THE IDEAL HERO.
I HAVE pondered your discourse on Hero-Worship, said I to Mr. Simpson, as I met him this morning, "and derived
profit therefrom. But in looking still further at the matter, I am persuaded that the world moves, and that our later heroes show some improvement over those of the old days of Robin Hood and Thaddeus of Warsaw. It requires more moral stamina now to make a hero; we are not so apt to be dazzled by mere brute courage and physical prowess. Now this encourages me to hope that the same growth of idea may continue until we at last reach the correct standard. At all events it is encouraging to see any change, however slight, in the right direction."
"You are undoubtedly right," replied my friend. "The ideal hero has undergone a very considerable modification, even in my time, and there is reasonable ground to hope that this progress may continue. My earliest conception of a hero was derived from the popular novels of the day, and was that of a youth of goodly presence, with the muscles of a tiger, the strength of a Samson, the limbs of an Apollo, the face of an angel, and the courage of a pirate. That was the style of man we all worshiped fifty years ago, when Jane Porter and Walter Scott were our high priests. Then came a reaction, and the Jane Eyre school of novels set up anew idol—a personage grim, sullen, great and passionate, half lover and half tyrant—a cross between a demi-god and satyr. This may be more true to nature than the immaculate perfection of the old-school here, but yet there is a species of diabolism about it which I do not like to see exalted or imitated."
"But do you not think the change on the whole a healthy one, and indicative of progress?"
"Undoubtedly. Not that Rochester and his class are better than their predecessors—indeed of the two I should prefer the old impossible type of hero, as being less likely to distort the young and growing imagination. But looking on the later style of heroic portraiture as to a certain extent a substitution of moral and intellectual for merely physical qualifications, and as indicating the gradually increasing disposition to concede the supremacy of the mind and spirit over the body, I accept it as a transition to something a great deal better than we have had in the past. You may divide the novels into two great classes,—the exoteric and the esoteric. The first of these is represented by such authors as Scott, Sue, and Dumas. These deal largely in scenery, incident, and the habits of men, and depend for much of their interest on lively narrative, and stirring adventure. The esoteric school of novels, of which Jane Eyre is the type, treat more exclusively of the interior and subtle workings of human passions and appetites. The variety of incident with which so many novelists of the old school adorn their pages is allowed to subside, and the machinery becomes comparatively tame and common-place while the real dramatic interest of the story lies in its keen analysis of the hearts of men and women, and the laying bare of all their hidden pulsations. The hero of course undergoes a corresponding change. He is no longer the raw youth, full of lofty ambitions and aspirations for the future, or the preux cheavlier, whose knightly sword has been unsheathed in a hundred battles, without fear and without reproach; but he is the man of brain, whose keen and subtle mind you may follow through all its windings; or the man of heart—possibly the laborer whom you meet at night-fall returning from his day's work—whose kindling passions, and strong human instincts are carefully dissected and exposed to your view. This is certainly an improvement, but it is not the ultimatum; and we can no more afford to stop here than with anything that has gone before."
"I think," suggested I, "that there are indications that the work of transition is still going on, and that we are not to remain permanently in statu quo."
"Most certainly. Uncle Tom's Cabin, thus far the most popular novel of the nineteenth century, has a very different hero from Rochester or Ivanhoe; and inculcates a style at variance with anything we find in the novels of Scott or Miss Bronte. Victor Hugo's great masterpiece, Les Miserables, is scarcely loss popular; and the hero of this work is a man who spent a toilsome life of suffering and self-denial that he might do good to others. The truth is beginning to dawn upon us in a dim way that mere brute courage, or even brain and will-power does not constitute true heroism; and that the man who leads a life of meekness, self-sacrifice and patient striving against evil is more worthy of the hero's laurels than Alexander or Napoleon. The best and greatest hero the world ever saw was one who "when he was reviled, reviled not again," and who submitted to all manner of abuse and persecution in uncomplaining humility, when a single breath of his wrath would have swept his tormentors from the face of the earth. Here is an ideal to which the meek, forgiving old slave, Uncle Tom, approaches much nearer than the laurel-crowned victor of many battles. The true hero is not he who conquers men and nations, but he who is victorious over himself. And although the pomp and blazon of our great war has generated a temporary fondness for the old-style heroism, I am persuaded that there is a better instinct in the nation which will not long remain satisfied with so low a standard of excellence."
"Amen," said I, "and may America be the first among nations to recognize the world's greatest heroes." C. S. J.