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Understanding What Heroes Are English Literature Essay

In his classic book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis states that, Men [...] have always agreed that [one] ought not to put [oneself] first (Lewis 6). While many would agree with this statement, they would also probably admit that to truly live this out a person must be completely selfless. All humans, being naturally selfish, find putting others first a very tedious and unpleasant task. There are, however, those who have done this in the past and others who are doing it today. These individuals are the ones that society admires. Some may call these people heroes. Unfortunately, heroes have been extremely misrepresented over the years. It therefore makes sense to ask the question: what is a true hero? By looking at the dictionary definition, literary examples, and examples from history, one should be able to gain a better understanding of what a true hero is.

There are many effective ways to communicate and understand other people. Art, drama, and music are all ways to send a message. Spoken and written words are even clearer methods for conveying information. Words, therefore, are important for communication. They can be used well or poorly depending upon the one using them. Often, words are used to describe people. Words can describe the appearance, actions, and character of an individual. Hero is a word that is commonly used , but rarely understood. The dictionary definition of hero, its associated words and meanings, and Biblical examples of heroes will be examined to help provide a clearer understanding of this word.

The dictionary definition of a word is the most simple way to understand it. The word hero has several lexical definitions. The first definition is “any person, especially one admired for courage, nobility, or exploits in war” (Webster 632). This type of hero is the most commonly known or familiar type. A second definition is the kind of hero that is an inspiration to many. The dictionary states that “any person, especially one admired for qualities or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model” is also a hero (632). A third type of hero is “the central male character in a novel, play, or poem with whom the reader or audience is supposed to sympathize” (632). These heroes are found most often in fictional and historical stories. This is one easy way to define hero, but there are more ways to find out what a hero is.

Another way to examine the word hero is by looking at the roots, synonyms, and

antonyms associated with it. To begin, Greek and Latin roots add to the understanding of the word. In both the Latin and Greek roots, heros means “to watch over, to protect” (632). The meaning of this is obvious: a hero is someone who guards another. Using a thesaurus can provide synonyms for hero, such as model and ideal (Roget 224). These terms help one understand that heroes inspire many people to this day. Other synonyms like victor and champion make it clear that heroes are those who overcome (224). Antonyms also define what a hero is not. Coward, timid, sissy, and chicken are examples to help one realize that a hero is not afraid, but is courageous (102, 224). Words are a good way to define what a hero is, but people are excellent models as well.

Great examples of heroes are also found in the Bible. One example is Gideon, a fearful and humble man, whom God called to battle against the Amalekites (New King James Version. Jdg. 6.11-20). Gideon was afraid, but God gave him courage and he fought against 120,000 using an army of only three hundred men (Jdg. 7.1-25). The Lord gave Gideon the victory, which makes him a good example of the type of hero who excels in a war. Another good example is Esther, a Jewish orphan who became the queen of Persia. In order to save her people, the Jews, Esther showed much courage when she said “...And so I will go to the king, which is against the law, and if I perish, I perish!” (Est. 4.16). Esther is a role model who bravely stood up for what was right. One of the best Bible heroes of all is King David, who performed many heroic deeds. He killed Goliath, spared the lives of men who deserved to die, brought the ark of God home to Jerusalem, and won battle after battle (1 Sam. 17.1-51, 2 Sam. 6.1-19, 2 Sam. 8.1-14). David is the kind of hero honored for his outstanding qualities like bravery, honesty, victory, and being a good leader. Now that Bible heroes have been reviewed, one can see that people from history are excellent models of heroes.

After examining the dictionary definition, associated words, and examples of heroes, one should have a clearer knowledge of this term. Finding the definition of a word is the easiest way to understand it. The dictionary definition shows that a hero is both inspiring and able to overcome fears. Roots, synonyms, and antonyms can also be helpful in this endeavor. The examples reveal that a hero is courageous and looks after people. Finally, Biblical heroes can help one better comprehend what the word hero means. Gideon, Esther, and David all had flaws such as fear and cowardice, but they overcame them and became inspiring heroes. While it may seem that the word hero has only one meaning, it is now obvious that heroism shows itself in many different ways. Although a dictionary or a thesaurus is a wonderful source, fictional tales and books can show a different angle on heroism.

Books take people on amazing adventures. They may discover new places and meet new characters. Perhaps they may even find new ideas and challenging new thoughts. Unfortunately, many people read pieces of literature and never think about what they mean. Literature uses different methods to show the elements of human nature. Characters are commonly used for this purpose which makes it very easy for the reader to understand the trait that is being defined. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novel, The Hobbit, heroism is being defined through the character of Bilbo Baggins. By looking at examples of Bilbo Baggins’ courage, loyalty, and artifice, one can determine if he is a literary example of the word hero.

