The heroes we see in today’s action movies are quite different from the heroes of legend and literature. Film – being short and dealing largely with externals – does not easily allow for deep insights into a character’s inner life. Heroes played by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis are neither thoughtful nor subtle. They are never inwardly complex. Their heroism is all in the external world and conflicts are always struggles with other people or life-threatening situations. Such tales are certainly entertaining, but they provide nothing to illuminate the more psychological aspects of being human.
Heroes in myth, legend and literature are often profoundly troubled and provide deeper insights than action heroes. (Image: public Domain.)
In myths, legends, and literature heroes serve a greater purpose. Through their heroic struggles, they demonstrate more than just singular physical feats or acts of physical courage. There is an inward component to their heroic adventures. These heroes are often profoundly troubled people. They have inner conflicts that have rendered them social misfits. They may be unusually sensitive, and/or intelligent, and because they are so different from the “well-adjusted” they suffer. Their suffering forces them into seldom-used paths quite far from the collective ones approved by society. They strive for things never attempted by the ordinary person. The battles along the way provide a great opportunity for strengthening personal growth. By trying to ease their pain, they have become extraordinary. They have inadvertently become heroic.
Then something remarkable happens. In the midst of their prolonged valiant struggles, they find within themselves solace and forced deep insights that their marginalized situation denies them in external life. They accept their forsakenness. They achieve personal transformation. Having started out as the weakest of the weak, through their uncompromising struggle they become the strongest of the strong, and in so doing, light the way for the rest of us. Their eventual triumph – both without and within – is due only to the uncompromising nature of their search for answers and solutions. Yet it is not a sense of nobility that drives them but sheer inner necessity.
These tales of troubled heroes powerfully reveal the workings of the authentic self. The pressure to conform to societal norms compromises us all, but it especially damages the individuality of people with divergent personalities or exceptional abilities. They repress parts of their true character to fit in and pay the price of inner conflict and psychological complexes. This only makes them even odder and the marginalization process does its pernicious work. Eventually, the repressed self begins forcibly to make itself manifest and the “heroic quest” for answers, remedies, and self-expression begins along the unusual paths outlined above. What ordinary people learn from these stories is the value of questioning societal norms and allowing themselves to be who they truly are. Troubled hero stories are about promoting individuality.