The Unlikely Hero

From Writer Unboxed:

Let’s talk about heroes. I’m not talking sporting heroes or comic book superheroes. I’m using the term hero to mean a person of any gender who demonstrates extraordinary courage and acts in a way that makes change for good in the world. Some people, through birth or other circumstances, seem destined to live heroic lives. An unlikely hero, on the other hand, is someone whose heroism comes as a surprise to us – it simply isn’t what we expected of such a person. Such individuals appear in the oldest stories of many cultures: folklore, legends, fairy tales. From time to time they appear in our literary works. And they exist in real life, though we don’t always witness their remarkable deeds or recognise them for what they are. Sometimes our unlikely heroes just get on with what has to be done.

There’s a common pattern to this in many traditional stories. We might start with three brothers or sisters and a quest to be completed. Siblings A and B are big, strong and confident, though possibly also selfish/unkind/thoughtless. Sibling C is seen by the family as lesser – quieter, weaker, too soft-hearted for their own good, perhaps a bit of a dreamer. They may be a step-sibling or half-sibling to the others. When the challenge comes, it’s A and B who go out, in turn, to confront the dragon or find the treasure or whatever. Both A and B make errors, generally because they won’t listen to good advice, or refuse to perform an act of kindness that may stall their progress, or are so focussed on the goal that they don’t bother to pick up clues along the way. A and B both fail in the quest.

Sibling C is the unlikely hero, someone who does not display traditionally heroic attributes such as great physical strength, charisma, excellence in fighting and so on. Sibling C takes time on the journey; listens to strangers they encounter; stops to help those in trouble (old woman carrying a heavy load; injured bird; lost dog that nudges C along a different path.) Sibling C does not contemplate the reward for the task as they make the journey. C wants to do their best, and as kindness comes naturally to them, they take the time to be kind along the way. The dreamer who used to play tunes on the whistle while out tending the sheep now stops beside the track to entertain a group of travellers and is rewarded with gifts of food and information that will prove vital to the quest. Sibling C may also pick up various companions along the way, the sort of folk with whom A and B would never mingle, and they help C with the task. In the end it is the unlikely hero who completes the quest.

It’s ironic, in view of what sparked this post, that an obvious choice of an unlikely hero from classic literature is the socially awkward Pierre Bezhukov from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. As the illegitimate son of a count, Pierre unexpectedly inherits a fortune and finds himself catapulted into the upper echelons of Russian society. Over the course of the truly epic story, the reader sees this misfit character grow and shine in humanity, kindness and courage. In fantasy fiction unlikely heroes abound, perhaps because fairy tales and folklore are antecedents of this genre. What hero is less likely than the hobbit Frodo from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Small of stature, unworldly and completely devoid of superpowers, Frodo nonetheless volunteers to undertake the terrifying task of carrying the cursed ring to Mount Doom and throwing it into the fire. What advantages does this unlikely hero have? A kind heart. A moral compass. An unselfish temperament. Friends. In fact, under the evil influence of the ring, Frodo fails at the final challenge, but a quirk of fate sees the mission achieved. It could be said that Sam Gamgee, the faithful companion without whom Frodo would not have made it to Mount Doom, is the true (and even less likely) hero of the story.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed