essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
It seems like every culture has its heroes. They represent qualities each culture values. A look at some heroic figures reveals the values are not just heroic in the usual sense. Supermen are rare. In every culture heroes pay a price for their heroic deeds, sometimes a trial or series of tests, but often betrayal, failure and death. What could this mean?
In ancient Sumeria the king Gilgamesh defeats the monster Humbaba, enters the underworld and steals the plant of immortality, yet loses it and finally dies. His avatar Samson is powerful, yet blinded and self destroyed. The demi god Herakles performs superhuman labours yet is poisoned by a woman. The Titan Prometheus steals fire for mankind yet is punished agonisingly for all eternity. Created by god, Adam and Eve founded the human race and their arts of civilisation yet lose the garden, the paradise, where they were born for disobeying Yahweh. These are heroes who approach divinity, yet all are, in their moment of failure, mortal. In the Christian myth god himself saves mankind from the consequences of sin, but suffers terrible agony and death in the process, becomes human.
In other myths a historical process overlays one culture story with another. This can confuse the purpose the story was originally created to fill. The story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table is a case where the original, probably Celtic myth has been overlaid with Christian symbolism. We can see one use for myth being adapted for another use entirely. Arthur was a freedom fighter originally, a kind of Che Guevara figure. As such, like many heroes, he will return (like the Terminator), but is first betrayed and killed. Added was the Christian overlay of a much later period, of the search for the Holy Grail, the cup of Jesus at the last Supper bought to England by Joseph of Arimathea. The knights were a group of warriors battling monsters and magicians, but over time become saintly ascetics dedicated to righting wrongs. Arthur gradually becomes a background figure in the tales. The magic elements, Morgan the Fay, Mordred, the sword Excalibur which appears in the stone and can only be drawn by Arthur and which he must return to the fairy underworld at his death, are at odds with this later accretion.
Sometimes the hero exists to break through insuperable obstacles. Corruption in civic administration is hard to fight against for the ordinary man, as is organised crime. Enter Superman.
There are definite stages in the evolution of the hero, which should be distinguished when talking about the subject:
1. the historical period and character(s) on which the hero stories may be based. This is called legend. In the case of Robin Hood for instance the period of the Crusades saw the heavy taxation of the yeoman class in England. These were often descended from Saxon nobility dispossessed by the Norman conquest of William I. Stories can be traced about rebellious members of this class who successfully resisted the crippling tax oppressions of civic authorities. No one person can be identified as the ‘original’ Robin Hood though.
2. spread of stories about the hero by a culture group and its function in that group. From the twelfth to the fourteenth century a large number of traditional ballads survive celebrating the exploits of Robin Hood and his various friends and enemies. There is no unity of concept expressed about him, though there might have been in the underlying oral tales of Robin Hood on which the ballads are based and which of course haven’t survived. Robin is the voice of the oppressed commoner fighting against unjust laws, yet with traces of non Christian ritual about him, evidenced by his association with May Day (the Celtic Beltane) festivities. Robin slowly moves to a more remote time, from that of King Edward to that of Richard the Lionheart. In all cases he can be seen as representing ‘old’ traditional values of the culture put at threat by ‘new’ values seen as inimical.
3. organisation and promulgation of these stories in a work or works of literature for a wider audience. From the time of Sir Walter Scott, whose 1820 book Ivanhoe drew on the medieval ballads of Robin Hood (of which Scott was a collector), literary works have organised the fragmentary stories into a coherent whole. The members of the band were enhanced and increased, Maid Marian puts in an appearance, the battle against a corrupt church and dishonest Sheriff is added, the archery prowess and the rallying horn call are all modern inventions. These are works of fiction, subject to the rules of literary fiction, heroes and villains, disasters and recoveries, and the creation of an exciting tale to involve the reader.
4. use of these stories and works as pastiche in a commercial medium. Likewise the creation of legendary figures by the tourism industry and the sale of ‘souvenirs’, similar to the creation of saints and sale of relics by the medieval church. The film of 1938 starring Errol Flynn, that of 1922 starring Douglas Fairbanks Snr, the 1955 TV series with Richard Greene, and the 2010 movie with Russell Crowe all draw on the stories about Robin Hood, but with the intention of exploiting audiences for financial gain.
Those interested in history will be concerned with group 1 I have mentioned. Those interested in myth and its purpose will investigate group 2. Those interested in literary history, group 3, and those wanting to explore and enjoy personal fantasy, group 4. For the purpose of this essay, the ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ of popular fiction are self identifiers for the reader and have no great mythological function. Two different meanings for the word ‘hero’.
