To start with, this was mostly about books, and I think it will end that way too. But it begins with a not terribly controversial statement; hero worship is not good. And the greatest figures in the fight for human rights or human progress of one kind or another – Martin Luther King, Jr, Emmeline Pankhurst, Gandhi – without wishing to in any way diminish their achievements – would not have achieved them alone. Rosa Parks is a genuine heroine, but if she had been the only person who believed it was wrong for African-American people to be forced to give up seats for white people, the practice would still be happening. These individuals are crucial because they are catalysts for and agents of change – but the change itself happens because people – movements of people – demand it.
This is obviously all very elementary and will be news to nobody, but it’s worth remembering in times like these, when people seem to be drawn to somewhat messianic figures (or to elevate people who have no such pretensions themselves to quasi-messianic status). One of the problems with messiahs is that when they don’t fulfil the hopes of their followers, their various failures or defeats (of whatever kind) take on a cataclysmic significance beyond the usual kind of setback and re-evaluation. It’s only natural to feel discouraged if your political or spiritual dreams and hopes are shattered, but it’s also important to remember that the views and opinions you were drawn to and which you agree with are yours too. They are probably shared by millions and the fact that they are also apparently not shared by a greater number in no way invalidates them or renders them pointless. The history of human progress is the history of people fighting against entrenched conservative views in order to improve the lives of all people, including, incidentally, the lives of those people they are fighting against. This is of course not the case in ultimately ideological revolutions like those in France or Russia, which quickly abandoned their theoretically egalitarian positions in order to remove undesirable elements altogether, or the Nazi revolution in Germany, which never pretended to be inclusive in the first place. Hopelessness, whether cynical or Kierkegaard-ishly defiant, is a natural response, but the biggest successes of human rights movements – from the abolition of slavery to the enfranchisement of women to the end of apartheid in South Africa to the legalisation of abortion or gay marriage – have often taken place during eras which retrospectively do not seem especially enlightened; if you believe in something, there is hope.
But when change is largely driven by mass opinion or pressure – and when we know that it is – why does the individual; Rameses II, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Garibaldi, Lenin, Hitler, the Dalai Lama, Queens, Kings, political leaders – loom so large in the way we see events historically? Anywhere from three to six million people died in the “Napoleonic Wars” – Napoleon wasn’t one of them, his armies didn’t win them; but they are, to posterity, his wars. The short answer is I think because as individuals, it is individuals we identify with. We have a sense of other peoples’ lives, we live among other people (sounds a bit Invasion of the Bodysnatchers), but we only know our own life, and we only see the world through the window of our own perceptions.
The artist Sara Shamma – who, significantly has undertaken many humanitarian art projects, but has also done much of her most profound work in self-portraiture – said “I think understanding a human being is like understanding the whole of humanity, and the whole universe” and the more I’ve thought about that statement the more true it seems. If we truly understand any human being, it is first, foremost and perhaps only, ourselves. And, unless you are a psychopath in which case you have my condolences, you will recognise the traits you have – perhaps every trait you have – in other people, people who may be almost entirely different from you. When you look at the classifications humankind has made for itself – good/bad, deadly sins, cardinal virtues – these are things we know to exist because, in varying degrees, we feel them in ourselves, and therefore recognise them in others. Even that most valued human tool, objectivity, is a human tool, just as logic, which certainly seems to explain to our understanding the way the world works, is a human idea and also an ideal – interestingly but perhaps significantly, unlike nature, mathematics or gravity, human behaviour itself routinely defies logic. When we say – to whatever extent – we understand the universe, what I think we mean is that we understand our own conception of it. It’s easy to talk about the universe being boundless, but not limitless, or limitless, or connected to other universes as part of a multiverse (though not easy to talk about intelligently, for me), but regardless of what is ‘out there’, what we are talking about is all ‘in here’, in our own brain. If what you believe dictates the way you live your life it may as well be, to all intents and purposes ‘the truth’. For Stephen Hawking there were black holes in space/time, for a creationist there probably aren’t.
This is not to say that there are no actual solid facts about (for example) the nature of the universe; the ‘laws of science’ seem right to me – but nonetheless to even prove – to us personally while alive – that anything at all continues to exist after our own death is impossible. We can of course see that it goes on after other people’s deaths, but then I can say with what I believe to be complete conviction that there is no god and that human beings are just (well I wouldn’t say “just”) a kind of sentient hourglass with the added fun that you never know how much sand it holds to start with – but that doesn’t change the fact that a whole range of gods have made and continue to make a decisive difference to the lives of other people and therefore to the world.
