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In the Shadow of Prometheus

The Ultimate History of the Hero in Literature

“A hero is born among a hundred, a wise man is found among a thousand. But an accomplished one might not even be found among a hundred thousand men.”

Plato


What comes to your mind when you think of the word Hero?

Is it strength? Is it bravery? Perhaps it is morality or even the possession of super abilities?

Today we are asking a very specific question: how has our perception of heroes come about and how is it changed over the years?

This is Authocracy Publishing’s ultimate history of the hero.


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If you have read one of Homer’s epic poems, then you would already appreciate the epic breadth of ancient storytelling.

Within these tales, Gods warred with mortals; conflicts were interlaced with divine angst; and great warriors were struck down at the height of their power through their own Hubris.


To learn more about Greek concepts of Hubris and Catharsis then check out our article on What Can Writers Learn from the Ancient Greeks? 


Anyway…

The Ancients certainly knew their heroes.

Heroes depicted in those times were strong and brave. But they lacked what we would call traditionally noble traits.

  • Achilles fought fiercely for the Greeks in the war against the Trojans. He was rewarded by the cowardly prince Paris with an arrow to the heel.
  • Odysseus sailed the Aegean in a desperate attempt to return home to Ithaca and kill his wife’s suitor, and caused many a death along the way. No wonder his name quite literally means ‘trouble’.

Whilst courageous and strong, these are not noble heroes. In fact, they are, undoubtedly ammoral. Upon closer inspection, they evidently come from a time with very different morals and values to present day society.

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What is most noteworthy about the ancient hero depictions is their often supernatural ability. A direct line could be drawn between the Gods and demi-gods of classical antiquity and the superheroes of current media.

After all, both have exaggerated personalities partnered with an assortment of supernatural powers under their utility belts.

It is no wonder that superheroes such as DC’s Shazam and Marvel’s Apocalypse hearken back to the ancients.

In Summary: The Ancient Hero is a proud and immensely strong warrior. He is often tragically and fatally flawed – a symptom that would not disappear for centuries.

Ultimate History of the Hero | Saxon/ Viking Warrior

The Saxon Warrior is a fitting evolution of the heroic tropes we have come to expect. From the epic poem Beowulf to the Edda/ Poetic Edda, there is plenty to unpack.

If we look deeper into the personalities of the Norse Gods we would see the same fatal flaws that plagued the heroes of the ancients.

We would see Hubris, and we would see Pride. However, there is one significant difference…

The heroes of the epic poems were lauded for their pride They were not damned for them.

  • Beowulf was rewarded with that very Kingship he desired after he saved Geatland from a terrible foe.
  • Likewise, Thor Odinson (prior to Disney-fication) was an arrogant and proud deity. He rarely showed any remorse for his violent actions. All the while he still managed to remain worthy of Mjolnir…

The Saxon hero was everything that people in 900 AD could ever hope to be. I suppose that is the nature of storytelling! The stories reflect the values of the culture who produced them.

In Summary: The Saxon hero is also boastful and is rewarded for it. However, they are often lacking in medieval chivalric values we would soon come to expect.

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Ultimate History of the Hero | Medieval Knight

When you think of the brave knight, who do you see? Is it King Arthur, by any chance, or Saint George and the Dragon? 

To look back at heroes of the Medieval is to look back over the values of the culture that lauded them. Within them we see romanticism, chivalry and unparalled heroics.

  • King Arthur was, and in many parts of the world still is, the very picture of knightly Kingship.
  • Saint George too is still renowned for his battle against the Dragon .

But, there is a significant difference between these heroes and the heroes of the Saxons. They are significantly less flawed, and more of an ideal to strive towards.

It is also here that we can begin to see the emergence of character arcs within our heroes’ tales.

Holy quests for mystical objects (MacGuffins) are intricately tied with quests of holy duty and inner peace. Regardless of its symbolism, it’s easy to see medieval romanticism as a signficant step towards our own modern day heroes.

In Summary: The Medieval Romantics’ heroes had strict moral codes of chivalry and the strict mission to fulfil their moral duty

Further Reading...

Le Morte d'Arthur

King Arthur & The Knights of The Round Table | by Sir Thomas Mallory

The Arthurian legend is well and truly engrained in English culture and the timeless story is known throughout the world. That is due in no small part to Sir Thomas Mallory’s magical retelling of the age-old tale.

If you fancy diving into the world of Swords in Stones and Knights around tables, then there is no more pivotal a book than this.


Ultimate History of the Hero | Renaissance Sceptic

I see the Renaissance sceptics as someone in their teenage years embarking on a trip around Asia to find who they are.

