A Hero Is Another Kind of Monster

I was originally going to write about how the existence of gold-hauling, tomb-spelunking, monster clearing adventurers spoke to a world that was fundamentally broken. I think this is mostly true, but it's only part of the story. Worlds that support semi-independent adventurers are usually broken at the interstices, like fault lines building pressure ready to rupture. Mountains are made and destroyed in such places, and likewise many of our most storied mythical heroes are forged in them. What we rarely have in the real world is unoccupied space, a place that is livable now, but where nobody has ever lived, though at times in various places we might have arrived to where nobody currently lived. Such pristine wilderness is the stuff of pure myth. So we're left with the interstices, the places where civilizations meet, amicably and otherwise.

But what are heroes, then? There are always those among us who are, by nature or nurture, ready to walk into dangerous places to do dangerous things. But the point is they are among us, as members of society. Historically, did such people, having survived their earliest adventures, arrive at a place leading some army, prepared to build minarets from the skulls of their enemies? Fine, but in that case are they not the heroes of another social order? Did our ancestors lead such armies? Then are they not our heroes as well? The heroic in such cases has nothing to do with right, good, or just. We assign those terms when they fit our purposes.

The point about this is that under ideal conditions, we often are able to channel our monsters into something that is somewhere between neutral and helpful, to transform those who would do violence from monsters to heroes, or, in other parlance, to beat our swords into plowshares. But the transformation to heroes does not make them not monsters, nor does defanging them render them inert. The moment their adventurous impulse exceeds the opportunity to pursue it, they turn on society. And the moment society provides gaps in its social conditioning, monsters begin to fill the crevices. We possess many archetypal stories of heroes forced into lives of thievery to survive. We are bad at predicting the contours and crevices born of unintended consequences, and therefore all manner of social ill persists within them. These are the internal interstices, the places where a society's internal conflicts meet.

To reinforce this point, let us turn to a useful term which, in its original apparent (cited) uses, probably did not contain the dichotomy articulated here, and in fact is a source of debate among scholars. In Old English, the two possible definitions of aglæca are 1) ferocious fighter or formidable opponent, and 2) a miserable being, wretch, or monster. The seeds of heroism lie in the first, which is a poetic origin of the term, but the true poetry here is that the term can be at all tied to the second, that these might be two sides of the same coin.

Now, hero-building is indistinguishable from other socio-political projects, including myth-building, state-building, and nationalism. If it were, historical leaders would not have spent so much time tying their own sense of heroism to the heroes that came before them. We cannot ignore or dismiss as inconvenient the fact that that leaders throughout history invent entire genealogies to turn their claims to power from mere might to successional legitimacy. They are not, they claim, mere monsters, villains sacking cities for their riches, but instead legitimate successors to the heroes of old, carrying on their legacy. But of course they are both.

And finally, we cannot elevate such heroes without the conditions that produce them in the first place, and that is where our humble adventurers thrive. Most will never bear the title, but their ends and means are all the same. They are the sick souls of a sick world, and if they are tools or weapons to be wielded, we would do well to remember that they cut whichever way they swing.

++++ Like what you just read? You can subscribe to new posts on this blog via any ActivityPub platform (Mastodon, Pleroma, etc.) at @aaron@blog.hilltown.studio or via RSS at https://blog.hilltown.studio/feed