What would someone say if they were asked to define what exactly a “hero” is? This would be a tough question to answer because there are essentially many different types of heroes that exist, the person being asked this question just may not know about each of them yet. Heroes are those that we know exist today from movies, news, social media, etc., but they are also those that we hear about from stories and passed down from tradition or literature.
Defining a hero can be especially difficult because of all the different characteristics that each hero can possess. There are varying types of heroes that exist, whether they be in the modern world today or from back in the Middle Ages era. But altogether it can be seen that each hero shares a commonality, this being that they are all brave and are willing to risk their lives for the sake of saving others. With this commonality, heroes are also different in their own unique ways.
These differences can be seen within heroes over time, starting with epic heroes, to knights, and then our modern-day heroes.
Starting with epic heroes, these are heroes who can be described as someone who is mostly always seen as the protagonist in situations. An epic hero passed down from literature that we may know is Beowulf. According to the website, Beowulf on Steorarume [Beowulf in Cyberspace], author Benjamin Slade states that this hero Beowulf “was created during the Old English period of time”. Keeping this information in mind, it has actually been proven that the Greeks were actually the first to come up with this character during this time.
An epic hero normally has certain characteristics that they were to follow. These characteristics were based off of values and traditions that the people of the Old English period of time believed in.
Some of these characteristics include the epic hero having a noble birth, having some kind of superhuman powers, being a great warrior, battling or being a legend from where the hero comes from, and doing good deeds for others. Beowulf in an excellent example of an epic hero that carries these traits. Beowulf presents the traits of an epic hero right off the bat in his story. Beowulf is seen by the reader as a hero that has superhuman strength, he has bravery in slaying the demons, and he always seems to be willing to risk his life for the good of others. Although Beowulf may have in the end taken his characteristic of bravery a little too far when fighting supernatural demons when he was at such an old age. Despite this, he still made the attempt to fight the demons for the sake of saving others, which that qualifies him to be known as an epic hero.
From epic heroes, the next hero in literature is the knight. While the epic heroes had characteristics that they were supposed to portray and follow, so does the knights. But the knights characteristics are focused a bit differently than those of the epic heroes that came before them. The knights focused many of their characteristics around the idea of chivalry. Chivalry was a code of conduct for the knights which explained in detail the virtues they were supposed to uphold if they wanted to be viewed as one (a knight). The knight was created within Middle English literature in the Middle Ages. Knights were also different from the epic heroes and became their own type of hero because they rode on horseback and were heavily armed with armor, weapons, etc.
A knight that we find in literature that fits these qualifications listed above is Sir Gawain. He proves that he is not only just a knight, but a chivalrous knight which was very important to be as a hero during this time. It can clearly be seen that Sir Gawain was the chivalrous knight that he claimed to be because as a reader we can see Sir Gawain has actions that replicate what exactly a knight was supposed to be. An example of this is in the story told in The Norton Anthology Book in the time when Sir Gawain stepped up in a difficult situation to not only protect his leader, but also protected his men with his own life on the line (because of the risky situation he placed himself in). In the text it stated, “Gawain now to his king inclines and says, I stake my claim. May this melee be mine” (Robson, 340-343). This passage from the book shows that Sir Gawain proves his loyalty as a knight by taking the place of King Arthur and taking the challenge of the Green Knight himself, no matter how risky or dangerous the situation he placed himself in might have been. Then, there is a shift from knight to a modern-day hero.
As the knight presents a selfless attitude by abiding by the code of chivalry, the modern hero also has the trait of selflessness. Not only this, but in the society we live in today we think of modern-day heroes as also having the trait of caring for others around them, having made a contribution toward the community, and exhibiting courage and bravery. With this being said, each hero has their own story and their own characteristics. But in the end, many of their characteristics aren’t really as different as they seem. Since we now know about these different heroes and each of their characteristics, we can determine what the meaning of a hero is.
The meaning of a hero over time has changed, and continues to change. At first, heroes were seen as people who were battling foes that were bigger than themselves and putting themselves straight into harms way. They were even heroes that were known for being a legend. The meaning of an epic hero is that they are brave, a legendary figure, and have great strength. After the stage of the epic hero in literature, then proceeds the knight. The meaning of the knight was that they were essentially someone who were noble and had great abilities (with armor and weapons). Then from the knight to the next hero is what we know as our modern-day heroes. The modern-day heroes have a meaning that includes them having courage, having outstanding achievements, and being someone we see as a role model. As the heroes have progressed throughout time there is a presence of change, through each hero, but in each their own way.
