How Heroes Went
from Slayers to Saviors

Review: Tod Lindberg, ‘The Heroic Heart’

John Wayne / Wikimedia Commons

Americans have always been fascinated by heroes, and skeptical of them. Using films as a guide to this fascination, we can see that in cowboy movies, it is often difficult to tell whether the cowboy is morally superior to the bad guy since the actions he commits for the sake of saving the town are often undertaken violently and without mercy. The townspeople find themselves happy they’re in his good graces but often aren’t sure why that’s so. Little has changed in recent years—franchises like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and movies like Wolverine: Origins are preoccupied with questions of the hero’s genesis and troubled past. These films are driven by a common set of questions: What motivates the hero? What makes him choose sides as he does? Most broadly, what is a hero?

For a deeper consideration of the long background to these contemporary questions, we need look no further than Tod Lindberg’s book The Heroic Heart, which traces the development of the idea of the hero through the course of western history. Lindberg claims that heroes first come to light as having "a very different attitude from most others on the subject of mortality, starting with their own. … Heroes seek, by actions risking their lives, to demonstrate that death has no power over them."

Heroes would thus at first seem to be uniformly wonderful people—but their freedom from death also permits them to be singularly destructive. Caesar ruined the Roman Republic and Achilles hurled down to Hades’ house many strong souls. Indeed, Lindberg affirms, "by and large the art of which the heroes of the ancient world were masters was that of personally slaying their enemies." The slaying hero, the classical ideal, therefore poses a problem for politics: if the hero is not the king, then the king can be directly threatened by the hero. Indeed, this is what the beginning of the Iliad—itself the beginning of the Western world—is about.

We could, Lindberg suggests, hand power over to the hero, thereby making him a king. But this could threaten everyone else because there is no guarantee that the hero-king will not become a tyrant. Therefore, he must be tamed. This is done by getting the hero to use his ambition not for the sake of demonstrating his own greatness, but for others. This entails yoking the hero’s self-interest with the socio-political order.

Lindberg relies on the Arthurian legend to track the development of the idea of the hero in the post-classical age. By insisting on his barons’ equality by means of that round table, Arthur constructs a system in which any attempt by an ambitious hero to rise above his fellow barons threatens the political structure. "Any desire on the part of one to challenge the status of another would directly contravene the political order the king imposed." Arthur bet that by giving his barons "something like ‘rights,’" their ambition would be satisfied and they would not seek to take the throne by force.

This development continues in modern America. The hero’s conflict with political power must confront the spirit of equality, so ably discussed by Tocqueville. Rather than the classical hero who slays, the modern hero saves—he is the saving hero. The principle that animates the saving hero is that he is "unwilling to privilege [his] very life over a stranger’s life." Indeed, "this is the ultimate expression of the spirit of equality."

Lindberg’s touching account of the saving hero—the man or woman who undertakes to help total strangers by partaking in humanitarian disaster relief or the firefighter who rushes into a burning building—is not to be missed. Lindberg also brings into sharp relief the fact that modern American heroism represents both the tamed hero of the classical world and the full fruition of the spirit of equality. Heroism, he argues, is no weaker now, only better directed.

This is a book of impressive and ambitious scope, a wise and witty account of the active shaping of an idea from generation to generation for over two thousand years.