If you want to know the difference between ‘serious’ literature and ‘popular’ literature, you need look no further than the protagonists. Popular literature has heroes, ‘serious’ literature, at least, books written to be serious in the last hundred or so years, attempts to avoid them. James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, even Harry Potter, have the indefinably heroic quality which makes them unsuitable for modern literary tastes. But this might explain why, during the 20th century at least, there was a growing divergence between ‘serious’ books (Lord of the Flies, 1984, Sons and Lovers, The Catcher in the Rye) and books that people actually enjoyed reading (The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Lord of the Rings, The Big Sleep, Casino Royale, Harry Potter). Perhaps that’s a cynically anti-intellectualist viewpoint, but the best-seller lists, or, better, the long-term best-seller lists, tend to bear it out.
Be all that as it may (or not), I would argue that this distrust of the hero is one of the quirks of Modernism, and is an aberration not an advance. Shakespeare was not ashamed to write about heroes, neither were Chaucer, Chretien de Troyes, the Beowulf poet, Virgil, Aeschylus and Homer. As we gradually emerged from modernism, Umberto Eco was glad to give us the literary but Holmesian figure of Brother William of Baskerville in 1980, just three years after Ellis Peters brought us the rather more popularist Brother Cadfael.
Enough of this, and to the matter in hand. It seems to me that the function of the hero is to be a person sufficiently admirable (for at least one quality) to be worth hearing about, but in a situation sufficiently arduous for the story to be worth telling. Clearly, a simple account of an utterly marvellous individual, and all their marvellous doings, and how they marvellously saved the day on so many occasions, would as quickly become dreary as the overuse of the word marvellous in this sentence. On the other hand, a story about someone who is merely lucky, and happens to survive events without influencing them or demonstrating any kind of courage, or tenacity, or any other quality we admire, lacks cohesiveness: we may as well scan the pages of local newspapers for stories about plucky newspaper boys and pensioners who stood up to the council on rubbish removal.
For people who like dividing things into types, the world of the hero has a lot going for it. The oldest division is between hero and anti-hero. Homer’s Iliad is a tale of heroes, and, pre-eminently, the greatest hero of them all, Achilles. In other myth we learn that Achilles is invulnerable because he has been dipped in the river Styx by his mother, the nymph Thetis, in every place except his heel. In the Iliad, although his death is foreshadowed, he is presented as the perfect warrior. Homer’s Odyssey follows the adventures of the anti-hero Odysseus, who wins his battles by guile. To be fair, Odysseus is presented more as an anti-hero later by the Romans, who describe him as ‘cruel Odysseus’, but even in Homer, he departs strongly from the heroic ideal of the man of strength and courage, which is epitomised not only in Achilles, but to an even greater extent in the earlier figures of Heracles and Jason. Heroes and anti-heroes develop in parallel from that point on. Among the Greeks and Romans, heroes tend to be the protagonists of tragedies, whereas anti-heroes and the key figures in comedies. From the renaissance, the figure of the anti-hero gathers pace, with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus one of the most powerful examples — a man who fascinates us by his unheroism. From that point, the figure of the anti-hero begins to coalesce around what is often referred to as the Byronic hero — a man who has all the gifts and attributes of the hero, but who squanders them or uses them for ill. Perhaps one of the most striking examples is Lermontov’s Peturin in A Hero of Our time (1839). In the twentieth century, the anti-hero develops again, with the hard-boiled detective such as Philip Marlowe on the one hand, and the dark, brooding figure of the early Batman comics on the other, presented as a deliberate contrast to the noble and all powerful Superman.
