- They have exiled me now from their society, yet I am content. Mankind only exiles the one whose large spirit rebels against injustice and tyranny. He who does not prefer exile to servility is not free in the true and necessary sense of freedom. [Kahlil Gibran, Spirits Rebellious, “Madame Rose Hanie”, Part II (1908).]
A hero is someone who exhibits courage, bravery, tenacity and imperturbability to good effect. She saves or changes a life, with attendant risk to herself.
Dorus Rijkers was such a person. He conducted nearly forty rescue operations at sea, more than twenty-five of them before joining the lifeboat service.
Dith Pran, compiler, Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs of Survivors (Yale University Press, 1997): the hero is the compiler of the stories, Dith Pran, who remained in his native Cambodia, at great personal risk, out of a sense of obligation.
- Andrew Gerow Hodges, Jr., and Denise George, Behind Nazi Lines: My Father’s Heroic Quest to Save 149 World War II POWs (Berkley, 2015).
- Eric Lichtblau, Return to the Reich: A Holocaust Refugee’s Secret Mission to Defeat the Nazis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019): “. . . even as a Gestapo prisoner, Freddy Mayer — beaten bloody, eardrum punctured, teeth missing — wasn’t through. He convinced his captors that rather than killing him, they should surrender to him. Incredibly, they did, along with the entire German garrison, which allowed the advancing American Army to capture the entire Austrian Tyrol without firing a shot.”
- Alex Kernshaw, Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and one American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris (Broadway Books, 2016).
- Rebecca Donner, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler (Little, Brown and Company, 2021): “Several letters show Mildred trying to present a brave face for her worried family back in the United States. Staying meant risking imprisonment and perhaps death; leaving would have meant abandoning Germany to the Nazis.”
- Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Houghton Mifflin, 1992). This book recounts heroic efforts to expose the crimes of a brutal king.
- Adam Makos, Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice (Ballantine Books, 2015): the story of two American wartime aviators, one an African-American who “defended a nation that wouldn’t serve him in a bar.”
- Sahm Venter, ed., The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela (Liveright Publishing, 2018): “The Making of a Moral Hero”
- Marie Brenner, The Desperate Hours: One Hospital’s Fight to Save a City on the Pandemic’s Front Lines (Flatiron Press, 2022): “The book details both medical heroism and corporate cowardice, prescient decisions and howling missteps, all against the backdrop of a swirling and mysterious pandemic that claimed the lives of more than 30,000 residents, not to mention 35 New York-Presbyterian employees.”
Sports writing, as a narrative about heroes, falls between fiction and non-fiction. These are books about heroism as an ideal, illustrating the point that great things are easier said than done.
No one had yet observed in the gallery of the statues of the kings, carved directly above the arches of the portal, a strange spectator, who had, up to that time, observed everything with such impassiveness, with a neck so strained, a visage so hideous that, in his motley accoutrement of red and violet, he might have been taken for one of those stone monsters through whose mouths the long gutters of the cathedral have discharged their waters for six hundred years. This spectator had missed nothing that had taken place since midday in front of the portal of Notre-Dame. And at the very beginning he had securely fastened to one of the small columns a large knotted rope, one end of which trailed on the flight of steps below. This being done, he began to look on tranquilly, whistling from time to time when a blackbird flitted past. Suddenly, at the moment when the superintendent’s assistants were preparing to execute Charmolue’s phlegmatic order, he threw his leg over the balustrade of the gallery, seized the rope with his feet, his knees and his hands; then he was seen to glide down the façade, as a drop of rain slips down a window-pane, rush to the two executioners with the swiftness of a cat which has fallen from a roof, knock them down with two enormous fists, pick up the gypsy with one hand, as a child would her doll, and dash back into the church with a single bound, lifting the young girl above his head and crying in a formidable voice,—
This was done with such rapidity, that had it taken place at night, the whole of it could have been seen in the space of a single flash of lightning.
“Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” repeated the crowd; and the clapping of ten thousand hands made Quasimodo’s single eye sparkle with joy and pride.
This shock restored the condemned girl to her senses. She raised her eyelids, looked at Quasimodo, then closed them again suddenly, as though terrified by her deliverer. Charmolue was stupefied, as well as the executioners and the entire escort. In fact, within the bounds of Notre-Dame, the condemned girl could not be touched. The cathedral was a place of refuge. All temporal jurisdiction expired upon its threshold.
