Lance Mannion, guest-blogging for Prof. Michael “Danger” Berube, has posted an interesting essay on tragic heros vs. flawed heros. Mannion’s distinction between “tragic” and merely “flawed” heroes is that tragic heroes have deep vices and can truly sin, while we know that flawed heroes are always “the good guys” no matter what they do. Tragic hero: Hamlet. Flawed hero: Jack Bauer.
For his part, Mannion regrets the loss of the tragic hero:
I think something important was lost when the tragic hero disappeared from our storytelling, and the rise of the “flawed” hero isn’t a real or satisfying replacement, especially since so many of the flaws are actually tricks to make us like and admire the hero all the more and forgive him whatever apparently bad things his job calls upon him to do.
Although I take his point, I think we need both kinds of heros, particularly since I find tragic heros to be less realistic than the flawed hero. The tragic hero’s epic vices inevitably bring his entire world crashing down around his ears. Thrilling to read about, sure. But realistic? Real life just doesn’t seem to have that kind of delicious symmetry. The real-life hero has ordinary flaws that sometimes interfere with his or her heroic goals, but often don’t impede those goals at all.
Of course, we can all come up with examples of real-life historical figures whose epic vices inevitably doomed everything they had worked for… but in most of those cases, the person in question has actually crossed the line and gone right over to villainy. For example, I’ve heard Richard Nixon described as a classic tragic hero, but based on my cursory readings of the guy’s real historical actions, color me skeptical on the “hero” part.
As for the disappearance of the tragic hero in modern literature, Mannion seems quite right, although I think we still have some remnants. Here are some examples off the top of my head:
Morpheus in The Sandman. I just re-read The Kindly Ones and once again I found it breathtaking to see that sprawling series’s myriad plot threads gather together into their inevitable conclusion. Note that the conclusion would never have happened if any of those disconnected threads had gone differently. And Morpheus’s flaws were directly responsible for kicking off every one of them.
William Munney in Unforgiven. At first glance, this might look like a standard grim-and-gritty western with your standard anti-hero — played by Clint Eastwood, even! But don’t be fooled — this is a story where everyone’s fundamental flaws, including Munney’s, inevitably lead to deeply tragic results all around. My only qualm about calling Munney a tragic hero is that Munney himself isn’t actually destroyed at the end; he doesn’t die, and he doesn’t remain a monster. If we believe the movie, he returned home and continued doing his best to be a decent father. Ideally, he would have rode off and drank himself to death instead of returning to his kids. But you can’t have everything.
Darth Vader is a possibility. Yes, I know, I know the Joseph Campbell stuff was layered on with a thick trowel as an afterthought. And I know Lucas’s execution of the tale… leaves something to be desired. Still, we’ve got the elements, don’t we? Anakin’s epic flaws -> the destruction of interstellar democratic rule! No wait, actually that was Jar-Jar. Never mind.
Someone in Mannion’s comments thread mentioned Vic Mackey from The Shield. The events of Season 5 are promising in this regard — finally Vic’s sins from the first episode are causing everything to start unravelling! But we won’t know for sure until the show wraps. For all we know, Vic will end up on a Caribbean beach under an assumed name, sipping Mai-Tais. Likewise for The Sopranos — Tony’s greed is epic, but we don’t know yet whether it’s sufficient to bring everything crashing down.
1. Props to Mr. Mannion for his title and intro. I loved the Spenser books when I first found them on my parents’ shelf. And I had forgotten about his Galahad quote. I wonder how I can work that one into casual conversation?