A Theory of the Hero: Tragic and Anti-tragic Heroes (part 3 of 3)
NOTE: This is the third and final installment in a three-part series on heroic characters. This post will focus on how narrative timing and character choice determines the difference between tragic and anti-tragic heroes. The previous two posts respectively focused on agency, voice, and character sincerity and heroic story archetypes.
This past week I’ve been writing about heroic fiction, particularly focusing on heroic characters and their story archetypes. Every heroic story must take place within a moral universe (i.e. a universe where actions have implicit or explicit consequences). If the story’s setting were not moral, then it would be impossible to demonstrate the character’s heroic nature. But given that moral universe and the character’s heroic nature (which is intrinsically concerned with their value system), what makes some heroes “tragic” and others…not?
Can Tragedy Exist without Heroes?
No. Next question?
Okay, seriously: there are probably as many definitions of tragedy (in fiction) as there are critics. And I suspect that every one of them – from Aristotle to Hegel to Nietzsche – is probably right. But what most fail to point out is the simple fact that tragedy only happens to heroes. When we think of the characters who we would call “tragic”, all feature the same central concern with the hero’s value system. Whether it is Sidney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Moorcock’s Elric, or The Incredible Hulk‘s Bruce Banner: every tragic hero is centrally concerned with moral questions.
While every tragedy involves a heroic story, the converse does not apply. There are many heroic stories which both focus on heroic characters and adhere to the three primary heroic archetypes, but which we would nonetheless be hard pressed to call tragic. Consider Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. Both stories deal with heroic characters, the former applying the aspirational archetype and the latter adhering more to the observational. Yet nevertheless, none of the heroes in either story can rightly be called tragic.
Choice: Making a Tragic Hero through the Exercise of Agency
Both Aristotle and Hegel (in particular) pointed out a key tenet of the tragic story: for tragedy to occur, the hero has to undergo some sort of reversal of fortune. That reversal may be externally mediated, the result of an opposing ethical force (a hero of different values, for example) or it may be an internal reversal (motivated by the hero’s evolving awareness or shifting passions). But in order to evoke catharsis, the hero has to reverse either some aspect of their nature or the trajectory of their experiences. That is exactly what heroic characters do when they transgress against their moral codes.
In heroic storytelling, the events of the plot, the story, and the character’s progression all come together in the hero’s choice of “right” or “wrong”. This choice may be shown baldly (e.g. Luke refusing the Emperor) or it may be concretized through dramatic action (e.g. Sidney Carton’s sacrifice). But if the hero makes the “right” choice (according to their own value system), the cathartic dénoument becomes a breath exhaled, the satisfaction of good triumphing over evil. If the hero makes the “wrong” choice, then we lament hypothetical paths not taken.
Because the hero is defined by his agency (see last Tuesday’s post), much of the tension in heroic stories stems from the question of how that agency gets exercised. Both aspirational and consequential archetypes are centrally concerned with the question of choice, though they derive their tension and their tragedy through entirely different methods.
The Tension of Expectations in Aspirational Storytelling
As they progress, aspirational stories derive their tension from uncertainty as to whether the hero will act in accordance with his moral code or transgress against it. In the moment of climax, when Katniss must choose between Peeta’s life and her own (in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games) or when Valjean holds Javert’s life in his hands, the hero teeters on a knife’s edge. Make one choice, and they stay true to their own ideals. Make the other choice, and they throw those ideals to the wind. And while that moral choice drives tension in the reading experience, it does not determine tragedy.
Consider two very different aspirational heroes: Frodo Baggins and Sidney Carton. From the beginning of Frodo’s story in The Lord of the Rings, we face the question: will Frodo have the strength to destroy the One Ring? As the story progresses, we watch him struggle with the Ring’s influence and triumph (barely and not without hardship) over Sauron and the Ring’s evil. But it is at the last moment, when he is standing above the Crack of Doom – when he is actually in a position to fulfill his quest – that he faces the climactic choice. And he fails. Frodo allows the Ring to corrupt him, and decides not to destroy it. Of course, the world is saved anyway because Gollum (Frodo’s mirror-image) bites Frodo’s finger off and falls into the flame. But regardless of that eucatastrophic moment, at the culmination of Frodo’s aspirational story, he transgresses against his own value system.
Sidney Carton, by contrast, represents an inversion of Frodo Baggins’ story arc. Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, he fails to live up to his own value system. From his story’s beginning, we watch Carton’s self-loathing rise in parallel to his love for Lucie Manette. And it is only at the story’s end, when he chooses to sacrifice himself for Charles Darney, that Carton’s acts finally align with his moral code. At the climax of the story, he chooses to do what is “right” – unlike Frodo, who chose to do what is “wrong”.
Yet despite the opposite trajectories of their respective aspirational stories, both remain tragic heroes. The source of that tragedy rests on an underlying tension between natural human meta-ethics and the consequences represented in the story. As social creatures, we are preconditioned to believe that doing what is right benefits us. While every grown-up would readily admit that life is more complicated than that, deep within our souls there remains a conviction that if we play nice, eat our vegetables, and go to bed early, our lives will be better. Aspirational heroes turn tragic when their experiences invert that expectation.
Frodo Baggins does wrong. He fails, and knows it. The fact that his failure is justifiable in no way diminishes the fact that at the last moment, he choked. In our hearts, we expect that a hero who fails and acts evilly should get what’s coming to him. Which is not to be accorded the highest honors of the land, or the love and respect of all the peoples. Yet that is precisely what Frodo gets. He failed: it is only through Gollum’s avarice that the world was saved. If it was up to Frodo, Sauron would have won. Who, really, could ever trust him with something momentous after that? Though he is exactly its opposite, he receives all the accolades of the conquering hero. He does not get what was coming to him.
