“Ándra moi énnepe, moûsa, polýtropon, hòs mála pollà plánchthē, epeì Troíēs hieròn ptolíethron épersen.”
The Odyssey begins with what will be the subject for its duration. This particular man happens to be my favorite archetype for protagonists. The “polýtropon” hero, or as Robert Fagels describes, “the man of twists and turns” (or “complicated man” if you prefer Emily Wilson’s translation) latches my interest. Someone clever who outmaneuvers whatever opposition comes his way yet always finds himself deeper in trouble. Someone who tries to do right but does not always utilize the best means or even properly succeeds.
I love seeing heroes who fail. I want to see what people do when their plans collapse around them, their strength falters, their world betrays them. When they’re beleaguered, beladen, bescumbered. I want to see if they have the will to continue pursuing what’s important and concoct some brilliant way to seize victory.
My tastes may be a bit unusual, but a plethora of other heroes exist. Your classic bildungsroman where a little courage goes a long way. A Byronic, so moody and tragic and mysterious. The overpowered hero who destroys anything that hints of antagonizing him. An anti-hero, just enough wrong to somehow be right. And so on.
But why are heroes so beloved by people?
Part of it involves how heroes move stories, and people love stories. Without someone to follow, someone to lend perspective, a story would be a series of events—factual, but not compelling. Even threats wouldn’t be dangerous without someone personally affected. A hero keeps our eyes on the things that matter.
More than that, heroes show us what we could be. They are an ideal to strive for. We can model ourselves after them. Even their struggles can be beneficial. Each trial they face, each choice they make helps inform our own decisions. Wisdom is experience’s legacy, a gift to the subsequents. It is a way when the way is not always clear.
To assume we are drawn to heroes merely because they demonstrate the apex of nobility, capability, laudability would be shorting ourselves. We connect most to individuals who embody traits we already possess or find valuable and desirable. Thinking we could be like them, in the former instance, wouldn’t take much of a stretch. In the latter, seeing the traits we wish we had can galvanize us to develop them.
Take popular people, for example. They tend to idolize other popular people—actors, celebrities, successful icons—to see how they did it in order to imitate them. Less popular people look to those around them—those who stuck with them no matter what, who believed in them despite their feelings of inadequacy.
Heroes’ variety derives from peoples’ variety. They are mutable to fit the needs of society, culture, or even individuals, yet they are eternal in their pioneering for purpose, for understanding, for betterment. They allow difference in unity. We would be poorer without them, and yet they would be nothing without us.
A hero is not inherently special, as we may want to believe. Sure, they may have gifts or qualifications that distinguish them from those around them, but that does not mean those peers are useless or giftless. A hero is simply one who steps out with purpose when the proper moment presents itself.
If I may be so arrogant, I’d like to believe they stand out at the workings of those around them. Because of the people constantly being available, sacrificial, investing in them, in the shadows, watching their back, they could step forward into the light and be the focus and inspiration of many who needed such a figure. A hero.
But how equally heroic, how equally needed, are the ones who gave them that boost. The ones who accept being forgotten and overlooked. Whose specialty is letting others be special first. Who accurately know the value of their own time.
Perhaps therein lies the true beauty of heroes. They are always a part of us.