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Arma virumque cano

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | March 11, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | March 11, 2009 |

In the interests of etymological peace, translation of the title is left as an exercise for the reader in this edition.

“Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.” —

Giles, “Lie to Me”

There is an old saying that it is possible to see all of Rome in a day, some of it in a week, and none of it in a month. Writing about heroes feels that way. You can sum them up in a few words quite easily: “The good guys,” but people have spent entire careers composing treatises on the nuances of the hero. We’ll try to find a sweet spot a bit shorter than a book, but a bit more introspective than three words. That may be an elaborate cop-out avoiding comprehensiveness, and may or not be a round-about preemptive fuck off to accusations of leaving out important elements. But it’s midnight in Indiana, my body thinks it’s eight pm, I’ve been running on fumes since I got up at four am my time, and my shuttle leaves for the airport in four hours. So let’s talk about heroes.

Our society is free and loose with the term heroes, using it as a superlative for anyone who does the slightest positive thing. Reporters sniff out heroic human interest stories the way a randy dog hunts down a cheesy crotch. The mailman who stops delivering junk mail? Hero. The angry centenarian who chases armed robbers out of 7/11 with naught but her umbrella and her fury? Total hero. That kid with AIDs who faced down adversity and discrimination to make a real difference? See, I totally made you think the third one was going to be something ludicrous like a monkey who could suck his own balls, and you almost caught yourself before laughing automatically, but not quite, so you were laughing at a kid with AIDs. Asshole.

“The real heroes are the guys who didn’t make it back.” It’s repeated often enough in one form or another, but it hints at our awareness of a deeper understanding of heroism. Heroes are more than just the good guys, more than protagonists, more than common people who manage something extraordinary like rescuing babies from burning buildings or storming nightmarish beaches of steel and smoke. Heroes are the ones who stare into the abyss so that the rest of us don’t have to.

Joseph Campbell- - no one seriously thought we’d make it through this without dropping some serious Hero’s Journey references did they? — identified the common metaphor that we use for heroes. We talked about the metaphor of monsters, this is the metaphor of their counter. He identified the symbolic journey that our conception of the hero follows. The hero suffers, succeeds, and ultimately is so changed that he can never truly return home. In saving the village, he destroys his own place in it. At the end of stories, heroes must disappear, they cannot linger. It’s true in our real life interpretation of heroes as well. Alexander dies of malaria a thousand miles from Macedonia, Gandhi and Martin Luther King never see the futures for which they fought. When it’s not true, we deny it, we ignore the rest of the hero’s life. Napoleon dies without a whimper in his final exile, McArthur fades away. We cling to our metaphors even when they don’t precisely reflect the reality.

“Die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” It’s not just a cute turn of phrase. The martyrs are to some degree the lucky heroes, because they don’t live long enough to take on the taint of the monsters that they fight. Die young, stay pure. Fight monsters long enough and you become a monster. The metaphor of the monster is wrapped around the metaphor of the hero. One does not exist without the other. But that works both ways. The monster causes the world to create heroes, but the hero causes the world to create monsters.

“All progress depends on the unreasonable man. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.”

— George Bernard Shaw

Senior year of high school, I took a literature elective on Science Fiction. The centerpiece of the class was the final two weeks of the semester when an elaborate trial took place, students playing jury, attorneys, and characters from the novel. We put Paul Atreides on trial for being harmful to society. Frank Herbert has said that he wrote Dune in part as a cautionary tale against the role of heroes, that they are not an absolute good.

In well written stories, every character thinks that he is the protagonist. That’s what real life is: everyone, including Hitler, thinks that he is the protagonist of his own story. They think that they are the good guys. But that’s also what makes heroes problematic; they cast things into black and white, into fundamentalism. You can’t have heroes without villains, and in the real world where everyone thinks they are the hero of their own piece, that means that the villains are the opposite side of the same coin. Villains are just the other guy’s hero.

In shitty stories this isn’t the case, the hero is distinct from the villain. Reality (and good stories) just doesn’t work that way. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t good and evil, that everything is just a gray moral relativism where nothing is wrong and nothing is right. It’s more to say that heroes and villains are the same fundamental force acting on society, differentiated only by whether we agree with the direction it pushes.

Without heroes, we don’t progress. We don’t build better things without breaking down the old. Heroes are the societal equivalent of DNA mutation. The right mutation, the right little misinterpretation of a few base pairs can create a wonder. Ninety times out of a hundred it does nothing meaningful, all sound and fury. Nine times out of a hundred it causes some variety of cancer that rips apart the entire body politic unless excised. But that one time out of a hundred it can create something beautiful, something that shatters societal inertia and drives evolution. We can’t have one without the other. We can’t have a society that produces heroes without the wreckage of failed attempts.

Heroes aren’t all saints, they have elements of horror bred into their bones, else they couldn’t fight monsters in the first place. It is so tempting to insist that this doesn’t have to be so, that we could conceive of a hero without the flaws, that flaws are just literary devices not inherent qualities. But the flaws don’t just make a hero more interesting, or more human, they are intrinsic to heroism itself. You can’t take away Ender’s sympathy for those who abused him without destroying the empathy that made him a leader and commander. You can’t take away Batman’s capacity for brutal violence without eliminating the will to stalk the streets in the first place. The qualities that make them heroes are the exact same qualities that make them monsters.

Morality isn’t a zero sum game. The good you do never offsets the evil you do or vice versa. Good and evil don’t cancel each other out on a balance sheet so that you can beat Ma’at’s feather. It was one of Angel’s epiphanies. You don’t get a free pass on doing something evil just because you’re still ahead in the bigger score, and no amount of good deeds can ever make up for an act of evil. The duality of man and heroes is that that they are both simultaneously good and evil.

The banality of evil derives from this duality. It shouldn’t be a wonder that a man exterminates Jews by day and goes home to read his son stories before bed. Only in bad stories is evil ever anything but banal. There is always something human and redeemable about every villain, because there are no villains.

“Answer me this - just one question, that’s all. If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place… on a whim… would anybody here have died?”

— Joan Redfern

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.