But whereas that might sound like the background for some kind of Ayn Rand-ish radical individualism, I think the opposite is true; because if any of what I have written is correct, the key part is that it applies equally to everyone. The phrase ‘we’re all in the same boat’ is being bandied about a lot lately for pandemic-related reasons, and it’s only vaguely true as regards that particular situation. We aren’t in the same boat, or even necessarily in the same kind of body exactly, but what we do all share – if broadly – is the same kind of brain. We are all individuals, and If we are conscious, we are probably self conscious. And given that we live our – as far as we can safely tell, single earthly life as an individual human being, the idea that any of us is powerless during that lifetime is nonsense. When asked to name someone who has made a difference to the world, the first person you think of should be yourself. There would be no world as you know it without you in it, and that is not a small thing; by existing, you are changing the world. Whether for better or worse, only you can say.
Having faith in other people (or even just getting along with them) makes your and their lives better, but the belief that one particular individual outside of yourself may be the solution to the world’s (or the country’s, etc) ills is worse than feeling powerless yourself; not only because it can reinforce that sense of powerlessness, but because it’s blatantly untrue and (I hate to use this devalued word, but never mind) elitist, and also because it reduces every issue, however complex, to a finite, succeed-or-fail one, which is rarely how the world works. The idea of the hero as saviour probably has about as much validity as the idea of the lone villain as the cause of whatever ills need to be cured. Hero-worship is both logical (because we see the world from the viewpoint of “I”) but also an oddly counter-intuitive ideal to have created, since in reality as we know it, the lone individual may be us, but is largely not how we live – we have structured our societies, whether on the smaller level of family or tribe, or the larger ones like political parties or nations, in terms of groups of people. But I suppose it is the same humanity that makes us aware of and empathetic to the feelings of others that makes us want to reduce ideas to their black and white, bad vs good essentials and then dress those ideas up in human clothes.
And so, to books! Reading fiction and watching films and TV, it’s amazing how the larger-than-life (but also simpler and therefore ironically smaller-than-life) hero/ine vs villain, protagonist vs antagonist and – most hackneyed of all (a speciality of genre fiction since such a thing existed, and the preserve or religion and mythology before that) – the ‘chosen one’ vs ‘dark lord’ narrative continues to be employed by writers and enjoyed by generations of people (myself included*), long past the age that one becomes aware of the formulaic simplification of it.
*for people of my generation, the mention of a ‘dark lord’ immediately conjures up Star Wars, though the ‘chosen one’ theme is thankfully underplayed in the original trilogy. George Lucas doesn’t get much credit for the prequels, but making the chosen one become the dark lord is an interesting twist, even if Lucifer got there first.
Whatever its origins, it seems that people do want these kinds of figures in their lives and will settle for celebrities, athletes, even politicians in lieu of the real thing. Hitler was aware of it and cast himself in the lead role, ironically becoming, to posterity, the antithesis of the character he adopted; Lenin, who by every logical reading of The Communist Manifesto should have been immune to the lure of hero worship, also cast himself in the lead role, as did most of his successors to the present day (and really; to enthusiastically read Marx and then approve a monumental statue of oneself displays, at best, a lack of self-awareness). The Judeo-Christian god with his demand, not only to be acknowledged as the creator of everything, but also to be actually worshipped by his creations, even in his Christian, fallible, just-like-us human form, is something of a special case, but clearly these are primordial waters to be paddling in.
Still, entertainment-wise, it took a kind of humbling even to get to the stage we’re at. Heroes were once demi-gods; Gilgamesh had many adventures, overcame many enemies, but when trying to conquer death found that he could not even conquer sleep. Fallible yes, but hardly someone to identify with. And Cain killed Abel, David killed Goliath, Hercules succeeded in his twelve tasks but was eventually poisoned by the blood of a hydra, Sun Wukong the Monkey King attained immortality by mistake while drunk, Beowulf was mortally wounded in his last battle against a dragon. Cúchulainn transformed into a monstrous creature and single-handedly defeated the armies of Queen Medb. King Arthur and/or the Fisher King sleep still, to be awoken when the need for them is finally great enough. These are heroes we still recognise today and would accept in the context of a blockbuster movie or doorstop-like fantasy novel, but less so in say, a soap opera or (hopefully) on Question Time. I knew some (but not all) of these stories when I was a child, but all of them would have made sense to me because, despite the difference between the settings and the societies that produced them and that which produced me, they are not really so vastly different from most of my favourite childhood stories.
