Heroes and Heroism in Fantasy Literature

A hero is simply a normal human being or a major fictional character who, against all odds, combats adversity with incredible feats of strength, courage, or ingenuity. Just like other previously solely gender-defined terms, hero has been reclaimed by both men and women nowadays. A hero can be any person, no matter what race, color, creed, age, or even gender. Although traditionally, hero has always been seen as a man, with men being labeled as “heroes” throughout the years, today more women are identified as heroes as well.


The most famous example of this is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Although the play itself may not fully identify a hero or any other such role, many of its characters stand for everything that we believe to be heroic. To understand how much the play represents the Hero, one must take note that the prince of Denmark is dead, his wife has been taken captive, and there is a vast chasm between them. On one side of this chasm is the tragedy of Hamlet and his internal conflicts, on the other side there are the seemingly unbreakable virtue of prince Arthur and his courage. The audience is left with the question of how the apparently conflicting virtues can coexist amidst each other.

In modern times, when we still speak of heroes and heroism, the terms are still often gender specific. However, we now have a wide range of potential hero types. In fantasy literature, a hero may be defined as the ideal person who exists to fill a significant role. Such hero can be either a godlike creature or an immortal hero who is almost transcendent in his ability to save the world. It is rare that a godlike hero will ever go through a series of adventures where he needs to prove his worthiness before gaining entrance into a divine hierarchy.

Some definitions of hero point to qualities shared by all humans, such as courage to undertake great risks and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a just and equitable cause. However, modern fantasies tend to add more to the definition of a hero than these basic traits. In contemporary literature, a hero may be defined as a protagonist who experiences an important crisis in which he or she must overcome overwhelming odds. In fairy tales and in popular works, the hero may be an intangible creature or an extraordinary individual with supernatural powers.

In modern fantasy, many characters have super human abilities that make them stand apart from the rest of the human population. Examples include gargoyles, unicorns, dragons, and elves. Gargoyles are immortal creatures with powerful magical powers and the ability to fly. Unicorns are usually portrayed as beautiful women who are half horse and half human. Dragons are huge beasts with magical powers and abilities similar to unicorns. Elric, the most famous of all fantasy heroes, is a half giant, half human character and he was known for overcoming injuries, illnesses, and poverty to achieve personal greatness.

Modern fantasies are as diverse as the dreams and desires of their readers. In some instances, heroic acts are performed out of a sense of obligation or a sense of duty. In other instances, the act is motivated by an individual’s wish to be a part of something larger than oneself. Regardless of the motivation, the heroes in modern fantasy are defined by their uniqueness and their ability to endure pain and adversity.

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