by wjw on July 31, 2007

I’ve just finished reading the final Harry Potter book, which started me on a train of thought about fictional heroes and fictional heroics, and who they are and what they mean.

I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to note that Harry, as heroes go, really isn’t that bright. He spends a good deal of The Deathly Hallows blundering into one ambush after another, when even a modest amount of planning or foresight would have allowed him to accomplish his various tasks with a good deal less peril to himself and to his friends.

On the plus side, Harry is good at sports. He acts according to his instincts, which are invariably correct. He’s brave, kind, compassionate, loyal, trustworthy, morally straight, and a good deal more forgiving of his enemies that I would have been in his situation. (“Accio Armalite” is a spell I would have had handy had I been Harry, as few evil wizards seem prepared to dealed with a weapon that shoots 700 rounds per minute, each with a muzzle velocity of 945 meters/second. But I digress.)

Harry is a throwback. He’s the ideal of the 19th Century hero, which of course is the sort of person that the English public school system was intended to create. Tom Brown’s Schooldays was the first and most successful of a raft of fiction set in British boarding schools, and which eventually produced such unforgettable works as Dean Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little, Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series, Elsie J. Oxenham’s Abbey Girls series, and many more. (Which in turn produced a reaction or deconstruction, which included benign examples like Charles Hamilton’s Billy Bunter, who was the fat kid at his school, through the Molesworth books, to Harry Flashman, and then to outright demolitions like George Orwell’s Such, Such Were the Joys.)

Public school heroes in fiction (and, I guess, in reality) were physically courageous, outstanding in sports, considerate to the weak or less fortunate, instinctively noble, fine Christian moralists, and (if you were an Elsie Oxenham heroine) terrific at folk dancing. If anybody possessed greater than average intelligence, they were relegated to the sidekick part, following Thomas Hughes, who assigned the brilliant but sickly George Arthur to his hero Tom Brown.

All of this became so ubiquitous that E.W. Hornung could write, with almost a straight face: “Everybody knows how largely the tone of a public school depends on that of the eleven, and on the character of the captain of cricket in particular; and I have never heard it denied that in A. J. Raffles’s time our tone was good, or that such influence as he troubled to exert was on the side of the angels.” (Of course Raffles inverted public school morality by becoming a thief, though in the end he redeemed himself by dying nobly in the Boer War.)

Rowling seems to have absorbed all this public school fiction, and regurgitates it with extreme competence.

(For a contrary view, see Eric Blair— not the one who occasionally posts here, but the other one– “The various codes which were presented to you at St Cyprian’s — religious, moral, social and intellectual — contradicted one another if you worked out their implications. The essential conflict was between the tradition of nineteenth-century asceticism and the actually existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age. On the one side were low-church Bible Christianity, sex puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for ‘braininess,’ and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty and, above all, the assumption not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible . . .

(“That was the pattern of school life — a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people — in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.”)

19th Century fiction also featured the adventures of the adolescent heroes grown up. Alleyne Edricson in The White Company, Jan Skrzetuski in With Fire and Sword, the eponymous Brigadier Gerard, Wagner’s Siegfried, and Dumas’ d’Artagnan were all brave, terrific warriors, highly instinctive, loyal, trustworthy, trusting, and not very bright. (It has to be admitted that d’Artagnan wasn’t much of a Christian gentleman, either.) Brainy types, like Aramis or Pan Wolodjowsky, were still the sidekicks.

The 19th Century hero, trusting and brave and somewhat dim, marched off to war in August 1914 and never really came back— following d’Artagnan, who died for a social order that viewed him as scum at worst and cannon fodder at best. Heroes are a lot smarter and cynical now. James Bond is brave as hell, but you can’t picture him shouldering his Lee-Enfield and marching over the wire into the German machine guns; and if you asked him to, he’d sneer at you.

