Friday, July 27, 2007

I Wasn’t Bitten by a Radioactive Novel When I Was a Kid

There are many ways to divide up heroes, just as there are many ways to divide up people. My most recent thought is to go back to the classics: the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Achillies (yes, I understand that he was nor invulnerable until Roman times–unfortunately, that spoils my analogy, therefore, I’m going to ignore it) had a skin that could not be hurt by any weapon. He was a real badass, one of the major players in the siege of Troy. The Iliad is primarily about him. Odysseus was known as the Sacker of Cities. He was eventually the man who won the city of Troy, not by force of arms, but by trickery. He later got his own poem, the Odyssey.

Now here’s the thing. Achillies is a hero with gifts. He didn’t arrange to be dipped in invulnerability serum; someone else did it for him. Thus people who are given special gifts are Achillean heroes. Whether Luke Skywalker, Neo, Gilgamesh, Anita Blake, Superman, Heracles, Hellboy, or Harry Potter, the Achillean hero got some cool mojo. They are set apart from other people by virtue of something they inherited, or were given as a child, or by happenstance. This gift allows them to perform feats beyond that of most individuals. Their stories are of individuals learning to use their specialness on order to right wrongs, or bringing order to the world, often in ways that they are uniquely suited to do. The task is appointed for them.

Odyssean heroes, on the other hand, are self-made. What sets them apart from other men is their drive, their intelligence, or their ability to endure. Examples include Batman, Frodo Baggins, Indiana Jones, Conan, Sam Spade, and Fallout’s Vault Dweller. The Odyessean hero is still special, but lacks a magical breastplate or special gift to distinguish them from the rest of humanity. They must rely on their own natural wit, intelligence, and whatever else they can come up with. Certainly Batman’s wealth as scion of Wayne Enterprises helps him out, but the Darknight Detective is best known as an investigator and a martial artist.

Now, I’m not going to say that one is bad and the other is good, although I tend to favor the Odyssean hero over the Achillean. Ultimately, it depends on how the hero is handled. Hellboy was born with abilities beyond that of ordinary mortals, but that’s not what his stories are about. Hellboy generally has fights with things, but that’s not how he triumphs. His major character arc has been his inner struggle, in which case, his supernatural gifts are actually against him. (See my next essay for more on this).

Gilgamesh, the original action hero, is another Achillean hero that I greatly love. For while half a god, Gilgamesh finds that being unchallenged in the world brings him no joy. It is only when the gods send Enkidu to be his near-equal and friend that Gilgamesh discovers the value of life. And that existential quest of love and loss is something that no amount of strength can help with.

However, I will say that there has been a lot of abuse of the Achillean hero in the past twenty years. I blame the countless imitators of Star Wars. From Neo to Anita Blake, people in stories have been given some pretty damn amazing things, just for being in the right place at the right time, being born of the correct parents, or boffing the correct combination of vampire, werewolf, and whatever other supernatural creature might be in the area. And sure, whatever, but what is the lesson there? That some people are better than others, and if you aren’t born special, then you never will be? What kind of message is that?

What really bothers me is that Achillean heroes don’t have to work for what they get. Batman had to bust his ass to become The Bat. He trained, he failed, he learned, he suffered, he overcame. Superman? He learned to fly one day. What does that teach us?

There seem to be a lot of people just waiting to hear that they are “The One”, secretly hoping that someday, someone will discover something special in them, that they are the last scion of Christ, or the King of Gondor and Arnor, lost all these years. That someone will come and sweep them away, and make their lives wonderful, rather than setting about doing so themselves.

The reason I like the Odyssean model better is that I don’t believe much comes to most people in this world without work. If I want opportunities, I’m going to have to make them. If I want to sell a novel, I’m going to have to sweat over the damn thing and produce it, and then sweat as I polish the shit out of it. Because if I wait for it to just happen, it’s just never going to.


Paul said...

I agree, the best heroes are the ones who make their own way. Or, to quote the Flaming Carrot (and Virgil), "fortune favors the bold." Odyssean heroes also tend to have more realistic challenges, too. How many times can you watch Superman save the world before it gets silly? Plus, there's interest in what makes an odyssean hero tick. Battling a giant mutant space squid intent on eating Hawaii is a no-brainer, but what makes a man lurk in the shadows and risk his life to keep a woman from getting mugged?

Unfortunately, it's the teenage boy's version of the Cinderella Syndrome.

Though there is a type of Achillean hero that I do enjoy, and that's the reluctant kind. The Incredible Hulk is a prime example of this, where the focus is more on a normal man's struggle with extraordinary circumstances. The character's powers are a wild card, just as likely to land him in trouble as they are to save him from a tight spot.

theaterrabbit said...

Hi, this is Rob.

Yes, I can agree with that. Such as, I don't like the American kid's books version of Cinderella. Cinderella is insulted + given boatloads of chores by her evil sisters + evil mother, and in the end, a wealthy cute prince whisks her away from her troubled life. In the European stories + books- miss C. is unsulted + has boatloads of work, but she also works damn hard to attract/hobnob with the prince, and then the prince and Cinderella date + marry. or, as Dr Seuss, the author, is reported to have said [I'm paraphasing here]: "Do you think-just have a dream, and sit and wait, and your dream will come true? that's baloney! If you want to be a pro-baseball player, or scientist, or writer, you have to WORK and work HARD to make it happen."

Dr. Seuss wrote kid's books, but he was no child-like fool. He became a big success writing over 20 top of the line kid's books [for which I think he got paid handsomely for writing tthose books], but he worked his A** off to write that well and get his works bought by millions of people.

Or, as is the belief by people who have "made it" as American Rock stars who make a comfortable living: a band that is an overnight success had to work their A**es off for 10 years to get there.

Thus says the grumpy man from the Eastern states. Heh Heh.

Ray M. Solberg said...

I am a fan of both hero types within certain context, but the self made hero always holds the stronger appeal.

Its the difference between the first set of Star Wars movies and the second set. In the first set, "The Force" was something to aspire to attain using discipline, hard work and dedication. A person could show some potential certainly, if not predisposition for it and it would be tremendously helpful. But there was the feeling anyone could become a Jedi if they were willing to walk the path, do the work. It was for many people I observed, inspirational.

The second set of movies said, "Yeah, you can work as much as you like but if you don't have the inherent blood mutation - you'll never be a Jedi, kid." I thought the decision to tear down the mythology (or expose it that way) in the face of so many peoplle who had taken it to heart was so sad. Suddenly, Odysseus whipped off his mask and became Achilles. Movie goers were relegated to observing the story instead of feeling connected or feeling that the story (within context of circumstances) could have been theirs too.

Great post, John.