What is a hero?

One or two days ago I was reading a book review on the web and there I came across this quote by Pascal Quignard (a completely unknown person to me): «Qu’est-ce qu’un héros ? Ni un vivant ni un mort, un être qui pénètre dans l’autre monde et qui en revient.» (“What’s a hero? Neither alive nor dead, a being who enters into the other world and who returns from it.”)

More or less, that is the same observation that Joseph Campbell did in The Hero with A Thousand Faces. A well-established notion in fantasy fiction, for instance Frodo’s terrible journey into the heart of darkness. But I started thinking about applying Quignard’s statement on reality. Is it possible? What kind of experience would fit?

The first person to cross my mind was Nelson Mandela, who spent 30 years isolated in the artificial world of Robben Island, a place with little relation to normality. He was alive in a technical sense, but in some manner dead to the world, too. The photos I saw on placards at Free Mandela events in the late 1980s had been taken in his youth. No other were available. And yet that man emerged unbroken from a sojourn in Nowhere, still sensible, still warm-hearted, whereas many of his ANC comrades in the struggle for freedom, people who had been in exile instead, had become militant and rigid in words and deeds.

I don’t know these people, merely having read about them. But what I learn makes me think. What kind of heroism is possible?

Saving a drowning child at the risk one’s own life. Certainly courageous. But that is facing a brief danger.

But enduring seemingly never-ending hardships without losing one’s humanity? That is truly outstanding. Any since life always outstrips fiction when it comes to extraordinary experiences (Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a horrible man, but he is a minor bad-guy compared to real-world mass-murderer Nikolai Yezhov), would it be possible to write about an individual with Nelson Mandela’s qualities and see the readers accepting the creation? What kind of writer would succeed with such a feat?


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