The Renaissance sceptics were renowned for looking back at the established orders of times gone by and judging them. They were often trying to reinvent the wheel in arguably modern ways, and their heroes followed suit.

Take Shakespeare for instance and you would see youthful protagonists in battle against the orders of convention. They only wanted to follow a life that they believed was more them.

  • Romeo and Juliet do exactly that and promptly reach disasterous results.
  • Hamlet does something similar to… well… similarly disasterous results. I didn’t say they were optimists.

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The Renaissance sceptics were incredibly interested in rebelling against the establishment. They were also fascinated with the trappings of power and the abuse of indulgence.

In short, Renaissance storytellers wanted their people to aspire to self-actualisation and basic humanism rather than glory or knighthood.

Yes, we’re looking at you Dr Faustus…

In Summary: The Renaissance Sceptics created heroes with self-actualising character arcs. They placed them on journeys of self-discovery and rebellion against the established order.

Further Reading...

Doctor Faustus

The rise and fall of a devilish trickster | by Christopher Marlowe

My geeky historian side will emerge here, but if you want to get the best picture of a renaissance protagonist, then I would wholeheartedly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. 

Based on the German story of Faust, get a deeper look into the Renaissance fears of greed and the trappings of power.

Ultimate History of the Hero | National Symbol

Let’s skip foward a few centuries and land ourselves in the middle of the terrifying uncertainty of the World Wars.

From the perspective of storytelling, the hero’s tale found itself taking a turn towards the hopeful and inspirational. It too did its part for the war effort, in its own way.

How could I not mentioned our two star-spangled heroes, Superman and Captain America.

They were designed to instil hope to the battered wartime populace. They represented images of 20th century American idealism in all its brilliance.

Both jingoistically displayed their flag on their torsos and quickly became symbols of American value. They were truth, justice and the American way personified.

In stark contrast to the heroes of antiquity, the wartime superhero can be closely alligned with the medieval knight. Slowly but surely, the heroes became something entirely perfect.

In Summary: The National Symbols were bastions of hope and idealism that emerged from the uncertainty of Wartime.

Further Reading...

Captain America Golden Age Masterworks Vol. 1

Captain America Comics (1941-1950) | by Marvel Comics

The Golden age of comic books is a fascinating study into wartime ideals but it also gives us a whole new perspective on the heroes we know and love.

Though it may seem trivial, by going back and reading through the earliest issues of Captain America and Superman, you’ll come away with a much greater understanding of 20th century fears and values. Well worth a read!

Ultimate History of the Hero | Modern Hero

Last on our list is the culmination of this hero’s tale – the modern hero.

The previous time-periods have seen the hero transform into a flawless being of idealistic integrity. However, the modern era turns all that on its head.

The modern era saw the rise of the anti-hero, the humbled protagonist and the warping of traditional storytelling tropes. You could argue that the modern hero is a combination of all previous heroic types.

There is no doubt that we have modern comic books to thank for this last evolution in heroicism. The evolution of said media deserves an in-depth article all to itself – so do expect that very soon.

In Summary: The Modern Hero is a nuanced and compelling protagonist with a thematic character arc.

Further Reading...

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Pivotal Writing Bible | by Joseph Campbell

If there is one book that every writer needs to read (or at the very least, be aware of) it is “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell.

There is no greater, nor more influential, book on society’s perception and representation of the epochal “Hero” than the framework presented here. Be sure to give it a look, Authocrats.


Tracing the evolution of storytelling through time has always been one of my favourite research topics. I do hope this article has stirred the same interest in you!

But don’t let me have the last word. Can you name any heroes from any of these categories? Let me know in the comments below.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the evolution and role of the hero in storytelling then check out Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, here.

Until next time, Authocrats!

All the best,

Joseph

6 of the most important hero types in fiction | Join us at Authocracy Publishing as we learn about the heroes of different cultures and how they changed over the course of history | Learn about the heroes of Ancient Greece, Saxon and Viking Warriors, Medieval knights, Renaissance sceptics, 20th century superheroes and their modern counterparts | Gods | Zeus | Hercules | Beowulf | Odin | Thor | King Arthur | Dragon | Magic | Knight | Knights | Superman | Iron Man | Hero | Villain
The Writer's Guide to Heroes Throughout History | From Ancient Gods of Greek and Norse Mythology to the superheroes of the 20th century, the idea of the hero has undergone a dramatic change over the course of storytelling history | Join us at Authocracy Publishing as we look back over the evolution of the hero throughout history | Zeus | Hercules | Greece | Norway | Odin | Thor | Loki | Beowulf | Viking | Saxon | Historical | Medieval Knight | King Arthur | Superman | Captain America | Iron Man | Spider-man
Joseph Pierce

Joseph Pierce

Founder of Authocracy Publishing

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