The Hidden Hero

In our egalitarian country, we don't do heroes well, suggests Lisette Kaleveld. But maybe we underestimate their real importance.

In our egalitarian country, we don't do heroes well, suggests Lisette Kaleveld. But maybe we underestimate their real importance.

Throw the word "hero" around and you'll conjure up faraway realms - myth, legend, the ghosts of our history books and halls of fame. What is a hero? Not quite god/not quite human, the heroes of classical Greek mythology were self centred and flawed (Achilles could be easily insulted and especially bad tempered), but in serving others, they blundered their way into discovering something of their divine potential.

The idea of a hero, though, sits awkwardly on the mantelpiece of an ordinary life. You think you're not a hero. Even those who have surely earned the title have the good sense to shrug it off. "The one I rescued is the true hero", or "I was just doing my job," say the reluctant heroes of our daily news events and dramas.

We continue to insist on the heroism of others, nonetheless. There's resonance in that timeless action, in the story told in different ways in every culture: something defeated, something gained, danger averted and a land redeemed.

"Heroes promise power to the weak, glamour to the dull, and liberty to the oppressed," says writer Lee Edwards. In the recent response to Barack Obama's US election victory - defined by that uplifting word, hope - perhaps we glimpsed this mythos operating on a grand, global scale.

But in the month of Obama's inauguration and as people, foolishly or not, project hope onto one individual, just one man, let me take you back to the mythic world to meet our favourite hobbit, Frodo.

One of the interesting things about JRR Tolkien's modern myth "Lord of the Rings" is the way it departs from the usual Western fairytale pattern, with not just one, but several, heroes operating on different levels.

Aragorn is the more traditional heroic figure. He defeats the enemy in battle through fearlessness and physical strength. Then there is Wizard Gandalf, whose encounter with the enemy tests him on a spiritual plane. His heroic act is to find the strength to transform darkness into light.

But as we know, the most important hero in our story is Frodo Baggins, charged with the mission to take the One Ring to Mount Doom. Is the humble hobbit up for the greatest task of all? He has so few resources - no magic powers, no armour, and no weaponry. He doesn't even wear shoes. What he does have, however, is a steely fortitude and the ability to stay true to the task before him. Frodo is a hero because he is able to handle himself, and his demons, not necessarily brilliantly, but just enough to continue on, one footstep at a time.

According to psychiatrist and dream analyst Carl Jung, the hero is a symbol of an inner potential, a kind of psychic vigour. Life is not banal. There are far-off dangers, tricksters and villains everywhere, and enough people in this world are in distress, too; there are times when more will be required of us. The hero reminds us of the hidden resources in us all.

Happily ever after, later

The wise will tell you that to find inner peace one must accept things as they are. But this will never do for the hero. "Use your faults," French singer Edith Piaf once said. Agitation, defiance, rebelliousness, restlessness - all these qualities can power significant action. So, for the hero, the tranquillity of happily ever after is, when needs be, a long way off.

In the movie "American Beauty", Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) reflects on his life from the afterlife. What does he see? A nuclear family, an acceptable job, enough money. His suburb is beautifully manicured, the roses neatly pruned, the people around him settled into their own pleasant rhythms. He seems to have made it. But even one year before his death, Lester sees himself as already dead. He says, "I've never felt this... sedated."

What resembles happily ever after might not be if you are only half conscious or barely there. Lee Edwards even puts forward the idea that the land of happily ever after may be "emotionally stagnant and psychically limiting".

The hero is able to suffer a jolt of awakening. Then, like Frodo, they leave the sweet certainty of the Shire to trace a path up the mountain, to make that treacherous journey that will change them forever.

Beyond safe borders is a world in crisis: wars, epidemics, natural disasters, poverty and famine, the natural world destroyed... It takes a hero just to bear the sight, to really see it.

The not-for-profit sector is teeming with heroes who not only pay attention, but also sacrifice their lifestyle and, sometimes, their lives for the humanitarian work they do. In just one of these organisations, MŽdecins Sans Frontires (Doctors without Borders), 23,000 medical professionals every year leave their comfortable lives to provide care to distressed populations in about 80 countries. Living in places like Biafra, Sudan, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, MSF volunteers face substantial risk, but their commitment to the idea that every human being is entitled to medical care shows that modern heroism is alive and well.

