Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Heroism in Fantasy and Fairy Tales

By Ty Hulse

It wasn’t just soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy to rid the world of the scourge of Naziism, comic books were there too. Indeed, soldiers in the warzone read more comics with larger-than-life superheroes than anything else. Likely because imagining oneself as a superhero has been shown to have great psychological benefits. Prihatsanti, Ratnaningsih, and Prasetyo found that such imaginings could help new college students increase their level of hopefulness and improve their feelings of self-efficacy, resilience, and optimism. It should be no wonder than that Superhero’s became so popular among soldiers during the worst war of the 20th Century. For “when a hero is needed a hero is born… societies and culture give birth to the mythological heroes they need. “ (Johnson) 

The exact nature of this hero is in part dependent on the age when they come into being. During the Medieval era tales of Arthur became popular as a larger than life hero who could defeat giants so large the largest mountain of Wales became their grave after Arthur slew them. On the other end of the spectrum peasants likely told fairytales about protagonists without superpowers such as those of Jack the Giant Slayer who could defeat giants and become wealthy through cunning, luck, and resilience. 

 No matter the era people have longed for heroes, a longing that stems from a desire to feel protected, to protect others, to better self-actualize, and to dream of adventure and a better life. As importantly, heroes can benefit a society, for heroes have a unique power to bring people together, to get them to have conversations, and to fight for themselves and others. Jules Feiffer explains the power of Superman for those who were living in the midst of the Great Depression:


“Those of us raised in the ghetto neighborhoods were being asked to believe that crime didn’t pay? Tell that to the butcher? Nice guys finished last; landlords first. Villains by their simple appointment to the role were miles ahead. It was not to be believed that any ordinary human could combat them. More was required. Someone with a call. When Superman at last appeared, he brought with him the deep satisfaction of all underground truths: Our reaction was less “How original!” than “But of course!” (Johnson)


In the modern Era we are often faced with confusion and loneliness because a rapidly changing culture leaves everyone feeling like outsiders. This is part of what makes traditional fantasy heroes so important, as Roger Kaufman points out that “Psychotherapists who practice in a gay-affirmative” can use fantasy stories such as “Lord of the Rings”, “Star Wars”, and “Aliens” to help their clients self-actualize and deal with what are often deep emotional scars.” Similarly, psychological researchers Lawrence and Jewett have found that psychologists can indeed help many of their clients through the use of Superheroes. For “Although clients do not have superpowers or fatal flaws, identifying with the physical and moral strengths of a superhero can be transformative and aid in overcoming disability and deficiency, whether real or perceived.” He also goes on to point out that people have arch enemies, bullies, abusive parents, emotional struggles, etc. Further, the concealed and dual identity of the superhero sets “the stage for externalization of inner conflicts” helping clients deal with their own conflicting emotions. Heroes help people with their personal struggles involving “equality, esteem, and connection… Superheroes are seemingly tailor-made vehicles for exploring” complex and abstract issues related to morality, development, etc. Further, programs that use Superhero imagery during children’s cancer treatments have “shown promise in bolstering resilience. It does so via special comics, animated videos, and superhero plastic covers for IV bags.” In other words, strategically placed images of superheroes, as well as stories about them can help those struggling through cancer. 

Kaufman quotes Danny Fingeroth in stating that the basic qualities of a superhero are: “strength of character,” a “system of positive values,” “a determination to, no matter what, protect those values,” and the possession of “skills and abilities normal humans do not” have. Further they point out that to be as successful as possible in aiding people psychologically such superheroes should not permanently die. 


In general, each of these aspects of a hero’s nature make sense given the psychological need people have to feel inspired by them. Yes, Eudaimonic feelings can come from sad endings and self-sacrifice, still the last point of the hero not dying can be important given that people who have suffered trauma and or need to discover themselves use these heroes as larger than life models, not only through engaging with the heroes’ adventures but by imagining their brighter future. Stripping away that bright future will take away the ability of people seeking affirmation in the face of social and family disapproval or emotional trauma, to feel that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for them. 


Lawrence and Jewett state that “The monomythic superhero is distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers. He originates outside of the community he is called to save, and in those exceptional instances when he resides therein, the superhero plays the role of idealistic loner.”

This last point makes heroes extremely important in the modern day when loneliness is one of the greatest enemies we face. This is perhaps why Dungeons and Dragons is increasingly more popular. Tabletop games have the ability to bring people together, giving them a reason to meet, and stave off loneliness. More than this, however, it offers people the opportunity to tell stories of themselves as the heroes. A therapist used D&D to help a patient and found that; “the fantasy play released fears, enhanced ego development, improved the patient’s interactional abilities, and increased the patient’s feelings of comfort with himself.” (Bowman and Lieberoth) So in this era, when traditional heroes are derided and dismantled by many storytellers, open ended games offer people the opportunity to seek out exactly the hero they need.

Fairytales too offer people the opportunity to imagine themselves as a hero and it is worth noting that “In the wonder tales, those who are naïve and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted and can recognize the wonderous signs” (Zipes, ‘When Dreams Came True’). Being untainted by the larger world, seemingly innocent and even naïve has clearly long been an important part of many of the most beloved heroes. It is as if the purity of those who set out on the hero’s journey can help to purify us, help us to transcend our own corruption and anxieties. 

Heroes, such as the underdogs of fairytales can give people hope, and hope is associated not only with psychological but also physical benefits, which is why hope is so frequently used in wellness interventions. Viewing an underdog succeeding against all odds was shown by Prestin’s (2013) research to increase hope in a relatively durable way. In other words, having a character who seems like they shouldn’t be able to find victory, who must struggle to find it can provide the audience with important psychological benefits. 

A large part of the power of the hero comes from their ability to transcend the everyday world so that they can bring some form of salvation to others. Frodo was an outsider in the world beyond his home, for almost no one knew where the Shire was, it was as if it were a fairy realm that most struggled to find. Like many other heroes his greatness came from caring about people and a willingness to persevere/resist temptation that would cause most to fall. Greatness comes from caring about and being a part of the world but also from transcending its rules, limitations, and the selfishness of people. 


Overall, the concept of heroism is a complicated one, for cultural heroes have always been deeply flawed beings in mythology and history. However, for a long time these flaws were embraced as a part of who the heroes were. The Yupik god and creator of the world, Raven was also a thief and liar who would often end up suffering due to his own mischievousness and dishonesty. Even historical heroes were frequently flawed in some way, and indeed, they were often celebrated because of these flaws. Genghis Khan is the hero of Mongolia, yet he like Alexander the Great and Chief Seattle was, in essence, a warlord who raided and destroyed many enemies. What’s important to understand is that the heroes who have been admired were larger than life people who could help their culture, rather than perfect people. No hero has perfected the world, otherwise we would exist within a perfect world. Rather they have helped some people to survive and strive towards better lives.