Partly because some of those were those ancient stories – but even when not reading infantilised versions of the Greek myths (I loved the Ladybird book Famous Legends Vol. 1 with its versions of Theseus and the Minotaur and Perseus and Andromeda* it was noticeable that, although there still were heroes of the unambiguous superhuman type (in comics most obviously; like um, Superman), in most of the books I read, the hero who conquers all through his or her (usually his) all-round superiority was rarely the lone, or even the main protagonist. I don’t know if it’s a consequence of Christianity (or of literacy?) but presumably at some point people decided they preferred to identify with a hero rather than to venerate them. Perhaps stories became private rather than public when people began to read for themselves, rather than listening to stories as passed down by bards or whatever? Someone will know
.*I remember being disappointed by the Clash of the Titans film version of Medusa, too monstrous, less human, somehow undermining the horror
The first real stories that I remember (this would initially be hearing rather than reading) are probably The Hobbit, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (all with children or quasi-children as the main characters – though Narnia is a special case in that there is a ‘chosen one’ – Aslan the lion – but mostly he isn’t the main focus of the narrative) and far more shadowy things that I never went back and read by myself, like Pippi Longstocking. As a very little kid I know I liked The Very Hungry Caterpillar and its ilk (also, vastly less well known, The Hungry Thing by Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler in which, as I recall, some rice would be nice said a baby sucking ice). Later, I loved Tintin and Asterix and Peanuts and Garfield as well as the usual UK comics; Beano, Dandy, Oor Wullie, The Broons, Victor and Warlord etc. The first fiction not reliant on pictures that I remember reading for myself (probably around the Beano era) would be the Narnia series (which I already knew), Richmal Crompton’s William books and, then Biggles, some Enid Blyton (I liked the less-famous Five Find-Outers best), Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Willard Price’s Adventure series; mostly a bit old fashioned for the 80s now that I look at them, but I tended then as now to accumulate second hand books.
There was also a small group of classics that I had that must have been condensed and re-written for kids – a little brick-like paperback of Moby-Dick (Christmas present) and old hardbacks of Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and Kidnapped with illustrations by Broons/Oor Wullie genius Dudley D. Watkins (bought at ‘bring and buy’ sales at Primary School). Watkins’s versions of Crusoe, Long John Silver etc are still the ones I see in my head. More up to date, I also had a particular fondness for Robert Westall (The Machine Gunners, The Scarecrows, The Watch House etc) and the somewhat trashy Race Against Time adventure series by JJ Fortune; a very 80s concoction in which a young boy from New York called Stephen, is picked up by his (this was the initial appeal) Indiana Jones-like Uncle Richard and, unbeknownst to his parents, hauled off around the world for various implausible adventures. I liked these books so much (especially the first two that I read, The Search for Mad Jack’s Crown – bought via the Chip Book Club which our school took part in, and Duel For The Samurai Sword) that I actually, for the first and last time in my life, joined a fan club. I still have the letter somewhere, warning me as a “RAT adventurer” to be prepared to be whisked away myself. Didn’t happen yet though. And then there were gamebooks (a LOT of them), which have a special place here because they both fundamentally shift the focus of the narrative back to the direct hero-conquers-all themes of mythology while also recasting the reader as that hero.
There were also things I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen but was given at Christmas etc, books by people like Leon Garfield (adventures set in a vividly grotty evocation of 18th and early 19th century London), the aforementioned Moby-Dick, a comic strip version of The Mutiny on the Bounty, a Dracula annual. Also authors who I read and loved one book by, but never got around to reading more of; Anne Pilling’s Henry’s Leg, Jan Mark (Thunder and Lightnings; there’s a moving article about this beautifully subtle book here), Robert Leeson (The Third Class Genie). And there were also things we had to read at school, which mostly didn’t make a huge impression and are just evocative titles to me now – Ian Serralier’s The Silver Sword, Mollie Hunter’s The Boy With the Bronze Axe, The Children on the Oregon Trail. What did I do as a kid apart from reading?
Anyway; that’s a lot of books. And in the vast majority of them, the conclusion of the plot relies on the main character, or main character and sidekick or team to take some kind of decisive action to solve whatever problem they have. Heroism as the ancient Greeks would have understood it may largely have vanished, but even without superhuman strength or vastly superior cunning (even the fantasy novels mentioned like Lloyd Alexander’s which do still have the chosen one/dark lord idea at their heart, tend to have a fallible, doubt-filled human type of hero rather than a demigod) there is still the idea that individual character is what matters.
