Becoming a Hero the Hard Way: On Unconventional Heroes and Everyday Heroism
“This is a story of becoming a hero the hard way.”
—Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon
What defines a hero? If we look at the heroes of old—Greco-Roman heroes like Hercules and Odysseus, for example, or the Prince Charmings of fairy tales and folklore—a pattern of traits and skills linking these characters together starts to emerge. Sharpness of mind, physical prowess, and charismatic leadership are qualities we find in the heroes of ancient myths and legends, qualities that are essential for survival in their often perilous worlds. Valour, bravery, and gallantry are qualities that surface as the princes and knights of higher and more comfortable standing encounter and interact with those who were viewed as lesser than they: the poor, the sick, and the weak. Their skills and personalities do not necessarily provide a link between the warring heroes and the princely heroes. It is their actions that connect them across space and time: their responses, verbal and physical, to the threats, obstacles, and dangers they face in their respective stories. I’d like to explore this concept by examining unconventional heroes in different forms of media, throughout different periods of time.
The quote I have included above is one that succinctly sums up the journey Cressida Cowell’s protagonist takes in her 2003 children’s book series, How to Train Your Dragon. The unconventional hero introduced in this series is one who initially, when compared to lofty figures such as King Arthur, does not quite measure up. While Hiccup is the heir to the throne of his tribe, he is considered one of the weakest of his peer group, both in physical abilities and his approach to life. Though his peers already look down on him because of his decidedly un-Vikinglike behaviour and physique, his general reluctance to buy into the brawn-over-brains mindset his tribe’s history has been built upon is an endless source of disappointment to his classmates, his teachers, and his own father. The story begins by showing Hiccup’s ‘shortcomings’ in the context of a class assignment: he and his peers are sent to capture their own hunting dragons during hibernation season. This scene perfectly captures Hiccup’s so-called weaknesses, as well as the strengths that eventually, over the course of twelve books, prepare him to become the leader of his tribe.
If heroes are defined by the choices they make in difficult situations, Hiccup’s actions—despite his humble beginnings as a so-called runt, and a target of ridicule—reveals something within him that is most definitely heroic. Though he succeeds in procuring himself a hunting dragon of a modest size, his best friend, Fishlegs, fails to do the same. Upon discovering this, Hiccup gives his dragon to Fishlegs and goes back to find another one, even though certain incidents occurring between these two events result in the dragons waking from their slumber. The stakes were already raised sky-high from the start: fail the assignment, and you may lose your position as a member of the tribe. Hiccup gives up his guarantee of safety for his best friend’s sake, and dives back into the fray, barely managing to escape with a dragon in his possession. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, the dragon he ends up with is the smallest and least impressive-looking dragon he has ever seen. Hiccup returns home with his new hunting dragon, amid the jeers and laughter of his fellow Vikings, to a disappointed father and a rocky road ahead of him. The small, toothless dragon turns out to be the least of his problems, however, as he runs into new opponents and new dangers. With every challenge that he tackles, and every creature that he comes to understand, Hiccup grows in character and experience, and becomes a decidedly un-Vikinglike, but most definitely heroic young man.
Over the course of the series, we realise that despite the qualities that may disqualify him as such in the eyes of the Vikings, Hiccup is without a doubt a hero. The increasingly challenging situations he finds himself in are not situations that can be solved the traditional way—with axes, fists, and battle cries—but are situations that can only be solved the Hiccup way. Hiccup proves over and over again that his quick thinking, curiosity, knowledge about dragons, and—above all else—his empathy, are exactly the world needs. Despite the pressure of his father’s expectations, and the cruelty inflicted upon him by his peers, Hiccup maintains the stubborn belief that there is always a better, kinder way to solve problems. It is his empathy for all his fellow creatures, and his aversion to senseless violence, that save the tribes of the Archipelago from war and other disasters over and over again. And it is Hiccup’s kindness that brings the conflicts between dragons, the arguments between humans, and—at the climax of the series—the feud between dragon and humankind to a peaceful end.
Hiccup’s grandfather tells him during a particularly discouraging moment in the series that, “the world needs a Hero, and it might as well be you” (Cowell, How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword). For it is not physical might or an impressive physique that makes Hiccup a hero. His clever mind, his understanding of people and dragons, and his kind heart do not qualify him as such, either. It would not matter what qualities, opinions, or abilities he had if he did not make any use of them. It is what he chooses to do with what he has that makes him a hero. Hiccup is able to work out the root behind the problem with his sharp mind, figure out a mutually satisfactory compromise with his understanding of both sides’ intentions and desires, and connect with the opposing parties with his sense of compassion. In his world, where the abilities to shout the loudest and punch the hardest are what elevates one’s reputation and social status, Hiccup sticks to his own principles, and saves the world his own way.
