Studying Heroism: How to Start?

It is my firm belief that those who do not declare their prejudices and open them up to interrogation are those who most quickly fall prey to and are constrained by them. And it is with that in mind that I want to make clear my own prejudices concerning heroes and how one should study them. I respect anyone who dedicates their time to sifting through the stories of the past, but I do believe there are good and bad ways of doing so and I’m not always sympathetic to the dominant approaches in the mainstream.

Epistemic Problems

The first hurdle we have to cross is the ever-present and not insignificant fact that many of the subjects we will be looking at come to us across hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, in a very foreign language, from a very foreign culture. Any text that we have comes to us across that vast void, having been (in the case of oral epics) transcribed (possibly numerous times), redrafted and stylized by various scribes (scribes who often do not share our modern concern with accurate, literal copying), and translated into languages (in our case, English), which may bear little to no resemblance to the original artistic tongue. And that’s if there’s only one version….

That’s not a hurdle easily vaulted. So why is it important that we bother with it? Because we must be wary of any claims about finding an “authentic” or “original” myth. All that we have are necessary distortions. “True” myths, in many ways, do not exist.

Keeping that in mind can help us engage the stories, keep us from sitting back and assuming an easy answer. These tales and their heroes are coming to us with subtleties and nuances we may not readily appreciate. They aren’t Sunday morning reads. These are stories we have to wrestle with, puzzle out. And we have to be open to surprises that are waiting for us—even and especially in the stories we think we already know.

Hasty Theories

I remain suspicious of any theory that purports to explain too much. If the twentieth century taught us anything, it’s that no grand narrative or universal creed can account for the mind-boggling diversity found throughout the world—and there is a totalitarian danger in trying to impose one on that diversity. I have little time for the likes of Freud, Jung, and Joseph Campbell, as should be eminently clear by now.

I understand the desire for an elegant theory that explains everything, but I don’t want to study these heroes to reinforce what I already know. I’m not looking for a pat on the intellectual back. I want to learn; I want to make new discoveries (or at least discoveries that are new to me); and I want to push myself out of the comfort of my intuitions, broaden my thinking and better examine the assumptions that buttress my worldview.

Context, Context, Context

One of the hallmarks of meta-narratives a la Freud, Jung, and Campbell was the extrication of stories from the various contexts whence they came. That’s great if you want to chop them into bits and build your own story out of them, but it’s terrible for coming to a proper understanding of the stories themselves.

Context is key for a couple of reasons. First, any story becomes different by virtue of the telling. Reading the Iliad, however stirring it might be, is qualitatively different from hearing it sung as it would have been. Remembering how these tales were produced and how they were received can help us appreciate their historical importance. Imagine living in a world where there were no bookstores, no universities, hell, no literacy. Imagine hearing an epic, gathered with your friends and family, hanging on every word the singer sang, grateful just for the chance to hear the tale. If we could only approach every story in this way.

Second, context helps us understand the motivations and desires of the characters we’re here to learn about. If we’re to understand these heroes at all then surely we have to take the time to study their culture. To use the Iliad as an example again: though the fact of war remains with us in the twenty-first century, the details (including the goals of the participants) are substantially different for a US soldier stationed in Afghanistan than for an Achaean hoplite. It’s also substantially different for me, who was born in a country that has never (in my lifetime) been invaded, who knows battle as something that happens in other countries or in movies, and who has utterly no desire to ever kill anyone for anything. I’m a far cry from the likes of Sarpedon, who tells his friend, Glaucus :

[D]eath in ten
thousand shapes hangs ever over our heads, and no man can elude
him; therefore let us go forward and either win glory for
ourselves, or yield it to another.

Third—and most importantly—proper context reminds us that ours is not the only judgment these heroes have faced or will face in the future. We are not here to judge them once and for all. We’re here to learn from them, and to learn also what their societies thought of them and why they were (and perhaps still are) valued as heroes.

Humility and Respect

So where does that leave us? It is my aim to approach these heroes, ancient and otherwise, with humility and respect. I aim to meet them as best I can on their terms, in their stories. As Dean A. Miller says in his absolutely astounding book, The Epic Hero (which I heartily recommend to any and all interested):

[W]hat we have learned, after hard effort, is that these entertainments are composites of history in their own way, supplying evidence of ideals, mindsets, even providing a valuable record of fantasy’s explorations and limitations at the time: a record of human mind itself, solidified in its own moment.

I aim to explore those human minds, with all the respect and honor I’d hope to receive in return.


4 thoughts on “Studying Heroism: How to Start?

  1. A vigorous opening to what promises to be a great thread. (Am I right that when you say “I aim to explore those human minds,” you plan to do that here on this blog?)

    I’ll put Dean Miller on my reading list.

    It strikes me that you and I seem to take opposite but complementary approaches to our study of heroism.

    I’m really asking: “What makes some stories from the past so timeless and attractive to us today?”

    You’re really asking: “What made those stories actually come about when they came about?”

    • You are exactly right in assuming that is my aim. And I think you’ll love The Epic Hero by Mr. Miller (dare I call him Dean…?). It’s the most comprehensive study of heroism (at least, the ancient kind) that I’ve ever encountered that doesn’t succumb to what I will call the … weaknesses of say, The Hero with a Thousand Faces or psychoanalytic readings of fairy tales (and I intend to justify that prejudice).

      I’m excited as well to see where we go from here. I didn’t want to just do what you’re doing cuz, well … you’re doing that. But I thought if I come at it from a different angle we might open things up for each other (and keep each other balanced). My range of knowledge is woefully Indo-European, however. I have some catching up with you to do in that respect. But I’ve started running 🙂

  2. Pingback: There are no heroes « The Hannibal Blog

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