And this makes sense – something like the ‘battle of five armies’ towards the end of The Hobbit is dull enough with the inclusion of characters that the reader has come to care about. A battle between armies of nameless ciphers (the ‘Napoleonic Wars’ sans Napoleon) would be hard to get too involved in (cue image of generals with their model battlefields moving blocks of troops about, with little or no danger to themselves). Which is fair enough; after all, being in a battle may feel impersonal, but reading about one can’t be. And maybe this is the key point – reading is – albeit at one remove – a one on one activity. Stephen King likens it to telepathy between the writer and reader and that is the case – they think it, we read it and it transfers from their minds to ours. And since reading is something that people seem to think children have to be made to do, often against their will, children’s authors in particular are understandably keen to engage the reader by making them identify with one character or another. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most successful writers for children from CS Lewis to Enid Blyton to JK Rowling (to name just notable British ones) have tended to make children the protagonists and surround their main characters with a variety of girls and boys of varying personality types. And children’s books about children are (I find) far easier to re-read as an adult than children’s books about adults are. As an adult, even JJ Fortune’s “Stephen” rings more or less true as a mostly bored tweenager of the 80s, but his Uncle Richard seems both ridiculous and vaguely creepy. “Grown up” heroes like Biggles, very vivid when encountered as a child, seem hopelessly two-dimensional as an adult; what do they DO all day, when not flying planes and shooting at the enemy?
I mentioned Gamebooks above and they – essentially single-player role playing games, often inspired by Dungeons and Dragons – deserve special mention, partly just because, in the 80s, there were so many of them. There were series’ I followed and was a completist about (up to a point) – first and best being Puffin’s Fighting Fantasy (which, when I finally lost interest consisted of around 30 books), its spin-off Steve Jackson’s Sorcery (four books), Joe Dever and Gary Chalk’s Lone Wolf (seven or eight books), Grey Star (four books), Grailquest (I think I lost interest around vol 5 or 6), then series’ I liked but didn’t follow religiously – Way of the Tiger (six books), Golden Dragon (six books), Cretan Chronicles (three books) and series’ I dipped into if I came across them: Choose Your Own Adventure (essentially the first gamebook series, but they mostly weren’t in the swords & sorcery genre and felt like they were aimed at a younger readership), Demonspawn (by JH Brennan, the author of Grailquest, but much, much more difficult), Falcon (time travel) and Sagard the Barbarian (four books; the selling point being that they were by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. They were a bit clunky compared to the UK books).
Putting a real person – the reader – at the centre of the action ironically dispenses with the need for “character” at all, and even in books like the Lone Wolf and, Grailquest series where YOU are a specific person (Lone Wolf, or Pip), there is very little sense of (or point in) character building. You are the hero, this is what you need to do, and that’s all you need to know. In many cases, the protagonists of the heroic fantasy novels I read in my early teens, when I was drawn to any fat book with foil lettering and a landscape on the cover (the standard fantasy novel look in the 80s) were not much more rounded than their lightly sketched gamebook counterparts. These books often achieved their epic length through plot only; the truly complex epic fantasy novel is a rare thing. Thanks, presumably, to Tolkien, these plots revolved around main characters who were rarely heroes in the ancient mould (though Conan and his imitators were), but were mainly inexperienced, rural quasi-children, thrust into adventures they initially had no knowledge of (Terry Brooks’s Shannara series being the classic Tolkien-lite example). But even when, as in Stephen Donaldson’s also very Tolkien-influenced Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the hero was a cynical, modern human being, or in Michael Moorcock’s deliberately anti-Tolkienesque Eternal Champion series, where s/he was a series of interlinked beings inhabiting the same role within different dimensions of the multiverse, the ‘chosen one’ vs some kind of implacable ‘dark lord’-ish enemy theme remained pretty constant. But this underlying core or skeleton is only most explicit in self consciously fantastical fiction; whether or not there’s a dark lord or a quest, in most fiction of any kind there’s a ‘chosen one’, even if they have only been chosen by the author as the focus of the story she or he wants to tell. Holden Caulfield and Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood have this in common with Bilbo Baggins, Conan the Barbarian and William Brown. But really, what’s the alternative to books about people anyway? Even novels in which people (or surrogate people like Richard Adams’s rabbits or William Horwood’s moles) are not the main focus (or are half of the focus, like Alan Moore’s peculiar Voice of the Fire, where Northampton is essentially the ‘hero’) rely on us engaging with the writer as a writer, a human voice that becomes a kind of stand-in for a character.
But books are not life; one of the things that unites the most undemanding pulp novelette and the greatest works of literature is that they are to some extent – like human beings – discrete, enclosed worlds; they have their beginning, middle and end. And yet, however much all of our experience relies on our perception of these key moments, that’s not necessarily how the world feels. Even complicated books are simple in that they reveal – just by seeing their length before we read them – the sense of design that is hidden from us in our own lives. Even something seemingly random or illogical (the giant helmet that falls from nowhere, crushing Conrad to death in Horace Walpole’s proto-gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) for example) is deliberate, recognisably something dreamlike, from the human imagination, rather than truly random as the world can be.