My own fictional heroes possess above-average intelligence. I write science fiction, after all, a form of literature where in order to succeed a character has to be adroit at manipulating physical laws— being a good wide receiver just won’t cut it when the universe is at stake. My characters reason and ponder and sometimes connive their way to success. It’s not that they don’t have ideals— at least some of them do— but they’re suspicious of anyone who appeals to their better natures. All my characters know better than to trust Tricky Dick. None of my characters are Special by nature in the way that Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter are Special— if they’re special at all, it’s because they’ve worked hard at what they do.

(Of course, Harry and Luke are far more popular than any characters I’ve ever created. Readers seem to love Specialness in their heroes, whereas it makes me annoyed and suspicious: “Skywalker gets to sword-fight in the air and brilliantly fly fighter craft that he’s never even trained on; whereas I have to practice these damn side kicks over and over.”)

(And it has to be admitted that Harry Potter’s Specialness gives him more grief and anguish than it ever gives him happiness and triumph.)

But on the fourth (or fifth, by now) hand, none of my characters possess Harry Potter’s nobility. Harry would clearly sacrifice himself for his friends, for his school, even for strangers. With the possible exception of Gabriel in Aristoi, my characters would think long and hard before sacrificing themselves for anything so abstract as the moral tone of the universe, let alone the moral tone of their private academy.

Of course, I never asked them to. My characters have more mundane worries than moral tone. Generally they’re happy if they survive without serious injury or maiming; and if they get a little loving on the side, it’s a bonus.

But now I’m wondering about the nobility issue. Does nobility necessarily imply the willingness to unhesitatingly march into the guns at Passchendaele? Or can you be noble without being, well, a chump?

Examples, pro and con, are solicited.

tarlneustaedter July 31, 2007 at 4:39 am

“Or can you be noble without being, well, a chump? “

I don’t think so. If you worry about your own welfare, that’s being self-centered. Being noble means providing for someone else’s welfare without consideration to your own. In modern terms, as you so aptly put it, that means being a chump.

I think the most recent exmaple I’ve seen of discussion on nobility has been about Tom Brady – QB of the New England Patriots. He had a girlfriend, eventually dumped her for another, followed by original girlfriend announcing months later that she was pregnant with Tom’s child. From the timing, she must have literally gotten pregnant the last time she saw him.

The consensus opinion was that noble thing to do would be to dump his new girlfriend and marry his old girlfriend. Presumably he dumped her because the relationship wasn’t working, so marrying her then would have been dumb – never mind that this would also mean dumping someone else. But because he didn’t, he’s being hammered for being a boor.

Of course, back when we were formulating the meaning of being noble, one could be noble and not suffer for it. Because being noble also meant one was filthy rich and powerful. One could have retainers take care of things and never notice. In modern times, one isn’t allowed to delegate nobility – if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t being noble.

Annie July 31, 2007 at 4:48 pm

It’s sad, no, that altruism has come to mean a kind of stupidity?

I think the older notion of heroes were unrealistic – completly noble, utterly without self-interest, without real flaws – and hence, frankly, inhuman. And that’s why contemporary audiences embrace so called “anti-heroes” – smarter, flawed, human beings who still are capable of kicking ass.

Personally, what really pushes my happy buttons is when a character – a smart, flawed character – chooses to be noble (heroic, altruistic, brave) knowing the cost to themselves.

A chump might be another way of saying a character doesn’t really the consequence of their nobility, to themselves or those around them.

But wouldn’t a truly noble hero undertake their heroism, knowing the cost, but also knowing that it’s for the greater good?

Margot July 31, 2007 at 5:26 pm

I don’t think you can have an idea of nobility in the pre-WWI European sense without believing in an ordered universe that is ultimately good — in which case heroic sacrifice is the higher conniving. Or at least in an ordered universe with a Valhalla, in which case it confers poetic boasting rights.

I’ve always felt that Tolkien was about the last person who could deploy noble heroes without dishonesty. Since then — and even in C.S. Lewis — it requires pretending you don’t know things you do know, so it’s overripe at best.

