Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Being a Hero SUCKS

It seems that no matter what mythology we find them in, being a hero is the crappiest of all lives to live. Maybe if you're a demigod and particularly lucky, you'll end up not entirely dead, but for the most part being a hero means one thing: years and years of struggle, conflict, and death defying acts of courage to be repaid with some kind of betrayal and a really pathetic and ignoble death.

Three Case Studies:

Son of Poseidon and King of Athens, Theseus fights his way through monsters as a young man when his trip to Athens takes him by the six entrances to the Underworld. Once in Athens and recognized by his other father, he defeats the minotaur, freeing his people from paying tribute, in lives, to Crete. He takes the amazon queen for his wife (he kind of has a history of womanizing). He battles centaurs. He travels with Pirithous to the underworld and comes back again! When he gets back he goes into retirement. Why not, right? He's had a long and busy life, and after a trip to the underworld, he probably isn't interested in continuing to push his luck. He makes arrangements with a King friend of his to move back to the country island lands of his ancestors. When he gets there, he's either betrayed and pushed off a cliff, or, worse, he slips and falls on his own. To his death.

Lame Factor: 4 (out of five) if he was pushed. 5 if he fell. But 3 if someone can find me proof or hearsay that Poseidon rescued his immortal self and turned him into a god.

Son of Zeus and most popular Hero of the ancient world. Tortured by Hera, pretty much from birth. Took on and overcame his 12 labors, during which he killed or captured a bunch of monsters, pretty much just for the entertainment of a king who wanted to see him dead, and as a penance for being driven mad by Hera and killing his own children. (Seriously. Hera induces madness, Heracles kills his children without realizing what he's doing, then he gets punished because Hera screwed with him. As if losing his kids isn't punishment enough. Nice.) Sailed with the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece. He saved Prometheus, and liberated Theseus from the Underworld, and helped Tyndareus (Helen's non-godly father) reclaim Sparta, and... well, I could go on. Suffice it to say, Heracles was the hero of heroes and there wasn't a lot he didn't do. (Also, kind of a womanizer, uh, and manizer?) His third wife got a little upset about it and in revenge, poisoned his shirt. Yes. His Shirt. When he put it on, taking it off ripped the flesh from his bones, or somesuch. Heracles had a pyre built for himself and burned to death. Because he was special, only the mortal parts of him burned away and he became fully immortal and joined the gods on Olympus. (Where he of course took a new wife. Some things never change.)

Lame Factor: 3 because I can't get over the poisoned shirt. I mean, come on.

According to the Saga of the Volsungs, Sigurd is descended from a line of men fathered by Odin. The Volsungs were all pretty incredible, but Sigurd was the greatest of them. His father died before his birth, in battle and as a young man, Sigurd avenged his father's death by killing all the sons of King Hunding, and pretty much slaughtering their entire army. Back home, he also slaughtered Fafnir the dragon (admittedly with a little advice from Odin) and became easily the richest and most powerful king alive. Sigurd was loved by everyone and said to be the "foremost in strength and accomplishments, in zeal and valor." He fell in love with Brynhild, but was tricked into marrying a different woman, and helping his brother-in-law win Brynhild for himself. It wasn't until after Brynhild had been married to his brother-in-law that Sigurd realized what had happened. When his brother-in-law realized Sigurd and Brynhild were in love with one another (though neither one of them betrayed their marriage vows) he betrayed Sigurd and had him attacked and killed in his sleep.

Lame Factor: 5. Betrayed AND attacked while defenselessly sleeping? At least Heracles was awake and chose the pyre. And at least Theseus was on his feet. Sigurd got a raw deal.

You'll notice that in our re-imagination of these heroes in the pages of comic books, while we may torture our mythical heroes a bit, they usually don't end up with super lame deaths. They go down fighting, or defending the world somehow, usually. When we let them die at all. And most of the time, we resurrect them again. (Though, one could argue that might be an even worse fate-- every time they get some peace in death, they end up brought back to face more hardship and continue the fight. Buffy is a good example of this, and she does not handle it well.)

I feel pretty sorry for them.


  1. Theseus' death has similarities with his father's. There might have been a family history.

    Mary Renault has an explanation which, personally, I think is a bit weak.

    The idea that heroes end triumphant is very recent. Even to mediaeval times, a heroic or tragic death was part of the job description. The Song of Roland, for example.

  2. Yeah, the hero's life is NOT for me. I always think it's interesting that none of the modern portrayals of Heracles mention the whole kid thing. I guess the ancient Greeks had stronger stomachs than we do.

    My favorite tragic character in Greek history/mythology is Oedipus. The poor guy was doomed from Day 1.

  3. LOL great post. Totally reminds me of the Percy Jackson series :-)

    Also, I never knew that about Heracles shirt! *scurries off to go brush off knowledge of heroes*

  4. Yeah, it sucked being a mythical hero. There are tons of stories like this where the hero manages to survive dozens of trials only to be undone by a simple hit or something else similarly dumb.

    Take Achilles for example. His heel is his only weak point. His heel. Really Hellenistic storytellers? His effing heel?

    I knew the bit about Heracles already, but the stories of Theseus and Sigurd are interesting.

  5. I know I may be over-reaching, but everytime I watch the Spiderman trilogy, I always feel sorry for Peter Parker. Will the guy NEVER catch a break?

  6. Nice. I think Disney writers used the death basis of mythology to create their stories. Seriously, I'd never want to be the mother (and, in rare cases, the father) of a Disney movie/story.

  7. Gary: We don't let our heroes end triumphantly now, either. Well, maybe in Disney movies. But our comic book heroes never get to rest--at least these guys were allowed to die, even if their deaths were lame. The more I think about it, the more I think this is absolutely worse than being killed by a poisoned shirt of pushed off a cliff.

    Stephanie: Yeah, Oedipus got a pretty raw deal too. As far as Heracles goes-- I think it's less about stronger stomachs and more about the fact that culturally we can't forgive that kind of thing. The Greeks could say "oh, Hera made him," and excuse it, because they believed in gods that messed with people's lives. That's kind of a big stretch for us today.

    Sara: Rick Riordan does a good job with bringing this stuff to life!

    Matt: At least Achilles died in battle, and not in his sleep. An arrow to the heal is only lame factor 1, or maybe 2, in my opinion.

    Tina: Spider-man 2 does a REALLY great job of illustrating this-- Peter Parker really struggles with the fact that he's a hero. He doesn't necessarily want it, but he's driven by the responsibility. He can't just stand by, because when he does, people die. Of course, acting also puts his loved ones in danger...

    Tara: I always feel bad for King Trident in The Little Mermaid. He had to give up his daughter and never see her again. It's horribly sad for that entire family.

  8. This is great. Thanks for the discussion on heroes. I'm thinking real life heroes have the same fate. Didn't necessarily sign up for the job. Could have done w/out the pain and suffering, but save people with the truth.

  9. Mary: The hero's burden is pretty great-- maybe that's why we give the fictional heroes such immense weights, so that the heroes in the real world can still say "well, it could be worse."

    And guys-- I apologize for all my typos in that last comment of mine!

  10. Haha! Love this post!

    That's part of the whole hero thing, though.

    Amalia, who do you think is the hero of the Disney movie "The Little Mermaid?" I saw your response about King Trident, and I am curious if his sacrifice means more to him being a hero, to you, than the normal "hero" characters.

  11. Sarah: I think Ariel is meant to be the hero, with an assist from Prince Eric at the end-- but I've always admired King Trident. Honestly he might be my favorite secondary character in that movie. Ultimately his greatest challenge is letting his daughter grow up and make her own decisions--recognizing her as an adult. And she's only 16, and the baby of the family, so I can't imagine it was easy for him to let go of her so young.

    But the story The Little Mermaid has always told me is that in order to have the love of your life you have to give up your family, all your friends, and your entire former life, and that is the saddest idea in the world to me. I wish there had been some kind of middle ground for Ariel and her family-- Why did she have to go with Eric? Why couldn't Eric (who seemed to have NO family left) have become a Mer-man and joined Ariel in the ocean? Why does the woman have to be the one to give up everything? Couldn't they have spent 6 months in the ocean and 6 months on land?

    I don't know if that answers your question-- but I think it took a lot of courage and a lot of faith for Trident to let Ariel go, all things considered.

  12. Ooooh, good points!

    I think that heroism can be so subjective. First of all, though, big shout-out to Ariel being a hero! Yay for female heroes! I think that we forget how many heroes there are in a story--someone above me referenced Achilles, but remember how sulky he was? We remember him as a hero, sure--but look at Patroclus, who went out to battle because (as I recall) it was the right thing to do (for him). So, I totally think Triton could be a hero, as well. A really forgotten hero!

    I always reminded myself at the end that she could always come back and visit her family, that they could come to the seashore to visit her, and also reminded myself that she was obsessed with humans. That made it better.

    OK. I get really excited about heroes. And Disney. Sorry.

  13. Hahaha!
    Okay, first of all, apparently I can't remember character names to save my life, and I apologize for calling King Triton King TRIDENT. Wow.

    Second of all, I never got the impression that she could return home. I think because when she's dealing with Ursula, they say she can never be with her father or sisters again, and once she makes the decision to be human, she's done with the ocean. Yeah, she was kind of obsessed with Humans, because they were mysterious-- that doesn't mean living with them for the rest of her life is going to make her happy! Once it isn't new and different anymore, is she still going to love it?

    I think this topic deserves it's own blog post!