We can see other examples of such heroes—those who are defined by the choices they make—in other forms of media. Another example can be found in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (first published in 1954), in which the protagonist Frodo Baggins’s decision to take the Ring to Mordor changes the course of history. This decision takes place a little past the halfway mark of the story, after Frodo and his friends arrive in Rivendell. The preceding two-thirds of the book is filled with the dangerous journey, meeting both friend and foe, to take the Ring from out of Frodo’s hometown, and to a safe place. The hobbits are chased by threatening figures called Black Riders—servants of the returning Enemy—and though they share the occasional peaceful moment, the climax of their journey results in a Black Rider stabbing Frodo with a poisoned blade. Frodo has already endured the fear and anxiety of his journey, and the wound caused by the blade is one that later plagues him for the rest of his life. He has every right to return home with his friends, or stay in Rivendell with his cousin Bilbo (thereby putting all he has gone through behind him), and letting someone else take the Ring to Mordor.
“No one answered. The noon-bell rang. Still no one spoke. Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. A great dread fell upon him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.
‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’”
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Surely Frodo is entitled to leave this task to someone else after all he has gone through. He has no obligation to go on another journey. Yet he chooses to leave his own safety and comfort behind. He chooses the road most people, including himself, would want to avoid. He chooses to take the Ring and risk his life in the process—an act of love for his world, and the people and the places he calls home. Like Hiccup, Frodo runs into situations that force him to make difficult choices, and it is his choice to do what he knows is the right thing—not the easy thing, and not necessarily the safe or comfortable thing—that makes him a hero in the end. J.R.R. Tolkien strongly emphasises the weight of choice in the other character arcs that take place within this greater story as well, and the way he writes secondary characters such as Frodo’s friend Samwise Gamgee show how the choices that define a hero are not always on such a world-changing, earth-shaking scale. In Samwise’s case, what makes him as much of a hero as Frodo is his unwavering loyalty to his friend. His decision to accompany, support, and care for Frodo throughout the perilous journey to Mordor ends up saving him, both from dying and succumbing to temptation.
If we turn to stories of the past, stories that date back centuries from Hiccup and Frodo’s respective books, we can also trace earlier stories of unconventional heroes—though they might not have referred to themselves as such. From as far back as the Book of Genesis, we see ordinary people, who are not (by ancient or by modern standards and prejudices) qualified in the slightest, called to lead and guide their families, or, in many cases, their whole nation. The people God chooses are people who are not necessarily clever, beautiful, brave, accomplished, wealthy, or strong. These ordinary people are the ones who answer His call. They have the choice to respond the way Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden, and hide from God when He called them by name. But instead, when these ordinary people hear the call, they answer with a simple—“Here I am”. It is partly because of their decision to step out of their comfort zones and act radically in love and obedience to God that makes them such prominent figures in the Bible.
After all, it is not through sharpness of mind or physical prowess, nor with a silver tongue or a valiant heart that make them qualified for the tasks they have been called to do. Many years later, Saint Paul writes in one of his letters to the Corinthian church:
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.””
—1 Corinthians 1:26-31
If we look at the many figures in the Bible through this lens, we can see—as we could with Greco-Roman heroes, and with heroes from fairy tales and folklore—a pattern start to emerge. The people God chooses are ordinary, flawed human beings who, by their obedience (and their disobedience), by their love (or irreverence), by how faithful they are to His commands, let the many aspects of God shine through them. We see in people like Saint Paul himself, whose past was full of cruelty, destruction, and discrimination, that God makes all things—even the most impossible things, like the transformation of a heart full of hatred to a heart full of love—possible.
The ways in which God works through the men and women of the Bible continue to make them influential and inspirational to many today. The things God calls these ordinary people to do are strange—bizarre, even—to those around them. At six hundred years old, Noah suddenly begins building a gigantic ark and filling it with all kinds of creatures, in anticipation of a flood none had ever seen before (Gen. 6:11-22). His descendant Abram, at seventy-five years old, is living a normal life, when he suddenly packs up everything he owns and heads towards an unfamiliar land God promises will be home to his own descendants (Gen. 12). In later books, we see God choose a man called Moses—who protests not once, but five times, on grounds of his worries, fears, and all the things that disqualify him—to free the other Israelites from slavery (Ex. 3-4).
“But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?””
“Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name’? Then what shall I tell them?””
“Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?””
“Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.””
“But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.””
Despite Moses’s fears—of his credibility and position among the Israelites, his own perceived weaknesses, and his rising anxieties about the task at hand—God provides him with solutions to every one of his worries. Each of these stories are lenses through which we can see the image of God. Through Moses’s story, we see God’s love for His people, as His great plan to save Israel unfolds. Through Noah’s story, we see how sin divided God and mankind before the birth of Jesus, and get a glimpse of the life that follows when Jesus later bridges that rift in the New Testament. Through Abram—later called Abraham, as a sign of God’s promise to him—and his journey away from home, we see that God keeps His promises, as wonderful and impossible as they may seem.