What about traditions of nobility that don’t require dimwittedness? Where does Fermor fit in? Or my own type of the old-school hero, Niels Bohr?

halojones-fan July 31, 2007 at 6:52 pm

Uh, do-wha? Apparently you’re forgetting Cowboy from “Hardwired”…unless your point is that his selfless nobility was just a convenient smokescreen for his worship of heroic tragedy. Indeed, a cover story so effective that even he believed it.

annie and margot kind of make a useful point: i.e. that modern intellectualism, with its refusal to accept the notion of objective morality, does indeed have a lot of trouble with the idea of altruism. If there is truly nothing beyond the self, then in the end everything comes back to the self…

qtera31 July 31, 2007 at 7:08 pm

I hate to think now that the world seems to be populated with a host of narcissists and psychopaths that being a kind, loving, sacrificing person – gets said person the label of “chump”. Sadly – this may be true. My heroes in books are Larry Darrell in the Razor’s Edge and the coal miner that he meets, or Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mocking Bird”. People that can look beyond what they are told to think by the societal norms at the time and do what they believe to be right even in the face of ridicule and/or harm. These characters are both based on real individuals which makes them even more poignant for me. Then there is the quiet hero like “The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jean Giono – who behind the scenes devotes his life to making a difference and the only reward he seeks is seeing the fruits of his labors flourish. Is there room for self-sacrifice in the name of good anymore, room for being a hero without a huge societal slap on the back? I guess it all comes down to who is telling the tale of the deed to whether the “Hero” is noble or a chump. I will keep my rose colored Victorian glasses on and choose to see noble.

Dave Bishop July 31, 2007 at 8:43 pm


Most of your best, and most memorable characters are smart, resourceful and usually brave – but whether they qualify as ‘heroes’, in the classical sense which you describe, is difficult to determine (at least, I find it difficult!).

If nobility is a useful measure of heroism, I would ask can one be truly noble and know how to use (and misuse) power? I suppose it is possible to name several historical characters who qualify as both noble and users of power – but have such people been mythologised, and, in reality, were they just cynical, opportunistic a…holes?

You see, I think that the most interesting of your characters are those who understand the nature of political power and are able to use it to their best advantage.
I’m thinking of Aiah in ‘Metropolitan’ and Caroline Sulah in the ‘Praxis’ books. I don’t think either of these female (let it be noted!) characters qualify as ‘heroes’ as such – but they are certainly brave, clever, resourceful – and maybe even noble …(?)

Bruce July 31, 2007 at 9:12 pm

For what (little) it is worth, Gabriel is my pick for most noble/heroic of your characters. Although he was a ruthless meddler in the fates of others, when it came time to choose between his culture’s values and the manipulation indulged in by his captors, his choice seemed pretty sure to me.

Annie July 31, 2007 at 10:19 pm

Oops. I left out a word in my comment. Meant to say:

“A chump might be another way of saying a character doesn’t really COMPREHEND the consequence of their nobility, to themselves or those around them.”

dubjay July 31, 2007 at 11:31 pm

Whoops. [slaps forehead] I =did= forget Cowboy, didn’t I?

Though it has to be said that though Cowboy had his heart in the right place, and was willing to die for what he believed, there was a certain amount of egotism involved. He was after glory as much as he was in pursuit of the greater good, and a good splashy death would have certified that glory.

I think we should make a distinction between nobility and altruism. It’s perfectly possible in our society to live an altruistic life dedicated to the greater good without in any way risking oneself, or hurling oneself in front of a speeding Voldemort. It means you’re a good person, but it doesn’t necessarily make you noble.

But for those who insist on altruism when their society forbids it are at risk of developing nobility. See the World War II resistance heroes like Jean Moulin or Lucie Aubrac. (I’d say that rescuing your husband from Klaus Barbie’s SS during a gunfight while five months pregnant counts as heroism of a pretty high order.)

My own greatest living hero, Nelson Mandela, achieved greatness by =deciding not to die.= He could have died for his cause, and no one would ever have heard of him. Instead he decided to live long enough so that his enemies would in the end have to deal with him.

And he sealed that greatness later, when he gave up power voluntarily, something that few Third World freedom fighters ever did.

