The Virtue of the Weaponed Hero

By Poudrier, Almira F. | The Humanist, July 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Virtue of the Weaponed Hero


Poudrier, Almira F., The Humanist


From the ashes a fire shall be woken a light from the shadows shall spring renewed shall be blade that was broken the crownless again shall be king.

THE POEM ABOVE, penned in Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien of his beloved king-in-exile Aragorn, called Strider by millions of adoring fans who know this poem by heart and this character with all their hearts, draws an unbreakable connection between the hero and the weapon. In this case, the weapon is a sword and its renewal shall mean the restoration of the rightful king to the throne.

Although Tolkien's story is a very modern one, the association of hero and killing tool is a very old one. It is ingrained in our culture, almost to the point of being part of our genetic heritage. All of the great heroes of the Western tradition, all the way back to Achilles, have been defined by their arms. Even Hercules had a wooden club --the only weapon he would use and the one that became associated with him in artistic representations. The more "civilized" Achilles received his chosen weapon--the spear of the Greek warrior aristocrat--from his father, reinforcing the powerful identification of a hero of the Homeric world with his patronym.

During the Middle Ages, weapons began to have names and identities, almost personalities, of their own. Beowulf's magic sword, Roland's Durendal with relics of the saints on its hilt, Charlemagne's Joieuse from which the Franks took their battle cry "Monjoie," and most famously Arthur's Excalibur are part and parcel of every myth of every hero of the past. Even Robin Hood, that early humanitarian hero, could not have accomplished robbery of the rich without his skill at archery.

Is it any wonder then that this sort of fascination with weapons should have translated itself into the Old West--perhaps the only true and definitely the earliest American mythology? The translation of the killing tool is wholesale; the western lawman, the romantic outlaw he fought, and even the cowboy who could be either or both of these, all relied on their weapons and were defined by them. The weapons in question were treated with all the reverence of the old swords, given pearl handles and pedigrees and sometimes even names. The heroes themselves often got names that related to their weapon of choice, such as Hawkeye and the Rifleman. But the weapons in question were guns.

And herein lies the problem for most people who blame Hollywood's fascination with guns for the violence in society today, and especially violence among children. They see Hollywood as a grand monolithic structure that glorifies violence--especially gun violence--and they posit all sorts of reasons why this menace to society would want our children to kill each other, whether it be greed, stupidity, political efficacy, or the like.

They don't take into account that these films are popular. And not only among children. There is a reason for that: films that glorify violence--that portray weapons as heroic--fuel a drive that goes back so many generations that it is indivisible from the dreams and desires of most humans. The fairy tales that people read to their children, the animated Saturday morning programming, songs, poems, even the nursery rhymes children memorize are inhabited by the most basic of weaponed heroes --and they are just the beginning. Mythology follows, with its inherent fascination for children and adults alike. No child, indeed no person at all, can be truly sheltered from the weapon-hero association without seriously stunting her or his understanding of Western culture. And I don't think they should be. The association--the exploration of the hero and the killing tool of choice--can be rewarding, enriching, and revealing.

This is because heroes can be righteous. They can teach "morality"--whatever that might be for the culture they represent. For the Greeks, filial piety and elite values were handed down with weapons from father to son.

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