Each individual has their own personal definition of heroism or more specifically the characteristics of a true hero. Some may believe that a hero must be a person of high morals, while others may believe that a hero must a brave person, and yet others may believe that a hero can conceivably be a hero by chance and must not possess any specific qualities. Dictionary.com defines a hero or heroine as a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his or her brave deeds and noble qualities.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined heroism in his book titled Poetics. According to Anthony Ubelhor, an instructor at the University of Kentucky, “Aristotle describes the tragic hero as a protagonist who is otherwise perfect except for a tragic or fatal flaw that eventually leads to his demise. In fact, an Aristotelian tragic hero must have four characteristics: goodness, superiority, a tragic flaw, and a realization of both his flaw and his inevitable demise”.
However, it is important to note that different societies have different values, and the values of a society do change over time. These differences and changes will affect the concept of heroism. “Many people who may have been heroes during their time may not be looked upon as heroes today. Davy Crocket, for example, chased away the Indians, raped the land and killed animals. He might not be considered a hero today, but he was during another time in history” (Pendharkar).
This author will attempt to define heroism while making an allowance for societal differences and changes. Therefore, this author’s definition of a hero or heroine is a person who performs a legal or ethical act that is of benefit to another entity without first considering any personal gain or harm that may be received due to said act. In this author’s opinion, this definition means that a firefighter is a hero, a man who rescues abused animals is a hero, and a pimp who happens to catch a stumbling man and prevent him from falling in front of a moving bus is a hero. Of these three examples, the first two are what could be called the conventional types of hero, while the third is what this author believes to be an “accidental” hero.
Examples of Heroism in Literature
There are many examples of heroism in literature. Atticus Finch, a character in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, is viewed by many as a hero. In the novel, which takes place in Alabama during 1935, the lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The reader learns through the actions of Atticus Finch “what it means to behave morally – to do the right thing – in the face of tremendous social pressure. In short, To Kill a Mockingbird reveals the heroic nature of acting with moral courage when adhering to social mores would be far less dangerous” (Profiles in Courage).
Nancy Drew is another example of heroism in literature. The character Nancy Drew appeared in several books written by Carolyn Keene. A young girl helping others by solving mysteries, Nancy Drew “came along in 1930 when girls needed a new kind of heroine, a perfectly groomed teenage sleuth at the wheel of a blue roadster — unflappable and brave in the face of a modern world full of dangers and mysteries” (Otto).
A third hero in literature is Robin Hood, who has appeared in countless novels written by various authors. Robin Hood is often considered “the first hero of the common people of England” (Keen). He fought against the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham for the benefit of the residents who had been subjected to the evil deeds of the Sheriff. The tales of Robin Hood endorse the “old-fashioned virtues of altruism and swashbuckling heroism” (Roush).
Father Merrin in William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist is a fourth example of heroism in literature. In the novel, a young girl is possessed by demons. Father Karras enlists the help of Father Merrin in exorcising the demons from the girl. While performing the exorcism, the demons leave the girl and possess Father Merrin. Realizing this, the priest jumps out the window to his death. In a classic example of heroism in the face of good versus evil, Father Merrin saves the girl by becoming possessed himself, and then gives his life in order to prevent the demons from leaving his body and entering another.
Examples of Heroism in Film
Examples of heroism in film are also numerous. However, they are a bit harder to identify, because many films are adapted from novels. For example, The Exorcist, mentioned above, was adapted to a 1973 film that won several awards, including Oscars and Golden Globes.
One example of heroism in film is Batman. Originally appearing in comic books, the character Bruce Wayne takes on the identity of Batman in order to fight evil in Gotham City. In the original Batman film, as well as the sequels, Batman fights various evil characters, saves innocent people, and restores order in the city of Gotham. Neither Batman, nor Bruce Wayne, receives any form of compensation for, or personal benefit from, performing these heroic tasks.
Buffy Summers from the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another example of heroism in film. Buffy discovers that she has been chosen to protect humanity by destroying evil vampires. She does not receive any compensation for her heroic acts. As a matter of fact, Buffy gives up the normal, teenage life that she would prefer in order to protect others. Continuing on this theme, the film was later adapted to television and was a popular series for seven seasons.
These examples of heroism in literature and film illustrate an important point. There is no list of required acts or characteristics that define a hero. Atticus Finch, Nancy Drew, Robin Hood, Father Merrin, Batman, and Buffy Summers are very different characters, and they are all heroic in different ways. In the end, each of these characters helped others without personal gain as a determining factor.
“Hero.” Dictionary.com website. URL: http://Dictionary.reference.com/browse/hero
Keen, M. “Robin Hood a Peasant Hero.” EBSCOhost database. URL: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9110210460&loginpage=Login.asp&site=ehost-live
Otto, M. “Girl Sleuth and the Fountain of Youth; At 75, Nancy Drew Continues to Enchant Readers–and Now Academics, Too.” ProQuest database. URL: http://proquest.Umi.com/pqdweb?did=899780321&Fmt=3&clientId=65562&RQT=309&VName-PQD
Pendharkar, L. “The Hero Chronicles.” The Heroism Project website. URL: http://www.heroism.org/decades.html
“Profiles in Courage: Harper Lee’s to Kill a Mockingbird.” National Endowment for the Humanities EDSITEment website. URL: http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=525
Roush, M. “Rockin’ Robin.” TV Guide. Vol. 55, No. 9, p. 21.
Ubelhor, A. “Fairy Tales, Myths & Other Archetypal Stories.” University of Kentucky website. URL: http://www.uky.edu/~aubel2/eng104/myth/essay2.html