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The Role of the Hero in Storytelling

S.P. Austen (1960- 2020) was an independent author writing on a diversity of subjects and genres. He passed away on June 30, 2020

Photo by: ColiNOOB

Photo by: ColiNOOB

Role model Aragorn

When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings I was about 12 or 13. I'd just read The Hobbit before that, and was enormously impressed by both books. So impressed, in fact, that to my young, fertile imagination, I was fantasizing most of the time about living in Tolkien's world.

If anyone had put to me, though, the question, "Which Lord of the Rings character would you be, if you could be?" I would answer "Aragorn. Definitely Aragorn." My reason? Well, apart from all the other great and heroic characters in The Lord of the Rings, such as Legolas the Elf or Frodo the Hobbit, Aragorn embodies for me, that ancient mythic heroism that is the stuff of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Viking mythology. Even Greek mythology, come to that. So, I wanted to be Aragorn.

Aragorn is first introduced as Strider in The Lord of the Rings, and he wears a hooded cloak; the air of mystery already surrounds him right from the start. We aren't even sure if he's a 'goodie' yet or a 'baddie' but we are deeply intrigued by this long-legged, gangling, hood-covered sword bearing stranger. (Perhaps because of my own tall and gangling frame, I identified rapidly with Aragorn as a kid, being already head and shoulders taller than all my friends).

Tolkien builds up the 'mystique' of Aragorn wonderfully, eventually revealing that he is far more than an ordinary man, and, like all good fairy stories (no disrespect intended at all) Aragorn turns out to be a King in disguise. It's equal with the legend of King Arthur or even with the real-life exploits of King Alfred the Great, who, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tells us, had been defeated by the Vikings only to come back and conquer them.

Women can be Heroic too

Later on in the story, we're introduced to the beautiful Galadriel of the Elves, a female heroin of the first order, full of virtue and high qualities. The film versions of The Lord of the Rings do the stories great justice, in my opinion, and Peter Jackson and team must be justly proud, as they bring to life these heroic characters excellently. The effects on human consciousness through this kind of myth, either in written form or through film, can be astonishing. It is linked to the drive to be better than we are. Subconsciously, this can have the most profound effect on how humans interact and how we conduct our lives. It's subliminal, and if it can be called 'positive brain-washing', I like it.

Tolkien wrote these stories during the Second World War, and we can see that they are a blend of mythic Viking Saga and the actual events which were unfolding in the world at that time. The winged Nazgul is almost identical with the word Nazi and symbolical of the embodiment of evil that such tyranny represented. Tolkien introduced a modern myth that was pertinent to his own time and would therefore become a part of the psyche of generations to come.

The Lord of the Rings sparked off an entire industry of fantasy writing, and truly, although much of it is good, I personally do not think Tolkien's works have been bested. Tolkien tapped into the human need to evoke the persona of The Hero/Heroine which the ancient Greeks had employed for centuries in the Greek Myths. There is a basic human need for the Hero and the Heroine which we thirst for, which somehow, we all want to become.


I remember reading the fabulous Marvel Comics as a kid, and again allowing my fertile imagination to run riot. Growing up in the 1960's -70's with Batman and Robin on T.V, although spoof and largely played for laughs, it was still inspiring to boys (and dare I say, girls) to be better, tougher, more heroic, and should we add - good?

There is that special something in the hero, or the superhero, that we aspire to. I think that all of us, despite our many faults and failings, want to be better than we are. This is the role of the hero or heroine; they are there to inspire, guide and teach us. With good reason, we have shows on T.V. now such as Gotham, which, although broodingly sombre and more 'serious' than the old Marvel comics, still bears the message of good ultimately triumphing in the eternal struggle of good over evil.

The modern heroes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Spiderman, The Flash, etc, etc, are just the latest incarnations of Hercules, Poseidon, Hermes and the whole Greek Pantheon. The Celtic, Roman, Norse, Indian and Native American gods and goddesses are all there too if you want to look for them. They have always been there, before humans wrote the first cuneiform script. Now we just give them different names and guises. Or should I say, dis-guises?

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We need more heroes

Let's not pretend, we really do need more heroes. Especially perhaps when we look at the state of the world with all those terrorists trying to kill us. We need them, not just physically, but psychologically. They're an essential part of our very being. The philosopher Joseph Campbell summed this need up very powerfully in his books regarding the importance of myth in our lives. So did the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Our world is but a reflection or manifestation of what is driving and inspiring us internally.

I don't think that the human race can actually survive physically or psychologically unless we continue to perpetrate our heroic myths, even in modern-day literature. Such myths go back thousands of years and in every single culture on planet Earth. The hero/heroine must always come up to the surface of our writing and story-telling, one way or the other. It resurfaces because it is a symbolical part of our own make-up. The hero is inside each one of us, and belongs there, and must come forth in glory, sword-wielding, trumpet-blowing and glorious.

That hero/heroine might also be the gentle type, the healer, the physician, the nurse (Florence Nightingale healing the wounded soldiers in the bleak and frozen Crimea) or the saint of Biblical tales. The hero figure might be the person who doesn't even start out that way, like Bilbo Baggins, who, in The Hobbit, just decides it's time for an adventure. Frodo follows in his hairy-footed steps in The Lord of the Rings in the same spirit, yet with the added burden of the Ring of Power. The 'little people' become the heroes.

Let me play the Hero

The role of the hero and the heroine is often about becoming, rather than starting out that way. It's often better in fact, when the hero is the underdog, the one least likely to, etc. Think of the legend of King Arthur, where he is raised in humble origins only to pull out the sword from the stone, revealing his true kingship.

Our literary heroes can and most likely will be, flawed characters, but they should also have enough 'virtue' - yes, I did say that outdated word - to be able to make sacrifices, think of others before themselves, risk life and limb without a thought of self, and do what must be done for the greater good. World Wars are won that way, in real life, and families are built that way, marriages saved, children loved.

If your short story is about a boy saving his dog from a rushing river, then lets have that. Let's feel how much love that scared little boy has for his devoted dog that he's wiling to dive into the dreadful, freezing current and rescue his best pal.

If your novel involves keeping a secret to spare another person's pain, even if your heroic character ends up looking awful, let's have that in the story, and all the private agony that will be held dammed up behind the keeping of a dark secret.

Give us good cops who care, give us cowardly people who in a moment of need become brave, give us the ordinary, struggling housewife, working three jobs or selling her body so that she can put her son or daughter through college.

Give us that nervous young man, who, thinking all is lost, tells the girl that he loves her, without hope of her returning that love. The outcome doesn't matter; the fact that he swallows his fear and says what he feels, does.

Give us all this and more, because, one way or another the hero and heroine is going to keep on emerging forever in popular modern myth and culture and we should not be ashamed to set out from the outset to invoke that myth in others. It's what makes us human. It's what makes us better humans.

The hero is in our psyche; let's have more of it please.

Photo: chrisjmit  King Alfred Statue

Photo: chrisjmit King Alfred Statue

© 2016 S P Austen

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