Another question: is it possible to be both noble and evil?

qtera31 August 1, 2007 at 12:13 am

Evil and noble? Often this answer lies in who is making the observation. I’ll show my southern roots here but as I was growing up Sherman was still seen as evil y’all. But, the men in his command, Lincoln, and much of the North saw him as a noble hero. The same could be said of Vlad Dracula, the Turks saw him as the worse kind of devil but in Romania to this day he is seen as a national hero. If the person of power is fighting for your team and wins he will often be seen as noble but how does the losing side see him. Did he have to salt-the-earth to win? I think often men of power are seen both ways…..at least the smart ones….don’t get me started on Machiavellian Morons.

margot August 1, 2007 at 3:54 am

If by “noble” we mean a person who is motivated purely by principle, without self-doubt or second thoughts, and if by “evil” we mean “destructive,” the question answers itself.

Tracy Taylor August 2, 2007 at 5:10 am

“Another question: is it possible to be both noble and evil?”

Absolutely. The operative in Serenity. He committed horrendous acts in pursuit of a Utopian ideal knowing full well that by doing so he would be denied the resulting peace and benefits of his labors.

dubjay August 2, 2007 at 8:58 pm

There are all sorts of noble villains in fiction, but I’m having a hard time thinking of one in real life. Vlad the Impaler was heroic, but it’s quite a stretch to think of him as noble. Sherman was brave and intelligent, but would have scorned the very idea of nobility.

I’m trying to think of people who were thought of as being paragons of nobility when they were alive, but Richard I, the Black Prince, and Bertrand du Guesclin seem pretty shabby by modern standards.

Ken August 6, 2007 at 9:59 pm

Both noble and evil? Absolutely. People do evil things on a regular basis for the noblest of reasons. Every suicide bomber that straps on a bunch of explosives and detonates himself in the market square thinks he’s doing it in order to achieve a greater good. Members of the KGB committed some heavy-duty evil acts back in the Soviet era, but they weren’t monsters with horns and fangs. They thought they were doing what had to be done to defend their nation, and that’s a pretty noble goal, even if the results aren’t pretty where the rubber meets the road. Hell, a lot of people would characterize Dick Cheney as evil, but if you think he’s sitting in his office rubbing his hands together and contemplating sinister acts, you’re nuts. He’s trying to protect people, and in doing so he’s lost sight of what’s right and wrong. Evil? Sure. Noble? Yup. I think so.

Even Darth Vader said to Luke something along the lines of “Together we can overthrow the Emperor, end this destructive conflict, and rule the galaxy as father and son.” I felt like the biggest missed opportunity in the entire series was an exploration of the way that Annakin’s desire to impose order and protect people (noble aspirations) became evil when they were allowed to get out of hand. Now that I think about it, Aiah struggled with a lot of the same issues, but (at least so far) came out on the side of the angels.

Oh, and as far as Cowboy’s concerned? Cowboy wasn’t noble. Cowboy fought and sacrificed because living up to his own self-image wouldn’t allow him to do any less. I guess that’s where we see noble acts come about for the most ignoble of reasons.

Anonymous August 8, 2007 at 8:29 pm

Well, “noble” and “evil” are both pretty squishy terms, you know?

That said, there’s an SFnal character who probably fits both: Marc Remillard, from Julian May’s Pliocene Exile books.

(Read those four, don’t read anything else by May. She caught the lightning with them — especially the last one — but only that one time.)

Doug M.

dubjay August 10, 2007 at 1:02 am

I’m having a hard time picturing suicide bombers as noble. Fighting for the freedom to target restaurants full of civilians doesn’t strike me as a noble cause, either.

Are they noble? Or are they idiots brainwashed by self-dramatizing sociopaths? I’m pressing the button labeled “Chump.”

As for Cheney, it seems to me that a part of nobility includes self-sacrifice. Cheney isn’t willing to engage in any degree of personal sacrifice whatever to accomplish his goals. He won’t risk his life, his position, or his well-being. He isn’t even willing to forego his salary from Halliburton while he’s serving as vice-president.

Dying for someone who won’t do the same for you? Chump.

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