The differences in heroes over time can show improvement in the way we think of heroes today. The way we see heroes today is that the hero makes a change or difference in certain situations or people’s lives, but also we see that the hero must make it through their journey before they make this effort of change. In accordance to what Joseph Campbell wrote in his book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, the reader can sense that he strongly believes that the hero’s journey is important and that to be able to make a change they must go through their journey. The heroes journey is something the epic hero, knight, and now modern-day hero goes through. When thinking about these heroes going on journey’s, we too can relate to these heroes because we all must go through some type of journey every day. This journey could be anything from going to work, going to school, reaching out to someone you see in need, or even going above and beyond your call of duty. We do this without thinking about it and make changes in our own lives through these journeys.
Knowing this, In Hero of a Thousand Faces, Campbell states that there are specific steps in which every hero (no matter what type or era) must go through. These steps include the “call to adventure, refusal to the call, meeting a mentor, crossing the threshold, the tests, approaching the innermost “cave”, the ordeal, the reward, the road back home, and becoming a master of the two worlds”. These steps through the journey may seem lengthy or even events that are unlikely to take place in the hero’s life, but in most literature and sometimes real-life situations, this is how our heroes go about making their heroic move.
If we go back and look at each hero, we can see that this theory of a hero going through a journey has changed throughout time. We can see some of these stages through the epic hero Beowulf beginning at the call to adventure by getting on a boat and deciding that he would go and fight the monster Grendel that he had heard about and save the area in which the Danes lived where this monster was causing trouble. Then Beowulf did not necessarily refuse the call himself, it was instead Hygelac who insisted and persuaded that Beowulf should just stay and not go help the Danes with this beast. He also crosses the threshold when him and his army traveled over to Geatland to fight the monster Grendel and save the day.
In the knight we can also see this journey being played out through the same steps. The first was the knight beginning his call to adventure when Gawain decides to fight the Green Knight and they make a deal that if Gawain beheads the Green Knight then he will come find him in a years’ time and will have to be willing to fight him again. Gawain’s refusal to the call included him being hesitant and almost worried about going on this adventure, in which he then procrastinated to even start his journey until about 2 months before the deadline. Although he procrastinated, Gawain does make it to the step of crossing the threshold by traveling to many places that he did not know and had never even seen before.
Even in modern day movies that we watch today, such as The Lion King, we can see the hero’s journey through this story also. We can see that Simba’s call to adventure begins when Scar kills his dad and tells him to leave the Pride Lands. Then Simba presents the refusal to the call because he was young, scared, and alone so he goes into the desert to attempt to get away form his troubles. Simba does cross the threshold though, this is because he really embraces the way of his new-found friends, Timon and Pumba, live by the motto “hakuna matata”. All of these examples have come to help us form the way we think of our heroes today, because the heroes in the real world today go through a similar journey also. They do this through what actions they portray and do in society. For instance, police officers call to adventure begins when they step foot into their patrol cars.
They are called on the radio to go to certain locations and respond to different calls where people might need help or “saving”. They also sometimes might refuse the call by choosing some more life threatening calls to respond to over others, or they may even respond to a call and call in backup because the situation may be too much for the one person to take on. Also, police officers cross the threshold when they are called to locations they have never been to before and having to take care of the situation put in front of them no matter how good or bad it may be. I believe that through the hero’s journey, there is proof that over time through the different types of heroes they have each come to help us form the way we think of heroes today.
Not only this, but the difference in heroes over time has showed improvement through who exactly can be viewed as a hero. Through the epic heroes and knights, we see that a hero is someone who is superhuman in character, strength, or ability. This has improved the way we think of heroes today through people/figures such as Superman or even Martin Luther King Jr. Both of these people can be described as heroes because they have strengths and abilities that could be described as superhuman. By Superman having an almost un-natural amount of strength and then Martin Luther King Jr. possessing a superhuman amount of strength by stepping out into the face of danger to protest to save others. Another take on this can be seen through the modern-day hero, Neil Armstrong. He compares to the heroes of the Middle Ages by going on an adventure that was meant to save someone, but that someone in Armstrong’s case was the world. He was brave and willing to risk his life for the good of others and the world itself. Much like a hero of the Middle Ages would have. Armstrong did this by taking on the challenge of going to the moon to be able to show the people of the world that without any growth in space, then civilization itself would disintegrate. Thanks to the differences in each hero over time, the people we find as heroes today have been impacted by those of the past.
