Is it possible to be addicted to stories? I don’t mean in the sense of compulsively reading books (though I can, from personal experience, attest to the existence of that trait, too) but in the sense of interpreting the world around us through particular kinds of narratives, like someone who always sees a rabbit in a Rorschach test, no matter the forms and shapes of each particular ink blot. There is no doubt that we understand and approach the world through stories, that stories are essential for us to make sense of the world. This does not mean the world is a figment of our imagination. No matter how much we tell ourselves that gravity does not exist we are still bound by its laws. At the same time, though, the stories we tell have an impact on how we interpret and interact with the world and therefore on our experiences of living in this world.
Here, I want to concentrate on one kind of story that seems all-pervasive in western culture. It is the story of the hero. We find his story all around us, in films, books, newspapers, social media, advertising, and politicians’ speeches. Fictional heroes can bring a sense of great satisfaction and redemption, while real-life heroes are honoured and upheld as examples. Both kinds may help to restore our belief in humanity and constitute an ideal to aspire to.
One indication of the importance of the hero concept can be found in the form of a list of 339 synonyms and antonyms for the term ‘heroic’ (https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/heroic). Examples of some of the synonyms include ‘daring’, ‘noble’ and ‘intrepid’. Doing something heroic thus involves ‘having or involving recourse to daring or forceful action’ (https://www.thefreedictionary.com/heroic). Being a hero involves courage and sacrifice. These sound like good traits and something that is needed more than ever in these times when trouble is all around us. So, what is wrong with our love of hero stories and any dreams we may harbour of becoming heroes ourselves?
One aspect of the dark side of our hero fixation is the expectations that come with it. During Covid in the UK there was a call to ‘clap for carers’ at a fixed time every week to express gratitude to the public health care workers whose professional roles involved dealing with those falling seriously ill. Healthcare professionals were framed as heroes who willingly accepted the risk of infection and the long hours of extra work demanded of them. Being cast as heroes, however, meant that they were and still are expected to selflessly sacrifice themselves for the good of the nation, while the wages they are paid are not enough to cover basics such as food and electricity. Those who expressed unwillingness because they feared for themselves or their families were met with condemnation, and their demands for a decent wage are now met with laws threatening to take away their right to strike.
Hero rhetoric is also used in many other contexts to silence or coax the unwilling. In wars, soldiers are framed as heroes who are expected to give their lives for the greater good of the nation, group, place, idea, or whatever the fight is supposedly about. Being a hero, you earn adoration, especially posthumously, but it seems you simultaneously sign away any other rights.
Another dark aspect of our adoration of the hero is that it tends to influence how we interpret and meet difficult situations. In the stereotypical story, the hero must overcome adversity or an enemy through an epic struggle. In the more interesting of these stories, the hero may be conflicted and the struggle may not just be against external forces or enemies but may also be an internal one. Nevertheless, the emphasis is on fighting and overcoming.
That these stories influence how we attempt to deal with many problems can be gleaned from the language of war and power that is usually employed in these situations. We must mobilise, soldier on, stand up and fight, overcome, be strong, not give up. In short, we must be heroes whether it’s in the context of our jobs, relationships, and personal problems or whether it’s in relation to wider societal and global problems. Within the framing of heroism, the only outcomes are winning or losing, and, usually, for one part to win the other must lose. The beast, giant, self-doubt or whoever is deemed the enemy or obstacle must be overcome and preferably killed, not accommodated, befriended, or understood.
This logic is at play not only in armed conflicts and our personal lives, but also in the logic of the free market where the best ones supposedly always win and, in the process, create a wealthier, if not better, world. The same logic and story guided colonial enterprises and still plays itself out in relation to human and more-than-human beings around the world. In relation to nature, we speak of ‘ecosystem services’ and it is taken for granted that we are the rightful receivers (or takers) and judges of the value of these services. If it does not serve us, it does not have any worth and can be discarded. This attitude was stated most starkly by Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Bacon who spoke of fighting, torturing, and subduing nature so that she would reveal her secrets and serve man. The gendered language and the similarities to tactics employed against human beings in colonised regions was of course no coincidence.
The story of the hero is also the story of individualism. Though the hero may have friends and allies, we are never in doubt who this story is about. It is the hero’s exceptional qualities and decisions that determine success or failure and that are central. The hero story is thus one that celebrates the extraordinary and the powerful and extols us to become special and better than others. The special qualities of the hero can vary, and some stories use the hero model to promote or praise qualities that run against the current hero fashion. Instead of the gifted wizard it is the kind hobbit who saves the day. Nevertheless, even then the hero stands out and is different from the dull, average person.
The hero narrative is not a new one but goes back a long way. Many old folk tales and myths follow the model of the ‘hero’s journey’: a man, or occasionally a woman, sets out on a dangerous journey to save their people, their love, their honour, or to win a treasure. The ‘hero’s journey’ is nowadays also used to describe the process and task of self-development. We are all our own heroes, the centre of the story. If we manage to fight and overcome inner and outer enemies, we will not only become fully developed humans, but our heroic nature might even be recognised by others, and we might become social media stars, if nothing else.