What we call history (“things that have happened”) usually can’t quite manage the neatness of even bizarre or surreal fiction. There have been genuine, almost superhuman hero/antihero/demigod figures, but how often – even when we can see their entirety – do their lives have the satisfying shape of a story? Granted, Caesar, stabbed twenty three times by his peers in the Senate chamber, has the cause-and-effect narrative of myth; but it’s an ambiguous story where the hero is the villain, depending on your point of view. Whatever one’s point of view in The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, to have sympathy with someone referred to (or calling themselves) a ‘dark lord’ is to consciously choose to be on the side of ‘bad’, in a way that defending a republic as a republic, or an empire as an empire isn’t.
Or take Genghis Khan – ‘he’ conquered (the temptation is to also write ‘conquered’, but where do you stop with that?) – obviously not alone, but as sole leader – as much of the world as anyone has, remained successful, had issues with his succession and then died in his mid 60s, in uncertain, rather than dramatic or tragic circumstances. The heroes of the Greek myths often have surprisingly downbeat endings (which I didn’t know about from the children’s versions I read) but they are usually significant in some way, and stem from the behaviour of the hero himself. Napoleon, old at 51, dying of stomach cancer or poisoning, a broken man, is not exactly a classic punishment from the gods for hubris, or an end that anyone would have seen coming, let alone would have written for him. As ‘chosen ones’ go, Jesus is a pretty definitive example, and whether accepted as history or fiction, he has an ending which, appropriately for god-made-man, manages to fit with both the stuff of myth (rises from the dead and ascends to heaven) but is also mundane in a way we can easily recognise; not defeated by the antichrist or by some supreme force of supernatural evil, but essentially killed by committee, on the orders of someone acting against their own better judgement. A significant detail too for those who want to stress the factual basis of the gospels is that the name of the murderer himself* unlike the nemeses of the ancient heroes, wasn’t even recorded.
* I guess either the guy nailing him to the cross, or the soldier spearing him in the side (much later named as Longinus, presumably for narrative purposes)
And if Jesus’s nemesis was disappointingly mundane, when on occasion, the universe does throw up something approximating a “dark lord” it doesn’t counter them with ‘chosen ones’ to defeat them either, as one might hope or expect. Living still in the shadow of WW2, Hitler’s messy and furtive end, beleaguered and already beaten, in suicide, somehow isn’t good enough and there are a variety of rival theories about what ‘really’ happened, all of which more pleasingly fit with the kind of fiction we all grow up with. Mussolini was strung up by an angry faceless mob and his corpse was defiled. Hirohito, meanwhile, survived defeat as his troops were not supposed to do, and presided over Japan’s post-war boom to become one of the world’s longest reigning monarchs. The moral of the story is there is rarely a moral to the story. For proof of that, did the ‘heroes’ fare much better? The victors of Yalta lived on to die of a haemorrhage just months later on the eve of the unveiling of the UN (FDR), to be voted out of office, dying twenty years later a divisive figure with an ambiguous legacy (Churchill) and to become himself one of the great villains of the century with a reputation rivalling Hitler’s (Stalin).
Literature (actually, just ‘entertainment’) programs us to view history as the adventures of a series of important ‘main characters’ and how they shaped the world. It’s perhaps as good a ‘way in’ as any – like Frodo taking the ring to Mordor when no human can, or Biggles (almost) single-handedly defeating the Luftwaffe, it makes a kind of sense to us. But the distorted version of history it gives us is something to consider; think of your life and that of (name any current world leader or influential figure; apologies if you are on), if the people of the future are reading about that person, what will that tell them about your life? And what is ‘history’ telling you about really? Things that happened, yes, but prioritised by who, and for what purpose? (this is an argument for reading more, not less I think). Other people may be the protagonists in books, but in our own history we have to take that role. Artists (and historians too, in a different way) share their humanity with us, and there are great artists who somehow have the capacity or empathy to give us insights into lives and characters other than (and very different from) their own, but somehow created entirely from their own minds and their own perception of the world. You’ll have your own ideas, but Shakespeare, Sue Townsend, Albrecht Dürer, Steven Spielberg and James Baldwin seem like a random but fair enough selection. But just like them, however aware we are of everyone else and of existence in all its variety, we can only be ourselves, and, however many boxes we seem to fit into, we can only experience the world through our own single consciousness. If there’s a chosen one, it’s you. If there’s a dark lady or a dark lord, it’s also you.