Bilbo first shows his courage inside the dark mountain when he meets the menacing dragon, Smaug. In The Hobbit, Bilbo voluntarily goes on a mission for his friends to find the treasure that they had long been seeking. Bilbo soon finds his way into the room where the glittering treasure is hidden, but Smaug is resting upon it. Not losing hope, Bilbo takes up all the courage he has and begins speaking with Smaug:

Bilbo was now beginning to feel really uncomfortable. Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled and an uncomfortable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell. But plucking up courage he spoke again. (Tolkien 211).

Bilbo’s courage turns him into a hero for when he speaks to Smaug, the dragon becomes very angry that someone is trying to steal his treasure. Therefore Smaug leaves his mountain to seek revenge and soon after the fire-breathing reptile is killed. Bilbo’s courage shows that he is a hero because if he had not courageously talked to Smaug, the dragon would not have ultimately died and Bilbo and his friends would not have received their treasure. Being courageous is an important element of a hero, but there are other virtues that a hero has.

Loyalty is another virtue that every hero, including Bilbo, possesses. In the book, The Hobbit, Bilbo’s friends are captured by giant spiders in the forest of Mirkwood. The writer of Tolkien’s World says, “On the way [Bilbo] undergoes frightening but sobering adventures and grows considerably in heroic stature, acquiring a sword in an unexpected way and later using it in most unhobbitlike fashion [...] attacking the spiders of Mirkwood” (Helms 21). Bilbo, who manages to escape, puts on a magic ring that makes him invisible and goes after the spiders to rescue his friends. He finds the spiders and begins a long and dangerous battle that he eventually wins. He finds his friends and releases them. Knowing that hobbits hate fighting and adventures makes one wonder why Bilbo would fight to save his friends. He could have easily run away to safety. Instead, because he is a loyal and good friend who has virtue, he stays and bravely kills the spiders. Courage and loyalty are needed, but a character must have something more to complete the combination of things that make a hero.

Being clever and smart is the last quality a hero must have. The book, The Tolkien Companion, describes Bilbo Baggins to be “as much remembered for his scholarship and skill in making songs, as for his proven courage, gallantry, ‘adventurous’ tendencies and great generosity” (Tyler 61). An example from The Hobbit of Bilbo's artifice occurs after he frees his friends from the spiders. This time, wood elves capture Bilbo’s friends, but he is not captured because he is wearing his magic ring. Instead of running away like a coward, Bilbo follows the elves to their palace and hides there trying to think of an escape plan for his friends. Stealthily, Bilbo acquires the keys to the palace jail and devises a plan of escape. Loading his friends into empty barrels, he tricks the elves into freeing them when the elves send the load of ‘empty’ barrels down the river. He has enough artifice that his plan works and his friends go free. Saving his friends makes Bilbo a hero, but it wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t been so clever. Now it is apparent how important Bilbo’s artifice is to his role as a hero in The Hobbit.

After examining courage, loyalty, and artifice it is apparent that Bilbo Baggins is a literary example of a hero. Bilbo’s bravery surely proves that he has the potential to be called a hero. By courageously speaking to Smaug, Bilbo encourages people to stand up against evil and inspires them to be courageous. His loyalty is another reason that he is known as a hero. Just as Bilbo goes against his timid nature, others might be inspired to follow his example and overcome their fears to do something worthwhile. Lastly, his artifice shows that he is clever enough to be a hero. Few would expect that being cunning is an important part of heroism, but Bilbo would have been lost without it. After putting all of these virtues together it is apparent that Bilbo Baggins is truly a literary example of a hero and certainly deserves the title. One can learn that the least and smallest of people can be a hero. This is also true for heroes in real-life.

Whether fictional or real, over the course of time no two people have been exactly the same. Within the population some have accomplished more than others. Often these people become very popular and can even be called idols. In today’s society idols are a very common topic. Too many are admired for unimportant things like beauty or money, when there are only a few who actually deserve to be idolized. These deserving people are the ones who inspire the human race. Individuals like this can be called heroes. By examining the lives of Harriet Tubman, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr., it can be understood why these historical figures are excellent examples of the word hero.

