Leon Benouville, The Wrath of Achilles, 1847
Let us reconsider. Who is the archetype of a hero? Not Hector, but Achilles. Our tender and sensitive hearts go out to Hector when he turns and runs at the crucial moment, the breaker of horses turned unbroken mustang. But this is ignominy, and in the context of god-like heroes, his death is just. Achilles, for all his anger, for all his tortured railing at an authority to which he does not defer, and for all his violence, is the hero. He ensures victory. He does that for which he was fitted, if not fated. He does it without flinching. He does it all with honour, in the context of the war he wages, intact. Modern readers do not ‘like’ him. They do not ‘identify’ with him. Hollywood has to rewrite Homer and employ Brad Pitt in order to make him ‘appealing’. But why should we like him? Should men who wage war be likeable? Ought professional killers to have qualities, in the midst of battle, with which we readily identify? Would you prefer it if your country’s army was made up of men thought generally to be ‘appealing’, softly spoken, deferent ‘have-a-go’ types? A hero is necessary. That does not mean you’d have him round for tea.
Of course, not all heroes are warriors, but they share the mentality. There is scope for political heroes, sporting heroes, scientific heroes, exploring heroes and even artistic heroes. They do that for which some will thereafter be grateful or inspired. Around a hero myths of greatness will arise that will bathe in reflected glory those who claim kinship, by nation or by ancestry. But heroes necessarily divide as they conquer, and garner hatred as they sow love. The competing narratives of gall will follow. We have countless examples of our historical need for heroes, and we seem to show no signs of ceasing to need them. Yet so long as we insist on the possibility of them being everyman, and so long as we insist on liking them, we shall probably not see their like.