• Paul D. Wilke

Holding Out for a Hero

I've always loved a good last stand. As a kid, I was fascinated by the image of a tiny band of brave, but hopelessly outnumbered warriors facing off against impossible odds. These tales were Grade A fantasy material for a Cold War child of the 80s reared on Red Dawn and Rambo movies. Heroism for me was always a story of the few taking on the many and draping themselves in everlasting glory, even if it was a posthumous glory. And history, at least the myth-laden version of it loved by boys my age since Plutarch, was my source material. I was enthralled by these stories, where good and evil seemed clearly defined, where the good guys were ever quotable manly men defending civilization from the hordes of darkness.

My favorites stories are well known. For example, upon hearing that Persian arrows would be so numerous as to block out the sun, King Leonidas of Sparta responded with boss-level badassery, saying that this would be a good thing since it meant they could fight in the shade. Boom! Likewise, William Travis joined Leonidas in my Badass Hall of Fame with his final letter from the besieged Alamo. After receiving a demand from the Mexicans to surrender, Travis with appropriate aplomb gave his response to General Santa Ana and posterity: "I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls - I shall never surrender or retreat." And true to his word, he never did surrender or retreat. Like Leonidas, Travis talked the talk and swaggered his way into the night to become a legend. As a 13-year old, I ate this stuff up, fantasizing that I too could exit the stage in a similar blaze of glory. If I had to go out, I thought, it would only be after I got off a few excellent one-liners and killed a few dozen bad guys.

If history sometimes failed to supply the raw material for my imagination, fantasy novels were there to bridge the gap. Perhaps the most famous stand made in the entire fantasy genre was J.R.R. Tolkien's Battle of the Hornburg (or Helm's Deep) in the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Here, a small band of men and elves defend a fortress from an overwhelmingly large force of orcs and uruk-hai (orcs on steroids). Helm's Deep was a clear battle between the forces of light and darkness, with none of the ambiguities that creep into historical accounts when you start learning more about them. We only get close to this level of moral clarity when talking about history's uruk-hai, the Nazis.

That was one of the problems with my earlier hero worship. Hearing the story made me want to read more about it, but the more I read the actual history, the less heroic it started to sound. Fantasy heroes like Legolas and Aragorn did not have to suffer through all that historical nitpicking about facts, context, or any of the other buzz-killing nuances that 13-year olds don't want to hear about in their heroes. What appeared in the novels was in the novels, and that was that. It was pristine. We didn't have to find out later that Legolas was high on meth when he and Gimli had their friendly orc killing competition during the battle at Helm's Deep, or that Gandalf in his old age was plagued by hemorrhoids to the point that riding on Shadowfax was an ordeal. No, thank god, no, we were spared those horrors. These heroes were free to stay that way since they were fictional.

With history, on the other hand, we've come to accept that we live in a jaded, postmodern age, knowing full well that the black and white heroics of the past were in truth more complicated affairs of grayness. Part of the reason for all this hero-flattening nuance is that we simply have more information about the history than we ever did before, giving us the ability to build more textured portraits of the actors involved, and I guess that's not a bad thing. But on the other side, is knowing more always better? Isn't it that sense of myth and mystery that lights up the imagination? Do we want to know what actually happened at Troy, or even if it happened at all? Or has Western civilization been so much the richer for having Homer's beautiful poem? Do we want to scrutinize those who came before through the lens of our twenty-first century values? If so, in the end, there will be no one left standing.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism killed off the remaining larger than life heroes. Capitalism finally reigned supreme, and with it our definition of the hero devolved to fit into a newly monetized paradigm. Times change. Today our heroes are entrepreneurs, professional athletes, movie stars, and pop musicians. This meant the end of the kind of hero that my childhood self so admired. Shows like Breaking Bad made the anti-hero cool. Comic book superheroes became darker over the last few decades, going from Adam West's lovably earnest Batman to the gloomy, gravelly, Dark Knight.

Real-world heroes today must likewise be portrayed as deeply flawed beings, exceptional on the one hand and yet, like any good Shakespearean character, grounded by genuine limitations. It's part of the same flattening narrative we now require of admired historical figures. Washington is the Father of our nation, true, but he owned slaves; Grant defeated the Confederacy but was a drunk and an awful president. Sadly, Leonidas almost certainly never uttered the quip about the arrows. Travis wrote his letter and fought to the death as promised, but questions lingered in the aftermath about whether his last stand even needed to happen in the first place. And so it goes.

And yet... Have we gone too far? I honestly don't know. Over one hundred years ago Max Weber noted that with the decline of religion and rise of science, we increasingly live in a disenchanted world, a world over-intellectualized and devoid of mystery. There is something to that, but we're also a spiritually impoverished society that strives for things that are not very heroic. That makes our heroes less heroic. Mark Edmundson gets at this perfectly. "People become heroically dedicated to middle-class ends - getting a promotion, getting a raise, taking immeasurably interesting vacations, getting their children into the right colleges, finding the best retirement spot, fattening their portfolios. Lives without courage, contemplation, compassion, and imagination are lives sapped of significant meaning." [1]

So maybe my childhood heroes have not aged well as I've learned more about them, but the ideals they represented made me strive to be a better person. They helped make me a lifelong idealist, someone who looks for the best examples around which to model my own unheroic personality. As I get older, my definition of what those 'best examples' are continues to evolve. These days I look more toward the thinkers than the fighters for inspiration. Perhaps more of us could use some ideals today in our disenchanted world, maybe a few better role models to follow that make us better people, and not just better at buying shit we don't need to impress people who don't care. If those I emulate today do not slay Persians or Nazis, that's ok. They keep me looking upward for better examples. As Oscar Wilde once said, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Indeed.

[1] Edmundson, Mark. Self and Soul. Harvard University Press., 2018.