"Unhappy is the land that needs a hero," remarks Berthold Brecht's Galileo... wishing not to be one. Yet all the significant social movements of the last century, and the environmental movement, are propelled by the energy of the hero, and their ability to turn dissatisfaction into action.

You may feel the hero in your own life, too, when you sense a stirring, when you can bear the sight of a fallen world (perhaps your own). Like the maiden in the Bluebeard fairytale locked in the tower awaiting death, all it may take is the realisation of a grim reality - the awakening will be enough to call up a dynamic power within, the whirlwind force of the brothers galloping to the rescue.

The threshold people

Heroes are remembered in their recognised, radiant form. And while some chance upon a happy ending that elevates their status, for most of their journey heroes are uncelebrated and unsupported.

In the book "Psyche as Hero", Lee Edwards says heroes exist outside social convention: "This conflict between society's attitude and the hero's vision is an inherent part of all heroic narratives."

Heroes are culturally ambivalent characters because of the threat they pose to the social order - from the quiet nonconformity of Charlotte Bronte's fictional heroine Jane Eyre who shows us that "conventionality is not morality", to those historically potent attacks on powerful political regimes. Some, like Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, are celebrated later (on screen printed T shirts), but heroes also suffer imprisonment, crucifixion and/or execution. White Rose activist Sophie Scholl was 22 when she was executed by guillotine for actively opposing the Third Reich during the Second World War.

In 1913, medical doctor Albert Schweitzer left Germany to build a hospital in West Africa to tend the sick and diseased at his own expense. A philosopher, too, (he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work "Reverence for Life"), his work was propelled by a determination not to follow common opinion. "Never for a moment do we lay aside our mistrust of the ideals established by society, and of the convictions which are kept by it in circulation," he said. "We always know that society is full of folly and will deceive us in the matter of humanity."

Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner describes heroes as "the threshold people". Willingly or unwillingly, they turn from what society expects of them. And yet, when they overcome the obstacles they face, their value to society is immeasurable.

Feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir famously refused the marriage proposal of Jean Paul Sartre, the love of her life. As a woman living in early 20th century France, choosing liberty over conformity would not have been easy. The literary couple's relationship may be idealised now, but reading their published letters shows that living out their conviction was full of upheaval and pain.

Yet in living outside the institution of marriage, de Beauvoir was able to conceptualise a new vision of equality in social relationships. "I am interested in the fortunes of the individual as defined not in terms of happiness but in terms of liberty," she said. Through her resoluteness and commitment to her own truth, she cut into the rock of culture and produced the first major work of liberal feminist thought.

The return

The most prolific writer on the hero myth, Joseph Campbell, defines a hero as anyone who leaves everyday life to journey to a special world. Here challenges and fears are overcome in order to secure a reward (special knowledge, healing potion), which can be shared with the hero's community. According to Campbell, the point of integration and return is a crucial part of the journey.

Peter Pan, the boy who journeys to Never Land but refuses to return, is our most famous incomplete hero. In her book "Deconstructing the Hero", Margery Hourihan says: "Peter Pan is an extreme manifestation of one aspect of the hero's nature: youthful energy and extroversion, but the energy is sterile, expressed only in self glorification, rebellion and destruction...Because there is no return for Peter there can be no closure; nor is there an open ending rich with possibilities for the future..."

So while reworking and challenging social norms, heroes also serve and re-energise society with insight and change. Creating a better world is at the heart of their battle.

Wherever we find our hero - on the TV news, in ourselves as inner potential, in praise of public figures and fearless humanitarians, in popular narrative or in the demigods of ancient mythology - all find satisfaction in serving the greater good. A hero takes an adventure outside their own comfort zones, sometimes cutting a path away from social norms, but basically, always heading toward a point of reference outside their own ego.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw summed up the essence of the hero when he said, "I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die - for the harder I work, the more I live."