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If we want to understand how our conceptions of heroism changed in such a fleeting amount of time, we have to comprehend how drastic the changes to society have been in recent centuries. As I’ve stated previously, human beings have only just now begun to live in the way that they currently do. Having a global culture, not being at constant war with nature for survival, and not having to worry about famines is a bold exception that we live in under the gaze of history. And when you see that more than half of the globe lives in this fashion, you’ll realize even more-so how rare it is.
But it goes without saying that it wasn’t always like this, and for most of our time on earth, we lived nigh identical lives. And our perception of the hero changed due to this radical process of modernization.
Yet there is one specific aspect of modernization that, I would argue, led to the shift in our view of heroism more than any other. And this is the process of industrialization that came with it. So without repeating more of the same things I’ve stated in the previous installment of this series, let’s dig deep into the other kind of hero. The one that I believe is most common amongst the folk of our generation.
The Post-Industrial Hero:
“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” – Robert E. Howard, Creator of Conan
This is a snarky quote from one of my favorite authors, but it really does summarize the difference between the people of the past and those of the present. What you can gather from it is that, as society advanced, people became complacent on the whole. It turns out that when there isn’t a constant threat of invasion from foreign peoples or of starvation, that people tend to get rather cocky. Who would’ve thunk it?
And while this funny insight might seem like a mere joke that one can pass off, it might tell us much more about ourselves than we would like to acknowledge. You see, industrialization is the process by which we can mass-produce goods due to advances in technology. And while this carries a slew of benefits (Less disease, lots of food, less need for war, etc.) it carries one crucial consequence. Your society will change its priorities on a fundamental level, and as a result, the views that people have on morality will shift with those priorities.
For the first time, we actually didn’t have that many things to work for. Everything became as easy to access as just building a factory to pump out hundreds of goods per day. And before you know it, most people don’t have to worry about survival anymore! But this is by no means a solution to the ills of mankind, rather, it opens the floodgate to a slew of new problems.
People can now afford the time to start raising questions like what is the meaning of good or evil? What’s my purpose in a world that’s almost run entirely by machines? What is the meaning of life? The people of the world started to connect in ways that we had never seen before, and as a result, the world became a smaller, and less wonderful place. Our concerns were no longer external things, such as foreign enemies or hunger, but rather, they became internal.
No longer was raw physical strength valued in the same way that it was in the past, as machines could start doing much of the heavy-lifting and the role models for men ceased to be the classic heroes of the past. No longer were brawny, burly, and muscular warriors the kind of heroes that resonated with the people, as that archetype was no longer apt to deal with the concerns of modern times. So there had to be a change of some sort.
We still wanted to impart the message of heroism to the newer generations, but we had to find a way to update it. We couldn’t use heroes that were ideal examples of the kind of men that we wanted, as those were far too difficult to relate to, yet we couldn’t have an entirely hopeless coward assuming the role of hero either. So we had to find a happy medium, and I think the example of Frodo in Lord of the Rings is the best I can give for this kind of hero.
Frodo is an example of the first majorly changed character within the realm of the hero archetype. But if you read about him without knowing this, you’d think he was some other kind of character. Frodo, is in many ways, a subversion of what the ancients would have considered to be a hero.
He’s small, he’s rather scrawny, he;s pretty lazy, and at the start of the story he has very little desire to go on adventures. Did I also mention he’s rather craven? And this is all in stark contrast to the heroes of the past. Achilles, with his fearful strength, Beowulf, with his endless supply of courage, and many others hold nothing in common with Frodo. But when I say that heroes reflect the version of humanity that they were created in, I really meant it.
Frodo, as unflattering as he might be on the outset, could be seen as a portrait for the man of modernity. Despite the fact that he lives in a pastoral community, he’s immensely complacent and lazy. He’s in no way physically fit (nor does he show any drive to become that way) and he’s not exactly the kind of person that you’d rally behind if there was an invasion occurring. Tolkien had made the genius move of stripping Frodo of everything we traditionally attribute as being heroic from Frodo’s character at the beginning at the book, which aligns itself with the feelings of humanity.
People had little reason to value heroism as they didn’t have any sense of immediate danger. But what this did create was another threat at an existential level, the threat of losing what makes us valuable as people. Modern man chucked away courage, physical health, and leadership to maintain a lifestyle of comfort and relative security. And Frodo and all the hobbits mirror this exactly.
He’d rather stay in his little cottage than worry about any of the things going out on the wider world. But this is the crux of Frodo’s problem, he has to go out to the wider world either way! And the moment that he lives his comfort zone is the moment that he sees just how alien the world begins to feel for him.
Yet if the story just ended with Frodo going out into the world and getting his ass handed to him, there wouldn’t be much of a deep message to it now would there?
Instead, over the course of the story, we see that Frodo grows. Unlike the heroes of the past, that had already begun their tales with courage and dare-do embedded into their hearts, Frodo is part of a generation that has to reclaim those old values that had been lost. Throughout the journey, Frodo’s personal arc revolves around him recovering his own heroism (among other things) which had been lost among all those years wasted on his pastoral lands.
Tolkien manages to acknowledge that modern man has grown far too complacent, but he would never say that problem cannot be fixed. By transporting us to the past, he uses Frodo as a metaphor for modern man. We have lost much of our courage, but there is nothing to stop us from regaining it.
The modern hero is not about the bringing forward the courage that is inherent in men, the modern hero places a focus on regaining that same courage that had been lost over years of technological advancement. Yet in all cases, the hero was viewed as having courage as an innate trait to them. It was just a matter of whether he had to bring it out, or if he had to search deeper within himself to find it.
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.