Harriet Tubman is a hero who displayed courage and stayed loyal to the people who mattered most to her in life. In The Story of Harriet Tubman, it explains that in 1849 Harriet Tubman ran away from the plantation where she grew up only to return for her brothers in 1854 (Koestler-Grack 5). Her brave acts continued as she made a dozen trips back to the South to free other slaves between 1850 and 1860 (15). This led to the freedom of about 70 slaves (15). Soon she was known as the “Moses” of her people as she led them out of slavery and became a “conductor” on the underground railroad (15). She never left anyone behind on her journeys back and forth, which gave her the right to say, “I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger” (15). In 1862, during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman went to South Carolina and faithfully helped her people obtain jobs (18). She later became a spy for the Yankees and bravely led a raid on South Carolina, saving 756 slaves in the process (21,22). Following the Civil War, she made a home for poor blacks to show her loyalty and love for her people (25). On March 10, 1913, after living a long life of bravery and risking her life to be loyal to her people, Harriet Tubman died at the age of 91 (26). Her acts of courage and strength still inspire many to this day. Although Harriet Tubman is a wonderful example of a hero, there are people who show heroism in other ways.

Some heroes, like Mother Teresa, become heroic for doing what no one else is willing to do. For Mother Teresa, her motivation was God’s love. As told in Mother Teresa: Saint of the Poor, growing up in Albania at the age of 12, Mother Teresa felt God calling her to be a nun (Morgan 8). By the time she was 18, she became a nun in India (11). While teaching at a school there, she fell in love with the people of that country and began desiring to work with the poor (13-14). Because she believed it was important for every person to know they were loved, she soon opened a house for the dying and homeless and began her own order of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity (20,22). In 1979, Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize for her selfless acts of helping and loving the poor (29). In fact, she was so giving that she cancelled the Nobel Peace Prize dinner in order to donate the money to the poor (29). Her whole life was devoted to humbly doing what no one else wanted to do, loving the poor of India by living among them. She once said to “love until it hurts,” which she did passionately until her death in 1997 (36, 40). However, some heroes are not as gentle as Mother Teresa, but show their heroism in a more outspoken way.

Martin Luther King Jr. is a well-known inspiration to many because of his heroic acts of

standing up for what is right. The biography, Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Man Who Changed

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Things, explains how as a child Martin always wondered why blacks were not equal with whites (Greene 16). As he got older he realized that blacks and whites should be equal, and decided he would do something about it. He admired Gandhi’s philosophy of protesting in a peaceful fashion, so Martin Luther King Jr. followed this method (16). He soon began speaking out against the laws that were preventing blacks from doing things that whites could do. Even though his house was bombed (23) and as told in Martin Luther King, Jr.: Preacher, Freedom Fighter, Peacemaker, he was arrested 30 times, he continued to fight until exclusive laws were overturned (Nettleton 13). He continued speaking out and inspired many with his famous speech quoted in Speeches that Changed the World, where he said, “I have a dream that one day [...] right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!” (Montefiore 152). He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and saw his dream become reality as the Civil Rights Act became a law later that year (Nettleton 22). Seeking better living conditions for blacks, King continued his peaceful marches until sadly, on April 4, 1968, he was assassinated at the age of 39 (41, 46). Martin Luther King Jr. shows a side of heroism many do not recognize, which is living in peace while doing what is right.

Now that one has looked at the lives of Harriet Tubman, Mother Teresa, and Martin

Luther King Jr., it should be obvious that these three people are true heroes. Harriet Tubman’s bravery is a quality that many believe a hero should have. However, her other quality, loyalty, is even more important because it shows that she cared about people other than herself. Mother Teresa showed her heroic qualities by giving love to those who needed it most. Some might argue that she was not a hero, but if a hero is someone who inspires the human race then she certainly is one. Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspirational man who showed all people that being heroic is not about looking the best and the strongest, but it is about standing up for one’s beliefs. Individuals like these three deserve to be known as heroes. Many people think that saving lives and rescuing damsels in distress is what makes a hero, but as long as people do something meaningful for others, they are definitely qualified to be a hero!

Now that the definition, literary examples, and historic examples of heroes have been examined, it is obvious what a true hero is. Defining the word hero and its associated meanings should cause one to look at the word differently than before. It does not describe a hero as physically strong and outstanding, but as someone inspiring, courageous, who is able to overcome their fears, and one that watches over another. The literary example shown through J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit gives more depth to what many know as a hero. Through the main character, Bilbo Baggins, it becomes apparent that a hero is not always the biggest and strongest, but is the one who is the most loyal, courageous, and clever. Historic examples of heroism provide more realistic examples of a hero. Through the lives of Harriet Tubman, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr., it is apparent that selfless deeds, bravery, standing up for what is right, and love are also important parts of being a hero. Knowing all of these characteristics, one may find that there are more heroes in the world than they ever realized.


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