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Fathers and Heroes: 'Our Fathers Were Our Models for God'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 13, 2014 | Comments ()


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Name a hero whose father is still alive. Go one step further and name a hero whose father isn’t an antagonist in his story. Yeah, there are some, but they’re almost the exceptions that prove the rule. They’re the stories in which not only is the hero’s father alive, but it’s a critical part of the story to explain how and why that is the case. They are such exceptions that they must be explained within the story. Living fathers are almost invariably angels or demons.

So why is it that fathers and heroes don’t mix? In Ender’s Game, Colonel Graff explains his approach to Ender, the way that he totally isolates him and turns a cold shoulder of indifference to his literal and figurative pleas for help: “He can have friends. It’s parents he can’t have.”

That explains part of it. To be a hero in some sense is to be a mover of the world, an independent force of nature. As Kerouac said, it’s the crazy ones who change the world. But the ones who are crazy enough to do so tend to be the ones who don’t have a guiding hand on their shoulder. Fathers are voices of reason, they’re men who have lived through what we have lived through, and can tell us their stories of loss and small victories. They can tell us how to live with the guilt of never changing the world. But a hero without a father? He is a man who has no boundaries, has none of the sane pleas of loved ones to hold him back from the madness of trying to shift the world.

But our father is also our model for God. Go down the rabbit hole of Freud for a moment, and it is the father’s hand that establishes what justice is in the small-walled world of our childhood. It establishes what good is. And in its anger, whether violent or gentle, it schools us on what evil is. But a man without a father is a man without gods. He is man who can look at the injustice of the world from a point of objectivity, an atheist judging the choir’s tune.

And for so many of our ancient heroes, their true father is literally God, if only because Zeus couldn’t keep it in his toga pants. The hero’s father says everything about who and what he is because it tells us who he aspires to be and who he rebels against. By removing the father from the equation entirely, it introduces a curious sort of man, one who begins as a blank slate, one who makes decisions of aspiration and rebellion based not on the man who raised him, but upon the world itself.

The orphan hero’s father is the world, and so it is the supplier of the ancient values he strives to uphold and also the symbols of injustice that he rebels against. He’s the man with no name, the mysterious stranger, and yes, the hero with a thousand faces. So much of the time, we want our heroes to emerge fully formed like Athena from the back of Zeus’ skull. We don’t want a rationalization, an explanation for the soil from which they grew. We want men without a past, without a context, to stand judgment on the wrongs of the world and shift it upon its axis.

And so we create orphan heroes because their half-imagined and half-remembered fathers can only be perfect angels or demons. And even our non-orphaned heroes have exactly the same fathers: they are Clark Kents or Darth Vaders, but never the common man. This means there are no hang-ups, no measuring against a man flawed in his beliefs and actions because he is only human. Instead our heroes measure themselves against ideals, not living and breathing men.

To rebel against a man is to be human, but to rebel against an idea is to be a hero. And so it’s no coincidence that heroes are rarely happy men, who have only perfection to measure themselves against.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • manting

    Hercules, Perseus, Bellerophon, Luke Skywalker (his dad is technically alive), Paul Attreides, Ender Wiggin, and that's just off the top of my head.

  • Space Raptor

    Dr. Henry Jones Sr.

  • brite59

    Goddamn, that was wonderful.

  • Miss Jane

    What about father as hero? It seems that lately the stories, from Hollywood in particular, feature the father who will do anything to save his wife/child/family.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Nostalgia translated into action movies. There's no bright young hero setting out to restore or create some better world, but instead an adult hero who helped create the better world in the first place and is now fighting to preserve it in the face of corrupting forces trying to destroy it (mainly via the rape of his daughter). The Tea Party and Taken's popularity both stem from very similar fears among an older demographic. The younger demo doesn't care so long as people are getting their asses kicked.

  • Indiana Jones. Even though he says he and his dad had "a falling out" in The Last Crusade he still drops everything to go to Venice and find him, reconciling their differences through the course of the story.

  • Billybob

    Sidenote: When dealing with a female hero, is it the father that must be missing? Or the mother?

    Buffy Summers started out with an absentee dad, but finished with a dead mother. Veronica Mars's dad was there for her; her mother's disappearance was a major character note. Kate Beckett's dad hangs around in the background; her mother's murder is her origin story. Mallory Kane rescues her dad from bad guys; her mother isn't mentioned. I'm sure I could go on, if you gave me a minute.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Generally a mother. That is why she's in peril; she is without a mother's protection. Think of all the evil stepmothers. For Disney, think of Ariel, Belle, Jasmine. Think of the plucky orphans - Anne of Green Gables. The Little Princess. The Secret Garden. In Grimm stories, often the heroine was even defending herself against her father's advances.

