Hero in Literature

Literature has revolved around the journey of the hero for thousands of years. The hero cycle, or monomyth, has dominated world literature, providing a core structure for plot and character development. The hero in literature must face a villain, or antagonist, defy incredible odds and save a damsel in distress. Literature involving heroes and adventures remains popular due to its formulaic composition and predictability.

The foundation for the hero journey goes back thousands of years to biblical literature and Greek mythology. Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Odysseus follow similar paths on their respective journeys as do many heroes of classic folklore from differing cultures around the world. Different theories map out the components of the hero's journey. According to mythology, the hero is born of divine descent, very often the product of a union between an immortal man and a mortal woman. The parentage or legitimacy of the child is left to question, prompting the child on a journey of self-discovery. The hero is thereby conflicted by the opposition between his divine and human natures. Due to his divine status, the hero may be threatened by spiritual forces even before birth. To protect the child from these evil forces, the mother puts the child into a makeshift vessel on the river, trusting that her baby will be saved by divine providence. Animals or ordinary people find the baby and raise him as their own.

Many versions of the King Arthur legend describe how his father Uther, a mortal king, fell in love with his mother, Igraine, and through magical means disguised himself as Igraine's husband, thereby conceiving Arthur. Due to a hostile political climate, the baby is given to the care of another family to become a squire. More recent, popular literature like Harry Potter follows a similar format: The child is born to magical parents, his life is threatened and so he is hidden away to live with a non-magical family. Arthur and Harry discover their true heritage, and partly due to their humble childhoods, they succeed and conquer the evil foe. The young hero must often go through minor tests or battles (akin to initiation rites) to prove his worth. The pulling of the sword from the stone exposes Arthur's royal heritage; David slaying Goliath reveals his noble nature. The young hero is often enthusiastic, ambitious and eager for glory. Other heroes, like Jesus and Buddha, achieve distinction through spirituality and contemplation. The hero may be privy to a divine sign, one that only he can perceive, like Moses and the burning bush. Many young children identify with these stories of initiation because of their desires to prove their self-worth in a world dominated by adult authority.

In order to maintain his connection with the divine, the hero will often have a private haven, such as a cave, wherein he meditates or communicates with the supernatural. This withdrawal is often a refusal on the hero's part to take part in a quest. David Adams Leeming, author of Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero, says, "The hero is frequently tempted by demons of the sensual and material world, who represent those forces which deter most of us, finally, from an honest experience of the inner self -- an experience so necessary to the process of self-realization and individuation." It is essential that the hero become self-aware in order to defeat external evils. Then, the hero embarks on his journey, one which involves various dangers and threats. Greek heroes such as Hercules and Theseus must defeat supernatural monsters. The hero is either on a quest for immortality, fame , the vanquishing of some menacing evil or spiritual knowledge; the quest for the holy grail is one such journey. Often the hero will journey toward a specific location.

Some journeys involve a temporary death on the hero's part; either he dies and is revived, or he must journey through the underworld. This particular event reflects common ancient rituals revolving around agricultural seasons, in which death is associated with winter, which then rejuvenates itself with the onset of spring. The hero is often accompanied by women on his way to death. Leeming writes: "The death of the hero and his association with the female force holds promise of new life." As Jesus is crucified, the women weep; as Arthur lies dying, he is accompanied by women on his way to Avalon. Many of these messianic characters sacrifice themselves or die for the sake of furthering life. Sometimes the hero is just perceived as being dead. Once the hero is reborn, he defies all natural inhibitions and societal expectations.

The hero stories have had an enormous effect on modern society. Margery Hourihan, author of Deconstructing the Hero: Literary Theory and Children's Literature says: "In Western culture the hero story has come to seem simply a reflection of the way things are. The perception of those who are different as actual or potential enemies who must be opposed has assumed the status of self-evident truth."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero
David Adams Leeming.
Oxford University Press, 1998 (3rd edition)
Somewhere I Have Never Traveled: The Hero's Journey
Thomas Van Nortwick.
Oxford University Press, 1996
The Heroine in Western Literature: The Archetype and Her Reemergence in Modern Prose
Meredith A. Powers.
McFarland, 1991
The Fatal Hero: Diana, Deity of the Moon, as An Archetype of the Modern Hero in English Literature
Gil Haroian-Guerin.
Peter Lang, 1996
The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero
W. B. Stanford.
Basil Blackwell, 1954
Deconstructing the Hero: Literary Theory and Children's Literature
Margery Hourihan.
Routledge, 1997
The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction
Mario Praz; Angus Davidson.
Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1956
The Tragic Vision in Twentieth-Century Literature
Charles I. Glicksberg.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "The Tragic Hero"
The Hero in French Romantic Literature
George Ross Ridge.
University of Georgia Press, 1959
Saints and Revolutionaries: The Ascetic Hero in Russian Literature
Marcia A. Morris.
State University of New York Press, 1993
Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero
Michael André Bernstein.
Princeton University Press, 1992
The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television
Atara Stein.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2004
The Unheroic Hero in the Novels of Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert
Raymond Giraud.
Rutgers University Press, 1957
The Critical Response to William Styron
Daniel W. Ross.
Greenwood Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: "The Absurd Hero in American Fiction: Updike, Styron, Bellow, Salinger" begins on p. 97
The Hero in French Decadent Literature
George Ross Ridge.
University of Georgia Press, 1961
William Styron's Nat Turner as an Archetypal Hero
Davis, Mary Kemp.
The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, Fall 1995
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Prince of Tides as Archetypal Hero Quest
Malphrus, P. Ellen.
The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 39, No. 2, Spring 2007
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Young Gangster as Mythic American Hero: E.L. Doctorow's 'Billy Bathgate.' (Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)
Baba, Minako.
MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer 1993
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Creating the Rogue Hero: Literary Devices in the Picaresque Novels of Martin Amis, Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Steve Tesich
McCulloch, Jamie.
International Fiction Review, Vol. 34, No. 1-2, January 2007
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
A Jungian Approach to Literature
Bettina L. Knapp.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1984
Librarian’s tip: The hero in literature is discussed throughout this book
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