Did you have a childhood hero growing up? Maybe a superhero you loved or a sports star who set the world on fire? Or maybe it was a parent or a family member who inspired you to try to be like them?
I had a lot of heroes growing up but I think most of all I loved the swashbuckling heroes from old adventure novels. As a child I used to read a lot of the children’s versions of classics like Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers and Treasure Island; I loved them to bits and used to love imagining myself as part of the adventure, fighting alongside the musketeers, etc.
I guess more than anything I just loved reading though… I devoured anything over the years, from The Velveteen Rabbit and The Selfish Giant to Black Beauty, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton… in particular The Fantastic Five and The Secret Seven were big favourites of mine and continued my love of adventure stories. I loved Timmy… I thought he was as brave (if not braver!) than any of the others and I’ve always wanted a dog ever since.
Around the same time I fell in love with the stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur, and a little later The Chronicles of Narnia. Part of that was because I spent several years in England when I was younger and was exposed to them at just the right age but I also think it was because the themes really resonated with me. Themes of good and evil, love and loss, sacrifice, are universal and are the perfect tools for teaching children about morality and right and wrong and I guess they resonated strongly with me at that age.
Of all the heroes and characters I loved Robin Hood the most. I went through a stage for a couple of years where I pretty much devoured everything to do with Robin that I could. My parents bought me a costume and toy swords and I used to run around pretending to be Robin Hood vanquishing the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. We used to visit Sherwood Forrest and some of the castles in England, particularly Arundel which I loved, and I must have watched the old Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood film on video a hundred times.
We went to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the movies too when it came out in 1991, which was a bit of a funny story. We’d just moved back to Australia from England and my parents got the public holidays mixed up; they took me to see it on what should have been a school day. We wondered the whole time why there were no other kids around until we finally realised. My 1st year teacher seemed to find it funny at least.
So yes, I loved Robin Hood. He was my first big hero I guess and in many ways those stories and others like King Arthur and The Three Musketeers helped to teach me the skills I’d need growing up and eventually led me to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and so many other stories I love now.
As I got older I found that my heroes started to change and in particular I started to admire real people more. I’ve loved tennis for about as long as I can remember and in the early/mid 90s Andre Agassi was my favourite player. I loved the flair with which he played the game and also the good works he did off the court. Even now, while I love watching Federer and Nadal, Agassi is still special for me and always will be.
I also enjoyed cricket growing up. This was the golden era of Australian cricket and my favourite player was Mark Waugh. I even wrote a letter to him when I was younger; my handwriting was atrocious in those days but I think it was the neatest letter I’ve ever written. I don’t think I ever got a response but I did get his autograph once.
The other player I really admired was Chris Cairns. Cairns played for New Zealand during the 90s and early 2000s and I loved the way he played the game. He is one of cricket’s great underappreciated talents in my opinion.
There were other people I really admired too. Learning about politics in school in the mid/late 90s I found myself admiring Bob Carr. I also quite liked Bill Clinton and Harrison Ford and I admired Nelson Mandela immensely.
But eventually all heroes must be tested, even ones in real life. And some heroes are destined to fall.
In mythology the hero’s fall is often the heart of the story and even in real life those moments that test us might be the ones that end up defining our lives. If you think about Robert Downey Jr, for instance, he went through hell but the way he has recovered from his darkest years has informed much of his success today. Likewise if you read the stories about King Arthur, the real drama and tragedy of the story comes in how Arthur is tested and particularly the price Arthur must pay for his liaison with Morgause, which eventually leads to his battle with his son Mordred on the fields of Camlann.
Likewise Star Wars isn’t really about droids and space battles, it’s about the battle for Vader’s soul and his fall to the Dark Side, and now Kylo Ren’s fall.
And that’s the thing about heroes. Whether they are real people or fictional, we want to believe in them, but we also like to watch them struggle. It makes for a good story. We raise them on pedestals and turn them into giants but in the end, heroes are human and flawed and capable of making mistakes. Sometimes terrible mistakes. Mistakes like flying too close to the sun, or taking performance enhancing drugs, both from hubris. It’s those potential for flaws that make them interesting.
My childhood heroes were flawed too, both in reality and in fiction.
For instance, Andre Agassi revealed in his autobiography that he used crystal meth in 1997, and worse still that he failed a drug test and lied to cover it up. Chris Cairns has recently been embroiled in a match fixing controversy and while he was acquitted, his name will probably forever be associated with it now, whether he was actually guilty or not. And we all know of Bill Clinton’s dalliances and indiscretions.
Even Robin Hood doesn’t escape scrutiny. Robin is usually presented as the archetypal hero but if you think about it, he is still stealing and committing vicious felonies. In fact, recently discovered text written by a monk in a medieval history book called The Polychronicon suggests that Robin Hood “infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies”, which is hardly a glowing endorsement.
There were actually rumours about ten years ago that a new film about Robin Hood was going to turn the story on its head and make the Sheriff of Nottingham the focus and Robin the villain. It eventually turned into a more familiar version of the story starring Russell Crowe in 2010 but I can understand more now where that original idea came from.
The reason heroes often fall in literature is because they are meant to be human like us. And the same is true for sports stars and celebrities, our modern heroes, who the media and fandom often like to worship like gods but are capable of the same mistakes and poor judgment as the rest of us. Whether they are Robin Hood or Andre Agassi, they may seem larger than life to us, but they can fall and fail, and that subsequent struggle is the thing that makes them interesting and compelling, whether in fiction or real life.
I mean, a story about a hero who always wins isn’t particularly interesting, is it? Nor does that story feel particularly real to us, because there’s nothing we can recognise in it. A hero who is challenged and fights and falls and gets up again is far more interesting, as that’s what we can see in our own lives too.
That’s why I think a lot of people were so enamoured with Agassi as a player and a man, for instance, the fact that he reached the pinnacle of tennis, fell on hard times, and then came back again was such an incredible story. And while his revelations are sad, they don’t change his feats themselves or the player he was. He is one ‘hero’ or star who is more interesting for his fall.
Maybe all that sounds a bit silly, holding up real people next to myths and legends, but we do idolise sport stars and celebrities and the hero worship some people have for them is almost scary at times. They’re heroes to some people every bit as much as Robin Hood or King Arthur or Achilles were. Perhaps more so, as their exploits are inescapably splashed across every tv screen and phone, and children look up to them as role models, making every failure and fall all the more problematic.
I guess I’ve always been interested in all forms of heroes and I find the psychology behind our need for them particularly interesting. The main reason we need them as children in particular is not so much make believe and fantasy as one might think but rather because they give a face to the human experience and in particular our own common cultural experiences.
Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces among other works, believed that the reason we create myths and heroes is so we can reflect common real world experiences in them, using those stories to draw inspiration and to help overcome challenges in our own every day lives. And that’s particularly important for children.
If you think about the common trials a child goes through on the journey to adulthood, it makes sense. When they are young they first try to find their place in the world and to assert their independence, then they move through school and have to navigate things like a social hierarchy and bullying. As they get older still they start to inherit responsibilities and begin to work, perhaps experience love for the first time, and begin to pull away from and challenge their parents. Perhaps they even have their first experience of death and loss. All of these things are different for each child but they are common themes right through childhood and it makes sense that we’d explore them through our stories and myths and draw parallels with similar journeys in sport, etc.
That is one reason why I find it odd when I hear people say they don’t like children, particularly boys, reading adventure stories and playing with action figures and pretending to be Zorro or Spider-Man or Han Solo, etc. Usually the reason is because they don’t want to expose children to violence and themes of death and destruction too early and whether that is healthy at all.
But worrying about that is missing the point. Children, particularly boys, need that kind of physical outlet and they usually won’t get into it until they are ready for it. But more importantly, an interest in, say, superheroes and wanting to play good guys vs bad guys actually isn’t necessarily about wanting violence at all; it’s a child’s way of making sense of their place in the world through play, becoming a superhero to give them a feeling of power and freedom in a world where they have to conform to the wishes of their parents and teachers. Similarly using weapons or superpowers in play isn’t so much about killing things as much as it is about feeling in control and being powerful. Most psychologists think it is very healthy behaviour and suggest that parents can even use it to introduce concepts to children.
In any case I dressed up as Robin Hood and played with toy swords and action figures and I think I turned out all right.
Anyway I guess the reason I’ve been thinking about this lately is because I’ve been researching mythological archetypes for a couple of story ideas I’m playing around with and as you’d expect Campbell’s idea of the monomyth, or hero’s journey, keeps coming up again and again. I’m not sure I particularly want to draw on that archetype – if anything I’m more interested in subverting it – but it has made me look back on many of the stories I loved growing up and think about how many of them fit into that structure. Star Wars is a well known example, as is The Lion King, and King Arthur and Robin Hood do too to a degree. More recently The Matrix and the first Hunger Games are prime examples and even The Wizard of Oz draws on it too. So I guess that really does show how most stories and themes have been recycled over the years.
The other thing they all have in common is that pretty much all of the characters from those stories are flawed in some way or other, which again goes along with the hero only being as interesting as the force that tests them. Which would seem like a good entry point for subverting the whole structure if I wanted to do that. Something to think about.
So looking back after all these years, do I feel any differently about my childhood heroes now? Yes and no. I still love the stories and legends of Robin Hood and whenever a new version is announced, I’m always excited about it; if there ever was a real Robin Hood though (which seems up for debate), that Robin I’m less enamoured with. I still want a dog like Timmy and still have a soft spot for Narnia as well, although as an adult I am much more uncomfortable with Lewis’s use of Susan at the end.
Andre Agassi I still admire a lot but I was disappointed to hear of his drug use and cover up and that will probably always be a bit of a sour note for me. Mark Waugh has become an interesting commentator and I enjoy listening to him immensely. Bill Clinton I still feel much the same about.
Chris Cairns is the difficult one for me. I admired him enormously as a cricketer and the idea that he might have played a part in match fixing of any kind tarnishes that memory. Nothing has been proven but it doesn’t feel quite right either. I’d have to say I treasure the memories of him as a player but I feel let down by everything since. It will probably depend on what his side of the story is when he eventually decides to tell it.
Regardless I am thankful for all of them though. They all played a part in my childhood and in making me who I am today. The stories they told me and the lessons they imparted will stay with me for the rest of my life.
And so whatever happens, in that way my childhood heroes will live on, like all good stories and characters do, in me.
I like that idea. 🙂