Another way heroes over time have shown improvement in the way we think of heroes today is simply by the characteristics the heroes hold. The epic heroes and knights held the characteristics of doing good deeds, being a great hero, putting themselves in harms way for the sake of saving someone, and having courage and bravery. These characteristics lead to those portrayed by that of a modern-day hero. These characteristics include having qualities of courage, honesty, confidence, patience, selflessness, and integrity. These traits are variations of those that heroes of the past held and many of them are exactly the same. Since we view heroes as having these characteristics today, this is most likely the reason why the type of person we view today as exhibiting these traits of a hero include someone like a firefighter, paramedic, or police officer.
This is because they put their lives on the line to save others, so they must exhibit the qualities listed above to be able to do this. Besides these people who take on these jobs that are seen as heroic, other people that can also connect to the heroic characteristics listed could be people close to us. These people could be our parents or any other family member, and are a modern day hero because of something they have done in their lifetime or ours that we look up to and see them as a role model for. They also do these actions through having courage and bravery exhibited throughout some point in their lives. Due to the characteristics of past heroes, they have helped form and improve the way we see heroes today. They have even expanded our view on who can qualify as a hero in today’s world. Without the differences in past heroes, through character, strength, and ability in each hero, we would not have been able to show the amount of improvement in the way we think of heroes today.
Since the meaning of a hero has changed, improved, and been determined over time, we can then find what a hero truly means to us and then see that it has also changed over time. We have viewed heroes as those who have, in essence, “saved” something or someone ever since the Middle Ages and that view has progressed into the modern day. This could be meaning saving someone, saving a public area, or even saving the environment around us. More so in today’s era than in other heroic times, we see heroes as someone that does good for those around them and helps others without having to be asked to do so. Heroes mean an abundance to us today because they are important figures in our lives. If we did not have these people in our society, those who we call heroes that will willingly go above and beyond to help others, society might not be able to function as it does or there might be a more negative impact on these people or places that need “saving”. We may not always think about what the meaning of a hero is to us, but I assume that in today’s world we all have a genuine appreciation for heroes because of the meaning that they stand for to each of us. At this point it can be recognizable to see the relationship between the meaning of a hero to us and they’re importance to us.
The importance of heroes today in society is something we most certainly do not take for granted and are sincerely thankful for. Believe it or not, a hero can be many different people we see in our everyday society. As stated before, these people could be anyone from an athlete, to a politician, highway patrol, or any other public figure. People are viewed as heroes in today’s world because of the way they serve an incredible purpose in our lives today. These people are those that give others hope when they need it most and even provide others with examples for success. Better yet, it can be seen that heroes are important to us because in reality they are real people just like you and me. Heroes are real people that do real things for others. These real people, known as “heroes”, make sacrifices to help other people. Because heroes are real people in our real world, I believe that we can see more of what their actions do to promote more positiveness in our world because we can relate to them and see the change they are making. Knowing that there are real people that do these types of things for others out in our society today, I believe this is what makes heroes truly important to us.
Heroes have been brought to the modern day through the Old English period and the Middle Ages. Over time, heroes’ qualities and traits that they have held may have changed, but their qualities got us to what the modern-day hero of today’s world is. We value our heroes because the meaning of them touches us and their importance is evident when we see what they do for others, for the community, or even for us personally. Whether we know it or not, we can all be heroes. With the advancements of heroes into modern day, epic heroes, knights, and real people are all believed to have the same meaning behind their qualities. Which makes their meaning and importance to us something to admire, and with this we can tell what and who a “hero” really is. We can come to this conclusion of what a hero is by taking a look back in time and into the advancements of heroes through the progress to the modern day. In the end, each hero may be different from the other depending on era or characteristics, but they each still hold the same meaning and importance for us today.