We live in a society of over-used superlatives. In games we always play as the “hero”. Often these characters are amateurish, one-dimensional tropes, whose sole distinction is mindlessly hacking away at mountains of anonymous enemies. The meaning of this word has degraded to the point where even the most ordinary actions can be heralded as heroic.
The degradation of our language is not limited to this word, however. Viral aggregators have reduced our rapidly shrinking attention spans to puddles of banality. BuzzFeed would have us believe that everyday deeds are “unbelievable” and that every cat video is “amazing”. The original etymology of the word amazing was for something that was so incredible, it could be likened to enslavement in a labyrinth, where a giant minotaur would try to eat you. To call a cat in a costume amazing is facile hyperbole.
J.R.R. Tolkien passed away in 1973, before I was even born, but I am not willing to believe that the word hero died with him. As the casual heresy of social networking threatens to break the meaning of language, we are left with a very important question. What does it mean to be a hero?
The easy answer is what pundits and talking-heads have near at hand. Just as the words of Saruman in Théoden’s ears, deceit often has a sweet sound. But no amount of honey can make poison safe. These days, warriors are held as our heroes. Veterans are heroic in their sacrifice for their countries, but there is something dangerously jingoistic about deifying the dealer of death. As a veteran of World War I – now ironically known as “The War To End all Wars” – Tolkien knew first hand the folly of what is essentially a fatalistic ethos.
Some of the most incisive and insightful of Tolkien’s writings are the words from the lips of his most iconic heroes:
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” -Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring
My father was a veteran, and he served in one of my country’s bloodiest conflicts, The Vietnam War. He served grudgingly, which is something that I have always respected. He was not eager to kill or harm others, even if his government told him that he must do so. Despite what zealots would have you believe, patriotism is a tricky and nuanced ideal. When a government can make mistakes, as all governments are wont to do, blind allegiance in the name of patriotism is a dangerous thing.
Faramir imparts a very important lesson about this kind of unthinking tribalism to Sam and Frodo:
“The enemy? His sense of duty was not less than ours, I deem. You wonder what his name was. Where he came from? If he was really evil at heart? What lies or threats lead him on this long march from home, when he’d rather have stayed there? Peace. War will make corpses of us all.” – Faramir, The Two Towers
In the narrative, these words were coming from Faramir, Prince of Gondor, of the proud line of Númenórean blood. Let us make no mistake though, as these words in truth came straight from the heart of Professor Tolkien. A man who survived the Somme – one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern warfare – had seen more than enough of war for one lifetime. Many of his closest friends died in that battle, and he held no illusions about worshipping war for its own sake.
In my father’s reticence to go to war – he only enlisted after it became clear that his country would draft him against his will – I see the blood of Númenor running still through the line of men. He served bravely, and when his time was done he went home to his family and left the weapons and mentality of war behind. Our media doesn’t want to hold up introspection, reticence or doubt as heroic traits, because they don’t make for a neat narrative. It is much easier to espouse the things which seem good on their surface, than to understand the harder truths which can only be grasped by digging deeper. Like the lure of The Ring, we must resist the temptation of the easy answer.
Right beside these hidden wisdoms, Tolkien did present the kind of simple archetypes which have now become a cultural obsession. Aragorn makes for a great narrative device, but he is more of the Platonic ideal of man than the kind of character that can be related to as flesh and blood. Real lives are much more complicated, and real men much more of a mix of good and bad to be so easily encapsulated by a simple “lost king regains his crown” narrative.
In passing, there is the tendency to canonize people. Death is when all men can become Aragorn, perfect in their heroism. In a hyperbolic arc which mirrors the virality of link-bait, a man’s virtues become the ideals of all of man-kind. Likewise, a man’s flaws are magically washed away, lost in a fog of nostalgia and selective memory. This is human nature, without malice or ill-intent. We naturally want to remember the best aspects of the ones we love.
As much as it might be comforting, the narrative of man as Aragorn is lazy and unhelpful. In an ironic twist, most men are more like the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield than they are similar to the son of Arathorn. Strong of will, Thorin was not without his flaws but he ultimately wanted what was best for his family. Even when he was under the spell of Dragon-sickness, the son of Thráin was protecting his fellow Longbeards. Ultimately, Thorin’s story is a redemptive one as he learns to value his family and friends over a dragon’s hoard.
Under the most unfortunate circumstances, I can now say that I truly understand the meaning of the word hero. My father has been fighting the most difficult of battles this year, a battle against his own body. He was diagnosed with bone cancer earlier this year and after a battery of radiation he was given a clean bill of health in May. The cancer returned suddenly in the last week, and this time his foe would not be turned aside.
To see someone you love slowly succumb to death before your eyes is actually unbelievable. Movies, TV, books, all of our media tends to imbue death with a certain romanticism. I can now say first hand that there is nothing romantic about death. It is not something to be worshipped and to revel in it is a blight on our culture.
My father is a very strong man, but his last deeds were the bravest of any in his life. My brother was unable to make it to see my father until late last night. With his body betraying him, my father held on to life until his eldest son could look upon his face one last time. The threat of an excruciating death, more terrifying than any Balrog of Morgoth, was held at bay by this brave old man. His body and mind enfeebled, he no longer even looked like the man who I knew as my father. But this man, heroic to the very end, refused to let go until all of his family could be with him.
The trend of diluting our language looks to continue unabated. Our anti-social media and a deepening obsession with “going viral” only exacerbates this loss of meaning. If anything, no matter how trivial, can be called amazing or unbelievable, then nothing is amazing and unbelievable is just another word to use for attracting page clicks. The tides of culture may wash on, but I can stand firmly on the rocks of this experience and know with certainty what true heroism looks like.
Words cannot express just how grateful I am for the lessons that my father taught me. If he had not read The Hobbit to me as small child – and instilled a love of Tolkien – no one would be reading the words which I am writing now. To try to distill a man’s life down into simple words is a disservice to both the man and the power of words. Thank you David Poage, for teaching me the true meaning of the word hero.