It is tempting to think that the alternative to the hero narrative must be that of the anti-hero, a type of story that also abounds in modern fiction: stories of hapless losers, of selfish and conflicted individuals unable to live up to the expectations placed on them. Despite their shortcomings they may remain likeable and often are more recognisable and closer to our own experiences than the heroes. While they can help us to accept we can’t all be heroes, in their own way they still contribute to cementing the heroic as the gold standard. They are losers precisely because they are judged against the hero figure that they don’t live up to. We might sympathise with them and recognise ourselves in them, but we are not in doubt that, really, they should get their act together and do better. Their failings are typically individual, unless they are a noble victim which is just another kind of hero, albeit a tragic one.
Is there a way to truly do away with the hero which does not in an underhand manner reinforce the distinction between heroes and anti-heroes? In a wry essay entitled The carrier bag theory of fiction, Ursula le Guin, author of numerous fantasy and SciFi stories, calls out our obsession with the hero and ‘his pointy sticks’ that are used to beat, poke, and split open. Referencing the stereotypical image of the cave man and his pointy stick, she points out that even in that case the main part of the story is left out. Only a small percentage of the diets of pre-historic humans consisted of large prey such as mammoths or aurochs. Most requirements were met by (mostly) women patiently digging up roots, collecting nuts, seeds and fruits, and trapping small animals. What good is a stick, she asks, if you do not have a container to hold and bring back those essential foods? No bag means no food or water, other than the miniscule amounts you can hold in your hands at any one time, especially if you also have a baby or small child to hold.
However, the bag and the types of activities associated with it don’t make for very sexy stories, as le Guin points out. How much drama can you get out of the patient and endlessly repetitive bending down, picking, and putting away, often done in a group where nobody sticks out, because no extraordinary qualities are needed? Only when a hero is required to protect the quotidian, or a hero from another story enters with a pointy stick to disrupt the tedium of the everyday does the story become interesting. This is what we have been taught to expect of a good story.
Nevertheless, Ursula le Guin challenges us to attempt to create these other kinds of stories and the values they represent such as collaboration and appreciation of the everyday and the small. In some of her own works she experimented with ways of doing so. One example is her strange collection of fictional anthropology of the future called Always coming home where she imagines the kind of stories, daily routines, and rituals a people of the future have developed after an unspecified cataclysmic event. Another is the figure of the wizard Sparrowhawk in her Earthsea series. Though he starts out as a powerful hero figure, in the end Sparrowhawk loses his power and everything that comes with it. Rather than killing him off in a heroic manner, Le Guin follows his struggles to adjust, live with the loss, and learn who he is when he is no longer a highly regarded and respected wizard, but just an ordinary, disregarded, middle-aged man.
Another place we can find examples of a different kind of story is in the old tales. Even though many myths and fairy tales follow the general pattern of the hero’s journey, some are stories from non-western cultures and so different from western tastes and expectations of what constitutes a storyline that they may seem bewildering and even pointless to listeners or readers brought up in a western dominated context. The protagonists are often non-human and there might not be the kind of resolution in the form of triumph or tragedy that we expect.
Other tales may appear to follow the established model of the hero’s journey but conclude with a different kind of wisdom. The characters set out full of confidence and courage to redeem or win a love or treasure, but at some point in the journey they come to the realisation that they don’t have what it takes. What they are facing is too strong, too vast, too shrewd for them to ever have a chance. In these stories their failure is part of a necessary development. Only once they realise and accept their own helplessness, once they are at their wits end, broken and full of despair, do things shift and help suddenly arrives. The help itself often takes the form of something small and seemingly unimportant: a bird that brings little morsels of food, a musical instrument, a mouse.
Many of these stories are associated with journeys to the underworld where ordinary human daytime knowledge and strength are not much use. One example is the story of Psyche, the young woman who evoked Aphrodite’s anger first by being equally beautiful and then by causing Aphrodite’s son, Eros, to fall in love with her. Through her own failings, Psyche loses Eros and must seek out Aphrodite to ask for help in exchange for offering her services. In response, Aphrodite sets the young woman a number of impossible tasks. At each task Psyche despairs and decides to take her own life. Each time, when she has just given up, help arrives in the shape of different non-human beings, from ants, to an eagle, to a tower.
Looking at the world around me and at the havoc wreaked by humans like myself following a logic of overcoming and subduing, I often feel a sense of deep and bone-wearying despair. I have been out on the streets, have seen police with their faces set in a blank mask advance in their combat gear, each side fighting to save aspects of the world they know and love, whether it’s the environment or the stability offered by a state apparatus. Meanwhile nothing much seems to be changing other than divisions growing ever deeper and the situation becoming more desperate.
Now, I no longer know what to do. I am no hero and I am still trying to figure out what it means to live well in a way that honours myself, the world around me, and the many relationships between us. Like Psyche, it seems that, time and time again, I need to admit my own defeat to learn to listen to the voices who know better than me, whatever form they may take. What comforts me is the knowledge that those voices are still here and that the journey ahead doesn’t need to depend on the heroic power of pointy sticks, as long as we remember to weave carrier bags to carry enough seeds of different kinds to nourish ourselves and those around us and plant things for those who come after.