For myself, I feel that the typology of hero and anti-hero is too weak and ambiguous to really describe very much. It seems to me that heroes fall into four kinds, not two, and, as is the way of such things, this is because there are really two kinds of things which separate the different kinds of hero. To be of any use whatsoever to the story, the hero must at least appear to be less than able to deal with the situation in which he finds himself (or herself, but I will stick with ‘he’ as the neutral form). If the hero is more than capable of dealing with every situation, then we are stuck back into the marvellous marvellousness I referred to earlier. Although we can typologise this incapacity endlessly, for most heroes it proceeds from either the external world or the internal, or from both. By this I mean that a character is generally either too weak, or too poor, or otherwise insufficiently resourced, or he is too timid, or too slow-witted, or, most commonly, morally insufficiently equipped. A character who is both strong and good is essentially a superman, or, to be exact, is Superman. At times Superman is a wish fulfilment character. At other times, the writer has to work to create a situation in which either Superman’s strength is insufficient — hence the inclusion of Kryptonite in the Superman world — or is weak in his mental, emotional or moral capacity, which explains the importance of Lois Lane. Superman is, of course, weak in the sense that he must conceal his identity (it is not necessarily clear why he should need to do this, but it’s part of the scenario). If Superman is a little unliterary, it’s also worth considering Sherlock Holmes — except for the tussle at the Reichenbach falls in The Adventure of the Final Problem, Holmes is never at a loss emotionally, intellectually or morally, and, on the occasions where he is tested in the physical world, he proves well able to defend himself, as well as being able to call the resources of the law to his aid. Although the character of Holmes is an attractive one, the stories are not really about Holmes at all, they are about the many other heroes and protagonists who come seeking his help, most especially in The Valley of Fear, and, even more so, about the problems themselves, as exercises in logic and deduction.
A large number of comic-book characters are supernaturally strong, but morally, emotionally or intellectually weak. The same is true for the Clint Eastwood characters in the Spaghetti Westerns. Eastwood’s character is morally questionable not just in the eyes of a moralising audience, but also in the minds of other characters in the films themselves. We might see John Steinbeck’s Lenny in Of Mice and Men in a similar vein, except this overlooks the fact that his great physical strength does not really give him any control of the external world — he would be better put in the fourth category. Othello, though, represents a fully realised example of this type: accomplished soldier, able to call on all the resources of his troops and of the state, he is destroyed through his inner world by the workings of Iago, preying on doubt and on jealousy.
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is a noble figure who is always under-resourced for the challenges he faces, and is constantly being beaten up or ‘sapped’ in the course of his adventures. Chandler describes him at one point as someone that, deep down, you know would never be a private detective. For most of the series’ life, Doctor Who is a similar figure — always weaker than his enemies, but courageous, intelligent and scrupulous. Because intelligence, nobility and rectitude are less obviously useful than wealth, power or great physical strength, this type of hero is hugely popular, and is the basis of most ‘David and Goliath’ stories. In many ways, our tastes have changed from the Greek ideal of heroism, which places Achilles and Heracles centre stage (we might be inclined to see them as thugs), and instead makes the plucky little guy who faces up to (and defeats) the big guys the archetype. This is Brother William of Baskerville, Harry Potter, Richard Hannay, and Scott of the Antarctic.
Hamlet is the pre-eminent character who faces an external situation which is beyond his control, and inner turmoil which he can scarcely overcome, although the same can be said for the maturer figure of King Lear. We might put Le Carré’s George Smiley into a similar category, as well as many of the characters played by Harrison Ford. The greatest problem with this type of hero is that, in some sense, they must overcome both their inner weakness and their lack of external resources if they are to win the day
Of course, in any story which really gives us a character worth considering, the hero moves. Hamlet overcomes his inner turmoil, to become the type of hero who is able to outwit Claudius despite his position of weakness. Macbeth moves from the perfect hero of Act I Scene I, to first the morally deficient but strong tyrant of Act III, and ultimately to the morally and emotionally bankrupt and utterly defeated figure of the final scene. Marlowe repeatedly manages to leverage his doggedness into an ultimate victory. King Lear abandons his seemingly impregnable position of kingship and happiness in an act of folly which prefigures his later madness.