  14. Hahaha! I knew what you meant.

    No, you're right about that...but I meant, she could return and visit them on the ship. Not that she could live with them, necessarily, but that she could at least see them again. It helped me feel better about the situation. I try not to think about how they probably continue to fish and catch other seafood. (By the way, and off topic here, don't ever watch The Little Mermaid II. Disney should write me a thousand apology notes for that.)

  15. Sarah: I already have! Your warning came too late! Actually though, I kind of liked the Little Mermaid Prequel-- probably because it went a little deeper in the Triton's Character. hahaha!

  16. Amailia, this is a GREAT post! Awesome!

    My take:
    Let's start with Heracles: I think his "punishment" is self-imposed. I know if I did that to my kids, no matter how or from what influence, I couldn't purge my guilt with a bottle of scotch and an apology, no matter what support system and counseling I received. 12 labors? Probably just barely enough to get me back into a functional state of mind. And WHY did Hera drive him crazy? Would he have been the hero he was without the tragedy he experienced in his family life? Or would he have been "just another buff and satisfied country gentleman?" Would his soul have been satisfied with that? And would we have been more bereft as a human family without his "Herculean" efforts?

    As to Achilles: His destiny was to live on the edge (of the sword, so to speak). That death was a great reminder of the "quick" - the fine line between the glory of living and the inertness of non-living. After being the point of the spear (and nod doubt many times a pointless point at that), Achilles would have found his death pure poetry, I think.

    Sigurd. Man, that's a bad draw right there. On this point, I'll only offer that it's not about the destination, it's about the journey.

    And I think that's really the essence of my thinking. The Hero's Journey is just a magnified version of our own. We are all faced with miserable choices. We all struggle, bear unimaginable burdens, and vanquish foes. We all desire rest. We all experience betrayal of one kind or another. And we live to face another day.

    Until we don't.

    As the old saying goes, "I'll have plenty of time to rest...after I'm dead."

    The really painful stories are those that don't end. (see The Last Action Hero for a light-hearted take).

    Death is a cold comfort, but eventually, a comfort we all embrace. Thank goodness for those myths in which the hero gets to die. at least you get to be a hero.

    I mean, consider the alternative.

    Who would you rather be: Sigurd or Sysiphus?

    I rest my case.

  17. UJ:

    I absolutely agree with you about the heroes at least getting an ending-- In modern story-telling and myth (AKA comic books!) we keep resurrecting these heroes, and not letting them have their peace. Maybe they go out with a bang, saving the world, which is AWESOME, but that greatness of ending is then completely nullified by the fact that they inevitably end up coming back from the dead.

    Captain America, for example-- how long has he been fighting? How much upheaval has he seen, and how stretched to the limit has he been by how changed the world has become from what he knew when he began his fight?

    Thor (Marvel's of course) was recently brought back from death, after managing finally to end the cycle of Ragnarok and give himself and his people eternal and PEACEFUL death. He choose death to break the cycle, to allow peace, but humanity won't let him rest, so he is drawn back to the world to find out that there was an awful clone made of him that Tony Stark used for purposes Thor found morally offensive, Captain America has been killed, and the superhero registration act has pretty much destroyed everything he stood for. The Avengers he knew are disassembled and the new team would rather beat him back into the ground than help him. PLUS An invasion by the Skrull. There's no REST.

    I know that a lot of it is marketing-- but these modern mythic heroes don't ever get an end. Achilles did. Theseus did. Heracles at least got to ascend to Olympus, and is given some peace from the world. The modern world certainly exacts a very high price for giving them more glorious deaths.

  18. Sarah: Yes. The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning.

    Look it up! I think it's probably on youtube somewhere. :) It was another direct to video, of course.

  19. Haha! but it explains why Triton has banned Mer-people from going to the surface, and why he's SO angry when Ariel disobeys him! Just watch the beginning, maybe.

  20. Excellent post! Being a hero is not a job I'd apply for whether mythical, fictional or real life cop or fireman. Granted, cops and firemen choose their profession, but still. Dying in a burning building or being shot in the street are ignoble ways to go, regardless of the ensuing hero's send off. Seems to me, the monomyth has little to recommend it as a life choice.

  21. VR: Too true. It's a rough life, hard on the hero, and everyone around him/her!

  22. Being a hero sucks, just look at Dante and the crap he went through, and I mean the game version, because they raped the poem on soooo many levels. >_<

  23. Oh my gosh! This post got me laughing so hard! Yeah, I feel sorry for them too. Well, mostly... Somebody has to be the hero! I'm just glad I get to do the torturing and not the saving. Hey, does that make writers the true villains?

  24. T: I had no doubt that they would.

    Nisa: Maybe so! Especially those comic book writers, always resurrecting people!

  25. That's why i'm true neutral. Screw morals and doing good deeds for ungrateful morons. And screw all that conquer and take-over-the-world bullshit. I'm just hear to live and die.


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