Like all countries Australia has its heroes. Heroes lead an embattled life. As society changes, they are discarded. Sometimes they are preserved as museum pieces, surfacing inappropriately in films, or rigged up for tourists. Who were they, the great Australian heroes? I have no idea who they are now. This piece will have to be historical.
The first thing that meets my eye when I list some famous ‘heroes’ is that in Australia they are all historical figures. No mythological figures, gods, spirits. Just out of sight are the gods and mythic figures of the native peoples whose culture the European settlers destroyed. The stories of the animal ancestors of the Dreamtime, and creation ancestors such as Tjukurpa, told by members of the more than 100 nations who once roamed the country, are unknown to most present day Australians, to our shame.
I thought of nineteenth century figures such as Governor Philip, Ned Kelly and Breaker Morant; explorers like Burke and Wills or Kingsford-Smith; writers such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson; politicians such as Jack Lang, Ben Chiefly and Gough Whitlam; sportsmen like Don Bradman or Rod Laver; actors like Chips Rafferty and Paul Hogan.
The first thing to consider is the question, are these genuine heroes or ersatz ones, artificially manufactured by writers and journalists, or the tourist industry. The only way to tell is to see if they mean anything. The giveaway term is ‘icons’. An icon is a visual symbol transmitted by electronic or print media, not a figure who represents the values of the community. Ersatz means in this case just an image. The heroes of Europe have been produced from long centuries of unchanging custom and isolation and reflect the values and aspirations of stable societies only grudgingly accepting change. But starting from the mid 19th century the pace of change, and influence from other cultures, has been unremitting. And with the onset of widespread education has come the phenomenon of self reflective culture: cultural figures who are the product of academic examination of culture as much as coming from the culture itself. Australia’s heroes have all evolved in this period, the 19th and 20th century.
It is always possible that Australia has no heroes in the sense that Robin Hood is a hero.
The governor, the sportsmen and the actors were successful men, largely influential for what they produced. But the great majority of my selection were losers. Why celebrate losers?
A good example is the charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War in 1854. It was made in response to an incompetently worded order, carried out by officers who could see it was in error, an attack by lightly armed mounted troops on entrenched artillery divisions with a clear line of fire, and resulted in over 300 fatalities or soldiers taken prisoner by the Russian Army, half the strength of the units involved. Yet it is celebrated as an example of outstanding bravery and submission to discipline. Historically both sides were equally incompetent, and although Britain won the war it was a near thing as to which side lost the most men, most to wounds and infections after battles, as no-one had any idea of efficient sanitation. It was inglorious, showed the administration and command positions of both armies to be held by men incapable of any military skill whatsoever, yet it created a myth which has inspired many who don’t know the details of the engagement. Historically a disaster; mythically a field of heroes.
The hero is not an historical figure. So most of my examples would have to be deleted. They are, or are now, icons, or celebrities, their fame fruit of the electronic age of communication. The only value to our culture they possess is the vague one of ‘greatness’.
Probably the only real hero we have had time to create in the period between settlement of this country in 1788 and the era of domination of the media with its insatiable appetite for subject matter from about the mid 1940s is our most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly.
“Such is life”
When he died aged 25 in 1880 Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly had spent his short life the subject of police persecution. He and his family were Irish and Catholic, and his father an ex convict, and merited little consideration in the eyes of the law on all those grounds. Ned’s father, John, died at age 45, in 1866, at Avenel Victoria after serving a harsh jail sentence, while ill, for the ‘crime’ of skinning and eating a dead calf allegedly owned by one of his neighbours (the crime was removing the brand from the hide, though he claimed he had only removed the hide from the animal). He had earlier, in 1840 in Clonbrogan Tipperary been sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing two pigs at the time of the Irish Famine, when the English callously left the Irish to die in their millions from starvation and epidemics of fever. The Catholic church had only just ceased to be an illegal one in Australia in 1836, but prejudice against Catholics was still virulent here. Over half the transported convicts to Australia were Irish Catholics. One can only wonder if their faith played a part in their convictions and transportation for matters of petty theft.
This matter of racial and religious prejudice, and Irish refusal to accept a degraded status and their assertion of their culture and faith in the face of persecution, forms the backdrop of Ned Kelly’s story. He was a thief and an outlaw, and paid the penalty of his crimes. Yet all his short life he and his family had been targeted by police. They were known criminals, yet of the many times they were the subject of police investigation, and of the 18 prosecutions bought against the family, there was tangible evidence in only nine cases. Ned and his father John must have been aware they could expect little justice from the law. It must have seemed their choice was to suffer hard times, or steal to survive, as John and his family had in Ireland.
