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Where are the Heroes?

Where in this modern and post-modern world do we find an embrace of heroism and the heroic virtues?

Certainly not in most literature published since the 1960s.  There exists much irony and tragedy, certainly—remnants, perhaps, of late Greece as well as late Rome.  But, in present-day serious literature, there exists almost no real heroism.  Even the good Germanic, Norse, and Celtic legends seem absent from the most recent of fiction.

At worst, a hero is something to be mocked, an old fashioned (and out of time) boy scout, a puritan do-gooder. At best, we wink at each other, knowingly acknowledging that he is being “over the top” or campy or something else that fills us with a glib sense of irony.

The 1960s, of course, witnessed the rise of the anti-hero, and some of them–I’m thinking of Billy Pilgrim in particular–were quite humane and nuanced. But, I wouldn’t want to stake my life on an anti-hero, whether created by Kurt Vonnegut or anyone else.

For a moment, consider what is generally and rightly regarded as the very finest literature to emerge in the last several decades. Who would want to have the protagonists of The Road or the characters of the sequels and prequels to the Lonesome Dove as models of behavior?

I would be stunned if any sane person would.

Where, then, do we look for role models? Harry Potter? The protagonists (haven’t read them, so I can’t comment) in the Hunger Games?  What about that other famous book right now, 5,000 Shades of Pink?  The former two, of course, reside squarely in scifi and fantasy (vital point in this post—just to foreshadow with no hint of subtlety!) The last, as I understand it, is just plain naughty.

On a serious note . . .

Our Need for Story

As humans, we crave story and myth and parable and lessons and allegory….empirically, this is proven throughout history. The maintainers of the norms of society have been the bard (as Christopher Dawson so beautifully argued, the real center of every culture) and the prophet, each a story teller.  One speaks for the past, the other for the future; each speaks to the present.

On these matters as in many others, it’s probably best to turn directly to Dawson and others on this. A prophet or a bard, he claimed, “is the bearer of the sacred tradition of [his] particular culture which is embodied in a sacred literature, a sacred philosophy and a sacred code of ritual and ceremony…poetry is in its origins inseparable from prophecy.”

In almost every culture, the bardic or prophetic proclaims truth through myth, story, poetry, allegory, and parable. The sayings revitalize us and renew us; refresh our souls; awaken us to right reason and first principles; and, ultimately, give us a vision of the One who created all things, who has already redeemed the universe, and who will bring all things back to right order.

Penultimately,  through the telling and retelling of stories, we find our own place in the economy of grace and in the great chain of being. In a sense, the bardic and prophetic allow us to understand our unique and specific place within Justice itself.

Such things are best comprehended through the imagination, itself a gift of Grace (John 1:9). As Dawson’s friend, C.S. Lewis, put it:

Like all great myths its primary appeal is to the imagination: its indirect and further appeal to the will and the understanding can therefore be diversely interpreted according as the reader is a Christian, a politician, a psycho-analyst, or what not.  Myth is thus like manna; it is to each man a different dish and to each the dish he needs.  It does not grow old nor stick at frontiers racial, sexual, or philosophic; and even from the same man at the same moment it can elicit different responses at different levels. But great myth is rare in a reflective age; the temptation to allegorize, to thrust into the story the conscious doctrines of the poet, there to fight it out as best they can with the inherent tendency of the fable is usually too strong.

Screen Time

As I’ve had the opportunity to argue elsewhere, we conservatives (and allied sorts and types who cherish dignity, order, and liberty) can spend all of the time possible in our short lives denouncing the various media and messages of modern and post-modern culture. Richard Weaver railed against jazz, and Russell Kirk against television.

Or, we can (as T.S. Eliot did with poetry and Winston Elliott has done with internet) baptize and sanctify what we find.

The screens of our world—whether in our living rooms, our offices, or in our shopping centers—are going nowhere anytime soon. They have become a vast and deep part of our modern culture. Perhaps we can lament this, but we must also confront it and make it something as good as the medium allows.

In this case, please indulge me and let me offer a few thoughts about modern television and movies. A while ago, I praised the DC superheroes, such as The Dark Knight, as our modern and post-modern equivalents of demi-gods, gods, and saints.  No where was this more true than in the various animated series produced by Bruce Timm. His Batman, Superman, and Justice League cartoons of 1992-2006 spoke to kids as well as adults, and Timm never shied away from the traditional virtues of the western tradition. Indeed, his re-imaginating of the DC heroes unapologetically defended almost everything readers of The Imaginative Conservative would hold to be true.

[From this point forward, though, I’ll refrain from further comic-book references. I would guess I’ve already turned off a few readers, and I see no benefit in turning away any more.  As a quick side note–I’m always a bit amused when cultural conservatives—so many of whom embrace high liturgy in religion—reject the visuals of comics and movies. These two media embrace incarnationalism at its most fundamental level, bringing together the word and the image.]

Three heroes worth considering

James Tiberius Kirk.  Modeled rather directly on John F. Kennedy, in looks as well as personality, Captain Kirk led the U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC1701) in Technicolor (oh, those yellow, blue, and red uniforms!) into the New Frontier for three years in the second half of the 1960s.  Gene Roddenberry, the creator, barely changed the style he brought to the westerns of the previous decade when developing what he first called “Wagon Train to the Stars.”

James Kirk, a sort of conservative New Frontier Democrat, dealt out American-style justice wherever he could. Starfleet served as a post-New Deal kind of navy, and the United Federation of Planets was a benign democratic tyranny, having abolished all kinds of things, even money.

