ultimately expressions of one or the other of these two fundamental inclinations.
Growing in the love of God is a radical exercise of free will. Because it involves overcoming the egoism of our fallen nature there can be nothing halfhearted about it -- pride is too stubborn an enemy for that -- either in the acceptance of what God imposes as conditions for our love of Him, or in what we are left to do of our own generosity.
Holiness is not for the halfhearted, or as someone succinctly put it: every hero may not be a saint, but every saint is a hero.
To my mind it is characteristic of the true hero to seek not only his own good, but the good of those near and dear to him. In the first passage quoted from the Silmarillion, Tolkien's epic account of his mythical world of Middle-earth, almost all the kingdoms of Elves and Men have been destroyed by the power of Morgoth, the terrible dark lord of Angband in the north. The survivors have fled southwards to the mouths of the Sirion river, awaiting Morgoth's inevitable mopping up. Eärendil is their king, all the other kings having been killed, and it is he who undertakes the near-suicidal voyage westwards to the lands of the Valar -- of whose order Morgoth was once a member -- to seek their help.
In Arthur's Britain the inhabitants are in a similar state of ruin thanks to constant civil wars, and it is Arthur who, by his ingenuity and courage, temporarily sets things right. No hero helps purely himself.
What motivates his altruism?
It is not enough to say, a simple kindheartedness. A kindly man will not undertake superhuman toils and hang his life from a thread, perhaps for years on end, simply because he feels sorry for the misfortune of others. The desperate urgency of purpose in an Eärendil or an Arthur manifests something far stronger than benevolence. One feels that the hero's own need and the need of the people for whom the hero makes his extraordinary efforts are one and the same thing. For a hero, to save his own is to save himself. The hero, in other words, has become aware of the bond between himself and those around him and acts in consequence.
The way we human beings are designed we are made for something outside of ourselves. It is the nature of any creature not to find its purpose for existence in itself. Any creature that tries to do so becomes evil, as did Lucifer when he said, I will not serve.
We are made, first and foremost, for God, naturally. But this dependency, this incompleteness, if I can put it that way, of a created being is underscored by there being many different creatures, each dependent upon the others in some way, and each designed to bring good to the others. I can so much the more appreciate that I depend upon God by being aware just how much I depend upon my neighbour, and it is by helping my neighbour, often grumblingly and grudgingly, that I am eventually taken out of myself and brought to the service of God. It all hangs together.
In the hero this truth is highlighted in a dramatic way by the fact that the help he must give is indispensable. The nation perishes if he does not do what is required of him. Eärendil sets sail, Arthur takes up the sword because they live for that purpose: that mission of saving their people has been given to them and to none other, and to reject it would be to reject their own existence.
It is the same with us. To think a life is futile because it is not filled with grand deeds is to miss the point. The grand deeds of a hero are a literary way of expressing the grandeur of lesser deeds that Providence is contented with from most of us. We want our lives to be worth something -- which is why heroes attract us -- but it is just a case of seeing where the true worth is, since we cannot all save the world and are not meant to. Acts of charity or simply of justice are important because the stakes are so high. Christ's description of the Particular Judgment makes our eternal fate depend to a large extent to the acts of charity we do or don't do for others, and it is acts of supernatural charity that can be the make or break of another soul's salvation. To give the decisive push to a single soul on its journey to Heaven is of more importance than the political well-being of a dozen Arthurian Britains, keeping in mind that that decisive push may be the decisive push for oneself too: "charity covereth a multitude of sins".
The world of heroes is a world artistically crafted, that is, something like a painting or a poem. In creating it the writer so arranges, highlights and suppresses events and details that one can grasp clearly truths about this existence that in the real stream of the world are obscured. The great tragedy with the modern world is that the obscurity has become so great that all too many people lose sight altogether of those truths. How many equate happiness with material comfort, seeing their purpose in life -- if they still think there is any purpose at all — in the acquisition of the maximum amount of money with the minimum inconvenience? How many have any concept of moral generosity and are prepared to sacrifice a lesser good for a greater? And how many have that sense of solidarity with others which is the foundation of natural as well as supernatural charity? We live in a world that is inimical towards heroes and as a consequence is producing people that are directionless, morally spineless and indifferent to the welfare of even those nearest to them. Whoever said, "Democracy does not need great men" uttered something as terrible as it is true.
Which brings me to the final point. This article has shown that tales of heroicity, be they pagan or Christian, appeal to the believer because they deal with things that with his Faith he has already perceived the importance of. But on the flip side of the coin, a glance at authors shows that it takes a religious mind, who, however instinctively, has understood what this life is really ail about, to write of hers and their deeds. Atheists do not create epics. Lord of the Rings, the greatest modern epic and certainly the most popular, was written by a practicing Catholic. With the world as it is today there are few now, if any, who could write another like it. But its popularity is encouraging. Tolkien's readers may not have his Faith, but if they are drawn to the kind of world he describes then it is a sign that they have not forgotten, in the modern tomb of hedonistic triviality, what their hearts are really made for. There is still ground in which the seeds of Faith may grow.
All we need now are real heroes to sow them.