What Are Heroes For?

I remember the floodlights, high up, bathing everything in a harsh white light that hurt my eyes and I remember the sky behind them as black as moleskin. I remember the noise that made conversation difficult so I stood by the fence and watched the cars circling the track. My father took us there, my brother and I, on a cold winter’s night when I was about twelve years old. The cars had once been family saloons but had been stripped down and had numbers hand painted on the sides with bold but uncertain strokes. They also had their engines tuned to give them the full-throated roar, the visceral shout of naked ambition that pierced the night like clouds of rolling thunder.

It was one of a series of events my father took us to, part of growing up, I guess, to see these things. We went to one game of football, we went to White City stadium in North London to see the stock car racing, and he took us to Silverstone once to see the British Grand Prix.

I remember walking round the paddock at Silverstone before the racing started. There were cars there you could stand right next to, so close you could smell the oil and almost hear the leather seat creak. You could look inside the cockpit and peer intently at the engine as though it made sense. Bright shiny metal pipes with little blocks on them that I supposed were valves or pumps that fed the fuel and hydraulics and the cooling round the car as it raced the wind. Parts of it were colour coded and I imagined the colours told the mechanics what went through them, red for fuel and blue for coolant so there was no chance of getting them mixed up at pit stops. I liked the way that everything not only fit together, but created the streamlined shape the designer had wanted and it struck me as really clever how they got it all in that tiny space under the fairing.

I wondered whether they made the car first and then fit the cover to the shape they had or did they make the fairing first and squeeze all the bits inside that. I enjoyed puzzles and that’s what a racing car was to me, a puzzle, an assembly problem. I didn’t want to sit in one, to feel the engine throbbing at my back or the wind pressing my goggles against my face, I wanted to make a model of one, to reduce the complexity to a comprehensible inventory of known parts with functions I could contemplate at my leisure until I really understood what it was all for.

Watching the races, the things we had supposedly gone there to see, had been utterly uninteresting to me. When the race started those beautiful pristine cars were reduced to mere blurs, screaming past us as we held our hands to our ears to defend us from their assault on our senses. There was no indication of who was leading or which lap they were on or, when it happened, who won. It was just a pointless procession of unidentified noise making machines that was beautiful only when it stopped.

I suppose my father must have sensed my disappointment because we only ever went the once and I have, to be honest, never really understood motor sport. It’s easy to be cynical of almost any sport; football is twenty two men kicking a pig’s bladder into a string bag, just last week Steve Davis described snooker as, “pushing a ball off the edge of a table with a pointy stick,” but this post is not about that, I come not to mock motor sport but to explain why it is that I was standing at White City stadium watching those stock car races one cold winter’s evening with precisely zero enthusiasm for the racing.

I did however, have a programme. In the programme it said that one of the drivers was the world champion. For the want of something to do, I cheered for him. My father had been kind enough to take us there, it would have been churlish to just sit there waiting to be taken home again, so I cheered, a not particularly convincing pretense that I was enjoying myself. After a while my father asked me what I was doing, so I told him. He looked down with contempt at the idiotic boy I had become and said, “hero worshiper,” and he walked away.

In the car, on the way home, I started thinking about what heroes are for. If, in my father’s eyes, we are not meant to worship our heroes, then what exactly are they for? A lot of time has passed since that day and I have over the years returned to this thought several times and there is a sense in which I understand what my father meant. That small boy who stood there cheering knew nothing about stock car racing and the world champion wasn’t a real hero to him. The cheers were as fake as the races, so that boy wasn’t cheering a hero, he was cheering a man that some people might think a hero, and what’s more he was cheering only so that he might fit in. So I think that what my father meant was that it would be okay to worship your real heroes, “but please don’t embarrass me by cheering like that in public for a man whose name you will have forgotten by the time you get home.” But that’s rather a long speech to be making on a cold noisy night so he distilled it into that two word phrase, “hero worshiper,” with acid dripping off his tongue.

In Greek mythology a hero was a character whose parents were a god and a mortal. Achilles, the central character in Homer’s The Iliad, was a hero not because of anything he did, but because his mom was a goddess and his father was a normal man. As a consequence of their birth, such people often did exceptional things, so over time hero came to mean people who did exceptional things and the original meaning was lost. When literature became a subject that people study the need arose for different character types to have names, and hero seemed appropriate for those characters, mostly male, who did exceptional things, often in the face of danger or adversity or from a position of weakness, who displayed courage and the will for self sacrifice for the greater good of others.

Another character type that has a name is the protagonist. This also originates with the ancient Greeks, but with drama rather than mythology. In a Greek play there were normally only three actors. If there were more than three roles the actors would take more than one role and this tradition survives in modern theatre where, for example, the actor who plays Peter Pan also traditionally plays Mr. Darling. The three actors were given names and the first actor was the protagonist. (the other two were the deuteragonist and the tritagonist.) In time, where it was seen that the protagonist frequently played the part of the hero, the two terms became somewhat intermingled and in the minds of many the word protagonist came to mean hero. But in doing so, both words were being misused, or at least had come to mean something quite different from their original.

In modern literary theory, a story can be seen as an attempt by one character or group of characters to achieve something. It doesn’t really matter what they are trying to achieve, it might be to get the girl, to win a race, to get his life back on an even keel or survive the natural disaster. The character trying to achieve this thing is the one who drives the story forwards, and they are the protagonist.

The protagonist’s attempts to achieve the thing are often opposed by some other character. In a Sherlock Holmes story, for example, the cunning criminal is trying to stop Holmes from solving the case, and in the James Bond stories Bond always has to stop the mastermind from achieving world domination. The character who opposes the protagonist is the antagonist.

The protagonist, though, need not necessarily be the central character in the story and this does sometimes make understanding the story a little difficult. For example, in the film Michael Clayton (2007), the central character is Michael Clayton (George Clooney), but the protagonist is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) a ruthless lawyer for a huge agro-chemicals company. The things she does drive the story forwards and the attempts of Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) to thwart her make him the antagonist, but she has him taken out of the equation and his friend, Michael Clayton, picks up the fight, becomes the antagonist and stamps the lid shut on her plans.

In avenging his friend’s death he also becomes the hero of the story, coming from a position of weakness to surmount big odds and achieve something great that benefits others, and that explains why the film has his name as its title. But it doesn’t say anywhere in the film that his mother was a goddess, so I’ll let you decide whether or not to cheer for him.

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