Sidney Carton, by contrast, rises to the occasion. When it comes down to it, he does his “far, far better thing”. But what does his nobility get him? We want Carton to live. We want him to get the girl, and to find happiness. Instead, he earns himself a short trip to the guillotine.
Carton and Frodo are both tragic heroes because the consequences of their choices stand in direct opposition to our expectations of justice. Carton earns a respect that he never gets to experience. Frodo earns opprobrium that he never has face. This produces a disconnect between our experience and our desires which rests at the heart of aspirational tragedy. We want heroes to get what they deserve. And it becomes tragic when they don’t. Which – not insignificantly – is often how real life works.
Facing the Music: Dealing with the Consequences of a Choice
Consequential tragedy is produced in an entirely different fashion. Aspirational stories start far in advance of the hero’s moral choice, which comes to represent the climax of the story. In consequential stories, the moral choice has either already happened (e.g. most Elric of Melniboné stories) or happens very early in the events of the story (e.g. Shakespeare’s Macbeth).
Macbeth knows that it is wrong to murder Duncan, but he does it anyway. His actions may be inconsistent with his values, yet his value system remains unchanged. By choosing to act against his own moral sense, Macbeth exercises his agency to tragic effect. Macbeth is a loyal soldier scarcely interested in power. The witches dangle the prospect of regency before him, and he makes a morally bankrupt choice. The remainder of the play then deals with the consequences of that fatal decision. In order to maintain his grip on power, Macbeth has to constantly escalate and revisit his choice: the murder of Banquo (and the attempt on Fleance), the slaughtering of MacDuff’s family, etc. Macbeth becomes a tragic hero because his capacity for good gets dragged deep into the mud following his regicide. He knows his acts are evil, and that evil tortures him, but the die is cast and he is locked into his inevitable doom. Of course, the murdering SOB “deserves it” – but he still retains all the nobility of spirit with which he began the play.
Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is in a similar boat. His Faustian bargains with Antioch and the demon-sword Stormbringer represent fundamental transgressions against his value system. The self-loathing that follows becomes the focus for Elric’s tragedy, and even though he wishes to be free of both, his entire saga depicts the gradual destruction of all that he loves at his own hands.
While consequential stories in particular lend themselves to tragic heroes, not all consequential heroes need be tragic. In particular, consequential heroes that are redemptive in nature avoid the trap of tragedy. Consider Jeffrey Ford’s hero Cley (from his amazing Well-Built City trilogy, starting in The Physiognomy). Initially, he is an evil (or at best, ignorant) man. But as the book and series progresses, he recognizes that he is not acting in accordance with his own implicit values, and sets out to seek redemption. His quest for redemption makes him a poignant and bittersweet hero, though one that never falls into the tragedy of his companion Misrix.
All this being said, I do not know if it would be possible to write a consequential story that is neither tragic nor redemptive. Where would the dramatic tension come from, if the character initially makes the “right” choice and no negative consequences follow? Seems like it would be a pretty dull story to me, though I suspect if someone were to pull it off they’d be sitting on an award-winner.
The Tragic versus the Anti-Tragic Hero
Have you ever wondered what the opposite of tragedy is? I sure have, and somehow “comedy” just does not cut it in my book. It has too many connotations of humor or slapstick. The Pevensies in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, and the Brothers Grossbart in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart are all heroic characters. They have agency, the narrative voice is compelling, and their moral values remain consistent throughout their stories. Yet none of them could rightly be considered tragic, nor could any of them be adequately described as comedic.
Which makes me long for something that is the opposite to the tragic hero, something I’ve taken to calling the anti-tragic hero for lack of a better term (yeah, I know…it’s a little ungainly: does anyone have any better suggestions?). Anti-tragic heroes can be found in any of the three heroic archetypes: aspirational (the Pevensies), observational (the Brothers Grossbart), or consequential (Cley). Some may be redemptive (Cley or Edmund Pevensie), but that is not at all necessary (e.g. the Brothers Grossbart or the remaining Pevensies).
The anti-tragic hero can be characterized as getting what we the reader believe they have earned through the exercise of their agency. Anti-tragic heroes generally behave according to the precepts of their value systems. The Pevensies’ values align well with standard Western values for good. The Grossbarts’ align well with standard Western values for bad. Cley – once he begins his redemptive quest – also aligns more with our concept of good. In each of these stories, the anti-tragic hero gets what the reader believes they deserve. The Pevensies, by their right and noble actions, become great kings and queens of Narnia. The Brothers Grossbart end up locked in a tomb – presumably for all time. Cley manages to make peace with his past sins and be reborn. Their fates align with our sense of justice, which may well be different from their own.
The Essence of Heroic Stories: Expectations, Values, and Choice
And this, I think, really distills the heart of what heroes and heroic fiction are all about. At the most basic level, heroic stories are all about values and expectations. When characters’ actions relate to their own value system, they become heroes. They may live up to their own expectations, aspire to the better parts of themselves, or struggle to live with their own choices. But they do so with the degree of drama and moral focus that defines them as heroes. Their actions elicit expectations on our part as readers: we want something good, bad, or ugly to happen to these heroic characters because we believe their actions have earned some measure of response. And the tension between the hero’s actions and their consequences within the story determines whether that hero becomes tragic or anti-tragic.
Works Mentioned / Used in this Post
Below is a list of the authors and titles that I found helpful in putting this together. It’s a list of pretty cool and interesting books, and I strongly recommend each and every single on of them for insight into the hero: