Monday, January 19, 2004

The Hero Types

Buried in a footnote to an appendix of Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World is a fascinating point about the nature of heroes. He makes a claim that the trickster is not a hero, contrasting him with the two other types. I think he's partially right but only partially. Hyde's two types are the "muscle-bound" hero who imposes his will on the environment (for indeed, it is usually a man), and the hero who succeeds because of self-control. I think in the latter category we could also include those who are true to honor or other ideals, in any case strength emerges as a consequence of the denial of more earthly urges (a common theme in Hyde's book).

I do think that Hyde sells the trickster short, however; in my view, trickster is a hero as well, although true, he (again, usually tricksters are male) neither through imposing his will on others nor surely not by self-control. In literature, characters like Slippery Jim DiGriz or Miles Vorkosigan are tricksters; they achieve their ends through the assumption of identities, by stealth, by the confounding of their foes, and, in tune with Hyde's analysis, by slipping the unslippable trap. They may not be quite as ethereal as Coyote or Anansi, but then neither is the usual muscle hero a Hercules.

This doesn't cover the possible spectrum of heroes, though. A fourth type is the one who, by speaking truth, especially if by doing so reveals hidden truth, changes the nature of the world. This is a high-sounding phrase that includes such ordinary types as Hercule Poirot or the Continental Operative. Borrowing from Hyde (although I think perhaps he would disagree with my doing so), I call this hero type "the prophet." Prophet not because they predict the future, but because (as is the original meaning of prophet), they speak eternal truths. I think this archetype might explain the enduring fascination that people have with mystery novels. They are powerful reminders of the power that revealing hidden truth has.