Still, when push came to shove, Kirk was the guy you wanted on your side. With cool boots and lots of judo-style flips, he always ended up doing the right thing and saving the universe. Generally, he slept with all kinds of space women during the adventures, but so did Matt Dillon and so did John F. Kennedy. At least Kirk gave lots of great sermons about freedom, and he even met Abraham Lincoln on one adventure.

Strangely, even from the perspective of today, the Star Trek of the 1960s seems to have managed to combine a sort of innocence and bravado all in one. And, who would you rather have remembered from the 1960s?  James T. Kirk or Abbie Hoffman?


John J. Sheridan.  Also known as “Johnny Nuke’Em Sheridan.”  The space opera to end all space operas, Babylon 5 ran from 1993 to 1998, created by J. Michael Stracsynski (Joe, or JMS to his fans) is nothing short of genius.

A master story teller, JMS wanted to tell a comprehensive story set in the 23rd century, embracing and exploring elements of religion, diplomacy, economics, politics, and myth. JMS never shied away from character development, ethics, mystery, or controversy.  He also never walked away from openly pronouncing what one should consider good and true and beautiful. References to Arthurian mythology and Tolkien’s legendarium abound.

I’ve watched Babylon 5 several times, and I’m sure I’ve never seen a better story or better characters on TV or in the movies.  This is the one (the one reference is an inside joke).

Unlike Kirk, Sheridan never womanized, and he never lectured frivolously. He also didn’t wear a bright jump suit or do funny judo moves.  In every way, he personified patriotism and maintained the strictest standards of loyalty and friendship. When he needed to shoot, he shot. When he needed to negotiate, he negotiated.  When he needed to secede and declare independence, he seceded and declared independence. When he fell in love, he married.

Never cardboard, Sheridan is a man’s man.  He would never hesitate to give his life for a friend or the truth. Frankly, television just doesn’t get better than this.

If you do watch the show, be warned: Sheridan does not actually show up in the series until the first episode of season 2. His first season counterpart, Jeffrey Sinclair, is great as well. But, in a very different way than Sheridan.  My guess is that JMS is incapable of writing a bad character.

By the way, even B5’s maintenance men have fascinating personalities.

Malcolm Reynolds. With many traits of the anti-hero, Joss Whedon’s captain of the firefly-class ship, Serenity, is an anti-hero only because of his circumstances.

During a civil war, his own side betrayed him, and the winners want nothing more than to establish a tyranny—though rather soft in the De Tocquevillian sense—over the entire galaxy. If Star Trek praised the benign tyranny, Firefly shows its darkest side. The conservatives, libertarians, mossbacks, smugglers, tax evaders, and reactionaries defend what is good.  Why does a government exist, Malcolm asks, to “get in a man’s way.”

The progressives, though often well intentioned, will go to any length to eradicate what they see as imperfections in the human race (there are no aliens in Firefly) and recreate the universe in the image of technological, sanitary man.  As it turns out, the government, or “Alliance,” is the mixing of communist China and the United States. Chinese cultural references appear often in the series, and, very humorously, the insults and foul language are almost always presented in Mandarin.

Though Fox only gave Whedon a contract for 14 episodes and cancelled Firefly before it really caught on with the public, the episodes have become legendary over the past decade. Indeed, Firefly has to be the most popular cancelled sci-fi show of all time (I’m excluding Star Trek, as it has come back in a variety of forms and did so less than a decade after it disappeared the first time).

Whedon concluded the story in a 2005 movie, Serenity. While the movie is excellent, it can’t match the character development of the fourteen episodes of the series.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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6 replies to this post
  1. I whole heartedly agree with the thrust of this essay, and would like to add two (of many) wonderful postmodern heroes of popular culture:

    Optimus Prime (and arguably the entire dramatic cast of the original Transformers as developed by Marvel comics’ Bob Budiansky)

    Tintin – Europe’s Catholic hero whom George Remi (Herge) made is hero of such caliber that even De Gaulle was compelled to state that only Tintin could rival him in international affairs.

  2. In this brave new multicultural (and severely egalitarian) world, the entire notion of “heroes” implies some people are better than others. Can’t have that.

    • Mike: Given that the OECD today released new data on income inequality around the world, your reference to our brave new “severely egalitarian” world seems mistimed, to say the least.

      I’m not sure that the lesson of “heroes” was ever that “some people are better than others”; I think heroes were created and invoked to awaken the heroism within each of us.

  3. An excellent case for transference of The Myth into The Future.
    (I have all the Firefly episodes, btw. It’s short life may actually have perfectly blended into The Myth.)
    Also, a case may be made for the Conservative SciFi writer (think Heinlein and Pournelle here), being the best of the lot. (while recalling Sturgeon’s Law –“90% of Everything is Crud.”)

  4. “Starfleet served as a post-New Deal kind of navy, and the United Federation of Planets was a benign democratic tyranny, having abolished all kinds of things, even money.”

    Benign democratic tyranny? How neo-conservative!!

    The real Kirk, Russell not James T, would have opposed the UFP on principle.

    Free the Klingons from the UFP tyrants! 🙂

  5. I think you could make the case for pretty much any of the Star Trek Captains (Picard, Sisko, and Janeway) as “heroes”. I was even surprised that you chose Kirk over Picard as Kirk is more headstrong and prone to violence and Picard is more of the thinking mans captain. Care to explain why you chose Kirk over Picard?

    Another good hero from recent sci-fi is Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) of Stargate SG-1 fame. He always put his team first, ahead of the mission, and only used violence when absolutely forced to. And boy, talk about a show with symbolism, SG-1 clobbers you over the head with it!

    Brad, I’m assuming you’ve read Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With A Thousand Faces”? I’m in the middle of it right now and I’m loving it.

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