It is hard to see Ned Kelly’s brushes with the law as other than police persecution. In 1870 an attempt was made to prosecute Ned (aged 15) as an associate of the bushranger Harry Power, though the description given by witnesses did not match Ned’s in any way. Later the same year Ned was asked to look for a lost horse, found it, but was arrested and jailed for three years for possession of a stolen animal (the actual horse thief was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment). There were other instances of harassment for alleged minor crimes over the next 10 years, the harassment by police being considerably more severe than the alleged crimes, which in any case were not proven.
Matters took a more serious turn in 1878 when a police constable prosecuted the whole family for attempted murder. He manufactured evidence, perjured himself, and gave evidence which conflicted with medical testimony, yet his story was accepted, other evidence disregarded, and the family given sentences of between three and six years imprisonment. It was at this point that Ned, his brother and two friends escaped to the bush. They were pursued by a posse, and eventually shot all its members, allegedly in cold blood, though Ned denied this later. Ned was then declared an outlaw. He and his gang later held up two banks and absconded with large sums of money. No one was hurt in the robberies. Ned told one of his prisoners he was acting in retaliation for the threatening and arrest of his mother and sisters. He was in effect conducting a war on the police force, and had already disarmed and taken prisoner members of two police stations.
Finally, in 1880, the gang were besieged in the Glenrowan hotel, equipped this time with armour protecting their heads and upper bodies, but not their legs. Ned apparently escaped, but returned, armed only with a revolver, and attacked the police from the rear. He was shot several times in the legs and groin and captured. The other three gang members were trapped in the hotel, which the police burned down. The three bodies were later recovered. All had been shot and were badly burned. Only one was of full age, 23, the others were 19 and 20.
Ned Kelly received a lot of support in his battle against the police. After his capture a petition to reprieve him gained over 3,000 signatures. A commission of enquiry into the actions of the Victorian police censured the behaviour of many members, both high and low, in the manner they had dealt with the Kellys. We will never know the true story of Ned Kelly, as most of the facts about him are the production of members of the Victorian Police Force, who were shown officially to be corrupt and to have tampered with evidence, disregarded it, or proceeded without it. The attempt to capture him was also an attempt to stop enquiry into police malpractise. The two spectacular bank robberies were reported by newspapers, and show Ned in a good light. He seems to have been concerned that hostages not be hurt, looked after any in need, and emphasised his fight was only with the police who had done him wrong.
There is no doubt Ned Kelly ran rings around the Victorian Police Force. He was far more intelligent than his adversaries. When it came to armed conflict he showed outstanding courage. He was chivalrous to women, generous to friends and strangers, had a just cause for which he could obtain no redress. He apparently died because he would not abandon his gang members, including one of his brothers. He was defeated because one police officer thought to load his gun with buckshot, not bullets, and was able to so lame him. He came that close to winning.
Ned took on the entire police force of the state of Victoria. He had no chance. But he showed a bravery equal to the lancers of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, who charged the cannon balls armed with swords and lances and met certain death. It’s not the historical issues that make Ned a hero though. We used to have a proverb here: “game as Ned Kelly”. It’s the scale of his defiance that makes Ned Kelly a hero. Like Gilgamesh attempting to defeat death his career was bound for failure, yet he wouldn’t give in. Like Butch and Sundance taking on the Bolivian Army, like Rocky refusing to lie down in the ring, Ned kept on fighting till the end. “Such is life” he said. He was a hero for the generation who fought the Second World War. I don’t know if he is now. Now he is a figure for the tourism industry.
Heroes of fiction
The other figures who have been, not heroes for Australians, but creators of heroes, are the writers Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. Lawson created the swagman, tramp, out of work or dispossessed of his property by drought or bank charges, and vivid sketches of pioneering life; Patterson created the stockman, or drover (or cowboy, more often sheep boy here though we don’t thank heaven use that term), expert horse rider. These figures existed in fact, but it is the indelible, hugely popular depiction by these writers which created an image in the minds of Australians which could be called heroic.