Quasimodo had halted beneath the great portal, his huge feet seemed as solid on the pavement of the church as the heavy Roman pillars. His great, bushy head sat low between his shoulders, like the heads of lions, who also have a mane and no neck. He held the young girl, who was quivering all over, suspended from his horny hands like a white drapery; but he carried her with as much care as though he feared to break her or blight her. One would have said that he felt that she was a delicate, exquisite, precious thing, made for other hands than his. There were moments when he looked as if not daring to touch her, even with his breath. Then, all at once, he would press her forcibly in his arms, against his angular bosom, like his own possession, his treasure, as the mother of that child would have done. His gnome’s eye, fastened upon her, inundated her with tenderness, sadness, and pity, and was suddenly raised filled with lightnings. Then the women laughed and wept, the crowd stamped with enthusiasm, for, at that moment Quasimodo had a beauty of his own. He was handsome; he, that orphan, that foundling, that outcast, he felt himself august and strong, he gazed in the face of that society from which he was banished, and in which he had so powerfully intervened, of that human justice from which he had wrenched its prey, of all those tigers whose jaws were forced to remain empty, of those policemen, those judges, those executioners, of all that force of the king which he, the meanest of creatures, had just broken, with the force of God.
And then, it was touching to behold this protection which had fallen from a being so hideous upon a being so unhappy, a creature condemned to death saved by Quasimodo. They were two extremes of natural and social wretchedness, coming into contact and aiding each other.
Meanwhile, after several moments of triumph, Quasimodo had plunged abruptly into the church with his burden. The populace, fond of all prowess, sought him with their eyes, beneath the gloomy nave, regretting that he had so speedily disappeared from their acclamations. All at once, he was seen to re-appear at one of the extremities of the gallery of the kings of France; he traversed it, running like a madman, raising his conquest high in his arms and shouting: “Sanctuary!” The crowd broke forth into fresh applause. The gallery passed, he plunged once more into the interior of the church. A moment later, he re-appeared upon the upper platform, with the gypsy still in his arms, still running madly, still crying, “Sanctuary!” and the throng applauded. Finally, he made his appearance for the third time upon the summit of the tower where hung the great bell; from that point he seemed to be showing to the entire city the girl whom he had saved, and his voice of thunder, that voice which was so rarely heard, and which he never heard himself, repeated thrice with frenzy, even to the clouds: “Sanctuary! Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”
“Noël! Noël!” shouted the populace in its turn; and that immense acclamation flew to astonish the crowd assembled at the Grève on the other bank, and the recluse who was still waiting with her eyes riveted on the gibbet. [Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Volume II, Book Eighth, Chapter VI, “Three Human Hearts Differently Constructed”.]
- Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2019): “ . . . the plot . . . retraces many of the steps that the scholar Joseph Campbell described as stages in the archetypal hero’s journey.”
- Mario Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012): a fictional biography of Roger Casement, a “complicated man of conscience, reasserting his credentials as ‘one of the great anticolonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland.”
Film and Stage
- The Killing Fields, about atrocities under the Khmer Rouge and an heroic reporter who elects to stay in his native Cambodia
- Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres), about members of the French resistance against Nazi Germany
- Hail the Conquering Hero, a lampoon on heroism
- Hero, a martial arts film from China that illustrates a common conception of heroism
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- R. Strauss, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life): (performances conducted by Mengelberg, Karajan, Sinopoli and Pretre)
- Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major, Op. 26, “Funeral March on the Death of a Hero” (1801), concludes with an andante movement, the funeral march.
- Glière, Symphony No. 3 in B Minor, "Il'ya Muromets", Op. 42 (1911): a musical account of a legendary Russian hero
- Glazunov, Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 55, "Heroic" (1895)
- Casella: Symphony No. 3: Sinfonia, Op. 63, "Elegia Eroica" (Heroic Elegy) (1940) (commissioned to honor Italian soldiers who were killed during World War I)
- Bax, Symphony No. 7 (1939
- Raga Hamir, a late evening Hindustani rag (also Hambir, Hameer or Hamir Kalyan), portrayed as a heroic figure often amid a thunderstorm or battle (performances by Shankar, Amjad Ali Khan, and Sahasrabuddhe)
- Rag Malkauns, “he who wears serpents like garlands”, a late evening Hindustani rag (performances by Banerjee, Chaurasia and Joshi)
The dark side of heroism: frequently, a hero can effectively meet evil only with evil, or at the very least with behavior that does not presume that opposing forces are behaving with dignity.
- William Schuman, Judith: Choreographic Poem for Orchestra (1949). “This story of repulsed foreign oppression and aggression combines feminine Jewish heroism, daring, and even revenge. An Assyrian army under General Holofernes has besieged the Israelites and cut off their water supply. Judith, a deeply religious widow, determines to free her people by using the only weapon available to her, her beauty and feminine charms, and she beseeches God to allow the enemy to be smitten by her ruse—through 'the deceit of my lips.'”