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.