Thursday, September 6, 2012

Element of an Epic #4: Heroic Figures

Every story needs a protagonist, and often he or she possesses qualities that could be described as “heroic.” A great epic, however, needs a hero in the truest sense of the word. Just look at three of the first four definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to see what I mean:
Definition of HERO
  • a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability 
  • an illustrious warrior 
  • one who shows great courage
The reason epics need protagonists of this caliber is the huge stakes that are inevitably involved. After all, in a great epic, the fates of whole kingdoms or even whole worlds are often at stake, and it takes a true hero to save the day. Sticking with Merriam-Webster’s definitions, here are some examples from some of the greatest historical and fantasy epics.

Good thing Garion has good genes!

Mythological or Legendary Figures Often of Divine Descent
While The Iliad, The Odyssey and many of the epic poems have heroes of legendary stature (often involving daddy issues with some guy named Zeus), many more recent epics follow in the footsteps of these classics. In David Eddings’ Belgariad series, Garion, the protagonist, discovers that he is descended from immortal wizards and destined to fight the evil god Torak. In The Matrix trilogy, Neo is the “The One,” wielding superhuman powers once he fully realizes who he is. And then there’s Luke Skywalker. He’s the son of a legendary figure – Anakin Skywalker, who’s the product of many midichlorians and a miraculous birth – and he wields great (Jedi) powers, becoming the equal of his father by the end of the first Star Wars trilogy.

Arthur was quite the illustrious warrior!
Illustrious Warriors
This would describe Arthur in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, as well as many other Arthurian epics. It would also describe the gunslinger, Roland Deschain, the protagonist of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Roland is proof that a great antihero can carry a great epic. I’d also throw Ned Stark of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones into this category, although some of Ned’s luster has faded with age. Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan from Guy Gavriel Kay’s epic The Lions of Al-Rassan are good fits too.

Frodo lacked special powers, but had lots of courage!
The Greatly Courageous
This category fits the “everyman” type hero often embodied by the Messiah archetype. These heroes lack superhuman abilities or a warrior’s prowess, but they have the courage to oppose even the most overwhelming evils. Think Prior Philip from The Pillars of the Earth, Larry Underwood in The Stand, and, of course, Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings. Even Harry Potter seems to fit this category better than the others, despite his wizardly abilities. After all, in Harry’s world nearly everyone is a wizard, but it’s Harry’s courage that carries the day.

Without these heroes, I cannot imagine that any of these stories would be the great epics that they have become, which is why a true hero is one of the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic.


Leslie said...

You brought up A Song of Ice and Fire just as it came to my mind. But I don't know if I agree with you about Ned Stark. Yeah, he carries the first book with his illustrious warriorness, but after that--and as Martin continues reaping our favorite characters--what epic hero is carrying the story? I would almost say ASOIAF operates under its own set of rules. (Rules that aren't necessarily working too well in the last few books... but that's a discussion for another time).

In the meantime, here is a video about monks that reminded me of you. Stop me if you've heard this one...

Joseph Finley said...

Leslie - Thanks for the comment! Ned Stark was a close call, and he may fit the bill for Book One, but I also agree that A Song of Ice and Fire may be operating under its own rules. Actually, that would be a great topic for a future post. I'll need to think about it some more.

That said, I LOVED the video! I had not seen that, but it's hilarious! (At least to those of us fond of monks - or Vikings, I suppose!)