Our age has produced a new kind of disillusionment with heroism. Every decade that comes overshadows heroism as we know it. The new age Hero is what one may call an Anti-hero. He or she is a protagonist but without the traditional heroic traits. How we see heroes—as characters driven by creative energies, who are deeply motivated by the desire to seize the day, to be creative and virtuous, courageous and just—is not exactly how the new heroes are seen. An antihero is driven by the physical and animal side of his nature. They are earthbound selves who pursue earthly things instead of lofty goals. Yet in doing all of this, the antiheroes only seek to overcome themselves. They have conscious or unconscious appreciation of human limitations, and in their unpretentious actions directed towards fulfilling their motives, they reveal to us the meaning of true heroism for imperfect beings in an imperfect world.
The hallmark of a hero is personal sacrifice and a personification of the positive, unselfish side of the Freudian Ego. But the modus operandi of an antihero is the antisocial act. They personify the negative, selfish side of the Id, the one that warrants immediate gratification, and their journey reveals the dark downside of the human mind. The hero represents that part of us that recognizes problems and accepts responsibility. However, the antihero is the will to power and insatiable greed, the materialistic, power hungry, tyrannical side of our natures; the side that wants to possess everything it desires, without limit, and control everything it needs. In real life, this is Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. In story, it is Little Caesar, Michael Corleone and Commodus in ‘Gladiator.’
One can go as far back as Greek Mythology or look into 18th Century literature to find examples of an unconventional model for a hero. Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), for instance, is a poignant example of an antihero/protagonist in the conventional sense, since the main character is a thief and a prostitute. According to Encyclopaedia Britannicai, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is also one of the prototypes of an antihero that belongs to the tradition of picaresque narration in the 18th century. However, more recently, the popular Hollywood films and genres from the mid-1940’s through the 1970’s have epitomised the antihero and made him ubiquitous. Film Noir, Westerns, Outlaw Biker Films, Cop Dramas, Mob Films and Sci-Fi Films have featured antiheroes (like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle) who have become some of the most iconic movie characters of all time.
The stages for a hero, usually include: separation, initiation, integration and rebirth. One can easily take the example of Mr. Harry Potter himself to see this. In the seven years of his life that we know of, we see Harry turn from the “boy who lived in the cupboard under the stairs” to the “one who defeats He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” We know of his separation from his parents, of how he loses them and yearns for their presence, and of how he’s ignorant of the Wizarding World. But then, as he steps into Hogwarts, unaware of his own significance, he slowly becomes aware of his destiny. With this Boy, we all take a leap into a world of turmoil that he wins over with his wisdom and bravery, defeating great evil. Of course, he many-a-time has the bravery of a fool, and needs a lot of help to accomplish his monumental task. But he ultimately triumphs, literally being reborn after rising from the dead.
In contrast, the stages for antiheroes are- attachment, regression, alienation and death. We can take the example of the character of Tyrion Lannister (from the TV Adaptation of Game of Thrones). Tyrion, unlike Harry, is not a novice in this cruel world, he is a witty, hedonistic insider: one who is protected by his family’s status but is still the object of humiliation. One sees not Tyrion holding the moral flag high, he soothes his inadequacies with wine, women, wit and self-indulgence. His entire life, Tyrion seeks his father’s approval and throughout the storyline it’s his father that haunts him, dead and/or alive. There’s no such attribute of Tyrion that can be highly complimented—other than how extremely intelligent and cunning he is.
But Tyrion cannot in any way be described as, ultimately, a bad person. Tyrion’s had to pave his own way, almost without any allies. His life is threatened a multitude of times, and yet, somehow, whining about his captors like Jorah Mormont not having wine, he is able to keep his head whilst preventing a siege of King’s Landing. Despite giving in to excess, he puts his weight behind the Targaryens in the sincere belief that Daenerys will bring about good. Tyrion assumes his role as an anti-hero almost slyly. One doesn’t realize that he has managed to make you admire and respect him, but he proves his heroism with acts none see, like his treatment of Sansa. Harry has no proverbial sins on his hand, while Tyrion’s are painted with them. Yet, what brings Tyrion and Harry to the same lane is their ability to overcome. In fact, one may even say Harry appears a little too bland, a little too ‘straight-laced’ and a little too not-relatable compared to Tyrion.
The question is what is it about our age that makes us fall in love with these Tyrions? Historically, we have to take into consideration the various wars, whether it be the World Wars, the controversial Vietnam War, the Cold War, and most recently, the Middle Eastern conflict. Not only have people seen some of the worst acts in human history committed during this time, but many of us have experienced it first-hand. Further, endless cultural progress has become Modernism’s empty promise, and it has resulted in a Post-modernist deep-seated mistrust of the establishment, including its boundaries between right and wrong. The world now has far more shades of gray, and the characters on the silver screen reflect a broader view of morally acceptable behaviour.
If we consider the 21st century so far—9/11 terrorist attacks, the Iraq War, Enron, Hurricane Katrina, the economic recession, Hurricane Sandy, the Newtown shootings, the Boston Marathon attacks—there’s been a steady stream of terrible events to shake our faith in humanity. Characters who shine as morally pure and upright don’t ring true to us anymore, because it’s not who we see around us in the world. Neither is it what we see when we look in the mirror. After all, a believable and relatable character is one of the single-most important elements of an enjoyable story. In truth, we owe a great debt to fictional villains and antiheroes. They create the problems the heroes have to solve and that creates the need for a story that reveals the inner workings of the dark side of ourselves. Without the actions of the negative forces, there would be very few stories to tell, and the forces that motivated Hitler and Jack the Ripper would remain forever a mystery to us. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” In this new age, in this new world, the modern hero dares to heed the call of his shadow. He casts off his slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding to reach atonement and true growth.
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