Friday 24 December 2021

The "hero fighting his own destiny" trope: expected, normal, approved...

One of the ways in which 'modern' stories (of the past few decades) differ from literature up to the middle twentieth century - is that now the 'hero' (protagonist) of a story will nearly always fight against his own 'destiny'. And, indeed, that fight takes-up a good deal of the narrative. 

Thus if the 'chosen-one' of a mythic narrative swiftly and decisively takes-up his heroic role and does his best with what ought-to-be done (like Frodo) - this is regarded as unsatisfactory. But if the appointed-hero struggles (at length) against adopting his role, if he is tempted strongly to abandon it, if he acts in violation of his role and needs to be brought-back... this stuff gets a writer critical 'Brownie points'. 

Struggle-against-destiny has become the usual thing for a modern hero. 

My impression is that this inward fight against what he (or she) ought to do, is expected and approved-of by those who consume and comment on novels, TV, movies etc. For instance; introduction of this self-doubting, inner-conflicted element to several major characters, over and again (Aragorn, Theoden, Faramir...), was perhaps the major distortion of the Lord of the Rings movies, compared with the original fiction. 

If such inner conflict is not present, the writer is likely to be accused of childish simplicity, of having 'black and white' characters; whereas a hero divided-against his destiny is regarded as complex, subtle, realistic, mature.

But the anti-heroic-hero is not a wise Man, nor is he a Man who is consciously adopting what he regards to be the highest path. The focus of stories is moved away from what needs to be done - and trying to do it; towards inner psychological - even psycho-pathological - rumination and conflict. 

Drama has become psychodrama - myth has become a psychoanalytic explaining-away of myth. 

What this means, when repeated again and again stereotypically and in context in which the 'hero' is implicitly admirable, whatever he does (so long as he is in at least two-minds about it) - and when the 'embrace my destiny' hero is excluded; is that the question of a Man's proper aim of life has been deleted; the possibility of wisdom has been deleted - because wisdom is to know what one ought to do, and to do it as best possible. 

Furthermore, the anti-hero makes all stories mundane - all are diminished to the level of endless soap operas (who are eventually driven to deploy this 'inner division' to permutate character motivations and actions over the long term). There can be no real 'myth' or 'magic' - because mythical and magical characters are excluded. 

A real, wise hero is not one who wallows interminably in uncertainty; nor one who is only compelled to - finally! - do the right thing by elaborate coincidences of external circumstances, or the harsh (yet, somehow always reversible!) lessons of selfishness, short-termism, hedonism and cowardice. Wisdom is - by contrast - knowing quickly what is needed, and then doing it as best possible, despite problems. 

In real life - as we used to know - it is not the mixed-up, self-indulgent, inwardly conflicted Man who does the right thing and saves 'the world' - and fiction cannot convince us that he is. 

Instead, we take-home, absorb and learn a message that there is no real heroism because there is no real destiny: because there is nothing to be heroic-about!

We learn that action comes from mixtures of self-centred motivations and external compulsions; and the sophisticated, admirable Man is one who talks extensively about his feelings and paradoxes - such as the incompatibility of the things he wants (home and adventure, flee or fight, wife or mistress... whatever).

Since the best fiction is also a kind of vicarious experience; the conflicted anti-heroic protagonist is likely to be worse than useless (i.e. harmful) as a model for how we personally ought to approach this mortal life.  

But unfortunately, writers have become addicted to this kind of protagonist; because the delay in adopting destiny, and 'getting on with what he ought to be doing' can be spun-out narratively for astonishing periods: many volumes of a book series, many episodes of a TV programme, most of a long movie...  

When a writer is praised for such shameless and easy padding-out of stories; little wonder that so many succumb to the temptation - and thereby contribute their mite to the corruption of Men and culture. 


Truth to Life said...

The synchronicity I find on this blog always surprises me, because I just wrote about a similar topic yesterday (on a different site) about modern versus traditional characters, and how authors these days purposely give their heroes unappealing traits to make them seem relatable. Yet ever since childhood I've actually preferred "idealized" characters because...well, they're heroic and inspirational...even if they're considered flat according to modern standards. When I read/watch something, I hope to be somehow enriched by it, not just entertained...which is why I hardly ever read/watch fiction anymore.

JohnB said...

I'd always thought that this over-the-top 'sissy' characteristic of such modern protagonists was mostly a reflection of the very sensitive, Godless, utterly cowardly and do-gooding (in the most shallow way possible) people one finds writing such things. The people that one finds all the way down the hierarchy in any organization devoted to churning this stuff out.

Such people, and I have met many of them, seemed exactly the sort such that if they were to receive their destiny, they'd firstly try to reject it. It seems like these people are really their idea of heroes. You know, if John Rambo roughs up an entire police station because the cops were treating him in a callous way; after the fact, he ought to immediately conduct a soul-searching operation to discover if he was a 'bad' person. It's quite absurd.

But I see also that it can be spun out far longer when done this way.

a_probst said...

This trope probably appeals to the large audience of conflicted people out there. It bores me. And it is the main factor that will sink these works into obscurity once their special effects and action set pieces are old hat.

Maybe a half-century from now even an unsophisticated viewer would find them as difficult to slog through as we would a 19th Century penny dreadful like Varney the Vampire.

"Fighting one's own destiny" just starts to look like shirking one's responsibility; certainly the writers are. At least in the original Star Wars film the reluctant hero experiences a hard knock early on which convinces him to get going. After that it's the more interesting question of whether he has what the job requires, can overcome his own weaknesses, and persevere even when defeat seems inevitable.

Lady Mermaid said...

As a millennial, the entertainment trends of my generation have moved away from having heroes at all. Instead, we have protagonists and antagonists who are not better than anyone else. This explains despite my enjoyment of royal stories, I have not been able to get into the popular series Game of Thrones. The critics raved about "intelligent" writing. I've only watched Season 1, but everyone seems to be truly awful. There is no point to the story. It's just selfish people trying to grab the throne w/ gratuitous violence and sexual perversion since there is no real heroic journey or moral lesson to be learned. Yet this is praised as more "mature" than "childish" fantasy w/ good and evil.

You can see this depressing attitude by contrasting two popular works of Scottish historical fiction/fantasy: Braveheart and Outlander. While Braveheart was full of nonsense historically, at least William Wallace is portrayed as a real hero fighting for Scottish independence against Edward Longshanks. The audience is encouraged to root for him. Even though Wallace is executed, his cause is shown to be worth it.

The more recent Outlander series is loosely based on the last Jacobite uprisings lead by Bonnie Prince Charlie. However, while the British Hanoverians are shown to be cruel, the Jacobites in this series are no better. Bonnie Prince Charlie is shown to be an utter buffoon whose foolish crusade led to the destruction of the Highland culture after losing the Battle of Culloden. In fact, the Bonnie Prince actually forges the name of the fictional Highland protagonist to force him to fight for the Jacobites against his will. The moral message of this series is that while the British were evil oppressors, it's just as foolish to do anything about this oppression at all. Just hunker down and try to stay off of the radar.

"Grey" and "complex" storylines are really just an expression of modern materialism. In a secular society, the only moral issues involve reduction of physical suffering and maximining pleasure. There is no higher goal. Our entertainment demonstrates these values.

Bruce Charlton said...

@LM - Yes, popular entertainment - especially TV and movies - is the most revealing of our actual state of mass spiritual being. Whereas academic/ scholarly-approved stuff represents the aspirations our masters have for us.

Fortunately, those categories are not comprehensive!