Through all of these stories, including Saint Paul’s own story, we see that God can use the most broken, the most hateful, the most fragile, the most ordinary people to shine a light into the lives of others. And if we look at the bigger picture linking the Old Testament and the New Testament, we see that the bright threads of every person’s individual stories weave together to become part of a grander, overarching narrative. Just like the people in the Bible were not chosen because of certain skills, traits, or advantages they possessed, Frodo and Samwise’s origins as humble hobbits and Hiccup’s position at the bottom of the Viking-in-training food chain are not what define them as people—or as heroes. Their words and deeds make them heroes, rather than their social statuses and places in their worlds. What defines a hero? The choices they make.
But a new pattern is appearing in contemporary media, where a hero with a supposedly established backstory is given a new backstory, one that provides them with a special lineage or qualifications of some kind that distinguish them from the crowd. When characters like Rey from the newest addition to the Star Wars franchise are given such a backstory, the people who originally drew encouragement from how she let go of her past to embrace the future ahead of her may end up feeling alienated by the sudden change. And when characters like the Doctor, from the long-standing 1963 television series Doctor Who, are given new backstories that change what the audience has already assumed is a fundamental part of their character in order to give the story a quirky twist, it not only detracts from the story itself, but also unwittingly diminishes the character’s own actions and decisions.
Just as Rey’s added backstory in Star Wars complicates the established character arc and the direction she has already been moving towards, Doctor Who’s case creates a complex situation, where the titular character is no longer primarily defined by their decisions, but by their rewritten past. Throughout the show, the Doctor’s past is left ambiguous to a certain degree. It is implied that he once had a family, that he fought in a war that destroyed the rest of his race, and that he stole a time-travelling machine and ran away to explore all of space and time. Occasionally, writers and contributors introduced details about his past that were then made relevant to his current character arc, but on the whole, the Doctor was previously defined by the decisions he made in dangerous and difficult situations. In the 2005 return of the show, the Doctor redefined himself by choosing not to remain the person he was in the war, but to become—with the help and influence of his friends and companions—a kinder person. He is constantly reminded by the people he meets that “Doctor”, the name that he chose for himself—not the name that he was given at birth—was a promise he’d made in and of itself. Peter Capaldi, as the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor, summarises the culmination of his joys and sorrows with the following words:
“Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind.
“If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it ‘till it kills me.”
—The Doctor, Doctor Who (Series 10, Episode 12)
This, rather than the backstory tacked on in Series 13, is what defines the Doctor. This is the kind of story that we need to hear, because it is a story of hope, and of enduring love. It is important to hold onto these stories—stories that have survived the test of time and stories from the writers, artists, and poets of our own day and age—to remind us to look ahead, especially when there seems to be no end in sight. The people who are hailed today as heroes are activists who speak out for the voiceless, or teachers who believe in and invest their time in their pupils when no one else will, or, most recently, brothers who self-sacrificially stand in harm’s way to protect their sisters. If you look around you, you may find that there are heroes everywhere: unconventional heroes who go the extra mile, who work the extra shift, who decide to do what is selfless and kind—not out of pity, but out of love. These people make these choices because they want to help, to comfort, to encourage, and to raise up those who cannot stand up on their own feet. They are not looking behind, but rather, looking forward to the future.
They may not be exactly like Hercules and Odysseus, and they may not face the same monsters the heroes of old may have faced. But the Frodos, the Sams, and the Hiccups, the people who are like you and I (who are you and I), are faced with difficult choices every day of our lives, because darkness doesn’t always come in the form of vengeful dragons or Black Riders. What do we choose? To do what is comfortable? Or to do what we know is right? These stories—both fictional and true—remind you that you are not defined by your mistakes, or your regrets. You are not defined by your background, family, or upbringing. You are not defined by the pain you have caused others, or the pain others may have inflicted on you. You are defined by what you decide to do when modern-day monsters rear out of the darkness.
After all, what defines a hero?
The choices they make.
Jaslyn’s elementary school teachers were often chagrined to find her reading under her desk in the middle of class, and though she managed to concentrate on her studies in later years, she has always been and will always be a lover of stories. Jaslyn calls Thailand, Taiwan, and Canada home, but will always have a special place in her heart for Middle Earth. These days, she spends her spare time reading to her little sister, embroidering, scribbling frantically in her notebook, and composing long-winded letters. You can also find her in her little corner of the world: herheadintheclouds.art.blog/
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“Genesis 12 (NIV).” BibleGateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/
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Road Dirt Road Rural Countryside Trees Journey via Pixabay [https://pixabay.com/photos/road-dirt-road-rural-countryside-1246601/]. License: CC0 1.0 Universal.