    Not always, of course, and certainly not in real life when our heroines are just as often rebelling against overly conservative parents.

  • mzbitca

    Also don't forget many who have neither parent. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Bruce Wayne etc

  • Feralhousecat

    What about an extraordinary hero with perfectly normal parents. Is it possible to achieve greatness if you are born into a relatively functional family?

  • Bert_McGurt

    Superman wasn't exactly BORN into a functional family, but was adopted early by what might be the most functional family ever seen in the funny papers. Course Pa Kent does have a nasty habit of dying after Clark puts on the cape.

  • foolsage

    The Kents are kind of the perfect family, true. May and Ben Parker were excellent people too in every sense, but then there's the death and poverty issue there to offset the perfect family.

  • Bert_McGurt

    And of course, both Jonathan and Ben fit the role of paragon that Reba mentions further up.

  • foolsage

    Bilbo Baggins, Peregrin Took, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Samwise Gamgee were all heroes born into normal and functional families. Frodo was orphaned of course, but otherwise his family was quite normal (except for their proclivity for boating).

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Hermione!

  • foolsage

    Good one!

  • Bananapanda

    Mythology / Hero/ine's Journey:

    Even if you didn't kill the parents, the hero/ine would need to leave home.

    There's always an "occurrence" - war, death, ring, McGuffin - which propels the hero/ine to action. It's brutal but necessary for growth. Also, hero/ines tend to be adolescents on the verge of adulthood and so there's a step towards independence and finding their own way in the world.

  • Feralhousecat

    I'm familiar with the Hero's Journey. I was more or less just making an offhand comment about how parental death is the simplest/neatest of the motivators and so it is the most commonly used. Sometimes it works as with Potter and sometimes it feels lazy as with Beckett.

  • In classical myth making, the hero is seeking to re-balance a world that has been unbalanced by tragedy/corruption/death. That usually involves the fall of the righteous/just previous hero, which often is the father -- although in the video game, Fable, it was the mother. (Aside: it's why the Red Wedding hurt so much. The expectation is that Robb is our new hero and he'll be the one to avenge Ned's execution).

  • The thing is, you can't have a fictional father without him either being a paragon or fallen, because the very nature of parenting is that you either get it spectacularly right - which almost never happens - or you are revealed to have feet of clay, at the very least. The process of figuring out the latter is the means by which we recognize our parents as humans and thus break out of their orbit. The father as Big Evil also resonates, not least because of the amount of abuse some people get from their dads. Even if your dad was great, you know someone whose father was a nightmare. If you're looking for complex stories about how people relate to their fathers, then literary fiction is a better fit than your standard hero tale, though even there one rarely gets a thorough exploration.

  • BlackRabbit

    That's true. I was going to suggest Daredevil and Conan, neither of whom have their father as an antagonist, but they are both paragons who drive the hero.

  • mzbitca

    Beautiful article although I wish it had been parents in general as opposed to just fathers. 1. because it ignores the origins of many of our female fairy tale people who may not be "heros" but still represent goodness and truth, albeit in a sexist way IE: Belle, Mulan, Ariel. Also in many stories with both parents gone such as in Harry Potter the lost mother-dynamic is important to the story. Darth Vader and Luke may be the main area of issue, but Darth is who he is because of the loss of his mother.

  • Feralhousecat

    In modern storytelling, I feel that the orphan trope is often the handiest shortcut for a writer looking to avoid dealing with the complicated nature of creating an individual history for a character. The emotional backstory takes five minutes to explain and then they can get on with the action.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I don't think it's just getting rid of the backstory - I think the upheaval that comes with being an orphan makes it easier for the character not to be tethered - especially in older stories, where people didn't wander as much. There is also no one that an orphan feels they can't disappoint or abandon.

  • A trope as old as time. Beautifully written, Steven.

    I do find the whole 'father as god' idea somewhat reductive and boring now, and I would like to see the other templates of early-life relationships in fiction grow in number: mother and son, mother and daughter, father and daughter... But each one of them explored not in a trite, endlessly repeating way; instead mixed up and reinvigorated, reminding us that, yes, some general trends may hold, but each individual dynamic is going to follow its own path and yield its own story.

  • Three_nineteen

    Veronica Mars.

    Can't wait for tomorrow!

  • Bert_McGurt

    Marty McFly.

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