Lawson lived 1867 to 1922 and was deaf and alcoholic in his later years. Yet his stories are based on contemporary conversation styles and show an acute perception of how people thought and spoke. He worked for the Bulletin, a prominent weekly newspaper of the time and in 1892 travelled through outback NSW for the Bulletin, and from that trip came the writing of many of his stories. He saw himself as a ‘realist’, depicting the harshness of the settlers’ lives. Yet there is a strong emotional component in Lawson’s stories. He is as ‘realist’ as Frederick McCubbin was in his paintings of pioneer life, which were reminiscent of European paintings such as Millet’s Gleaners. Lawson was also a popular poet, and he expressed his strong Socialist views in poetry. His poem Faces in the Street was once much quoted:
“They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone
That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown;
For where the nearest suburb and the city proper meet
My window-sill is level with the faces in the street —
Drifting past, drifting past,
To the beat of weary feet —
While I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street”.
A famous Lawson story is Water Them Geraniums. It tells the hard story of the Spicers, a pioneering family living in isolation in the bush out of Gulgong. The narrator is Joe Wilson, a settler whose marriage is disintegrating between the hardship of setting up a farm in a drought stricken area of bush where all necessities have to be supplied from the local town nearly a hundred miles away, and his refuge from his misery, drink. The story mainly concerns Mrs Spicer, desperately coping with hardship, a large family, and loneliness in a desolate and primitive environment. On a visit Joe hears her yelling at one of the children, “Water them geraniums”, and sees the pitiful attempt at a garden plot with a few withered geraniums struggling in the drought. Later in the course of his own grim experience Joe gets a call from one of the Spicer children. His mother won’t wake up, and it turns out she has died, from lack of medical attention. Joe asks the child if his mother had said anything before she went to ‘sleep’. The child replies, “She said, don’t disturb the Wilsons. And water them geraniums”. Somehow Lawson makes this effort to grow a garden where no garden can surely survive a symbol of the courage that resulted in settlement where no settlement could possibly succeed. It’s also a symbol of what the pioneers lacked. This hard bitten, ill educated woman, worn and lined beyond her years by hardship, loved flowers. Her story, as Lawson tells it, is a tragedy, but also heroic.
Banjo Patterson (1864-1941) was a contemporary of Lawson, a solicitor who also wrote for the Bulletin. He is remembered today mainly for three poems, though he was as popular as Kipling in his day: Clancy of the Overflow, The Man From Snowy River, and Waltzing Matilda. Unlike Lawson, who was impressed by the way people survived their hardships, Patterson celebrated the bushmen’s skills, pre-eminent of which was their horsemanship. The Man From Snowy River is still popular today, and has been recorded with other poems of Patterson by the group Wallis and Matilda. In the excerpt below note the horse is celebrated as well as the rider. Good horse stock, like good riding, was essential for Australia’s survival in the outback. The story is about a prize race horse escaped and joined with a herd of wild horses, and the owner and friends meeting to try and recover him:
“And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,
He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;
But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,
For never yet was mountain horse a cur”.
We are celebrating the amazing skill involved in riding at breakneck speed down a steep mountain slope pitted with holes; the horse miraculously avoids these as it races, the rider never shifts in his seat. This is an exploit on a Homeric scale, and probably never took place, but Australians like to think it could have, and that the rider was a typical Aussie. It’s exaggerated, but it’s the story of a hero.
The reason why
As for what purpose the hero serves, one theory is that the hero helps us with the four major passages of our lives.
We begin as unformed beings in the womb who develop a sense of self. And as we do, awareness of who we are and where we are floods in, and eventually we have an awareness that we must go on a journey. That journey, down the birth passage and into the world, is momentous and creative and difficult, even impossible. I think the hero is with us then, the hero who goes on despite the cost, the hero undefeated. The next passage we encounter is from childhood to adulthood, a time when we stop absorbing data and start achieving, creating not self, but ourselves, discovering, and sometimes rejecting, the path to our uniqueness. For this we need a model, one who embodies the qualities we will need on the venture, courage, bravery, steadfastness, integrity. Then comes the passage of marriage, more than the mere ceremony of course. Here we learn to value, not self, but the other. This is the most difficult of all our transactions, for it puts the self at risk. Here the value of the hero is immense, for the hero asserts self while asserting the other. The hero dies for his friend, shows generosity to the weak and helpless, and becomes stronger by this weakness. Last comes the passage to death, to non being. The hero for this passage is one who asserts that what it strives for is worth suffering and death, will survive death, is somehow immortal.
All this sounds very helpful. But I’m not too sure of modern heroes. They all seem to be based on statistics. Number of records sold, number of books sold, number of seats sold, highest scores won. How is it helpful to have such heroes? The only way we can use them in our own lives is to emulate them in our consumption. We can buy more cars, clothes or chocolate ice cream than the others, and then go on more diets and exercise programs. Doesn’t sound very heroic does it?
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.