The true hero is the person who knows what it means to sacrifice.
I have always made a distinction between bravery and courage. To my mind, bravery is an instinctive reaction. The person doesn't have time to think or weigh the pros and cons of a particular action; he simply acts. It is bravery that allows a person to dash into a burning house and save a little child, to run forward and snatch another out of harm's way. It is an instinctive, spur of the moment, emotionally based reaction. Courage, on the other hand, is something very different. Courage is a reasoned, rational decision, a decision made by someone who knows what will follow, the consequences of his choice and all that he stands to lose. And who chooses that way anyway. Because he believes in a greater good. Because he is willing to sacrifice what he most values, what he holds dear, for the sake of that higher good.
Because he lives for something larger than himself.
This is the person who makes books special for me. My favorite books all include this type of hero. He is rarer than you think. Many books resort to archetypal black and white depictions of their heroes. Many authors refuse to allow for reality. But there are those that do, those that depict exactly this kind of sacrifice. And it's reading those books that uplifts you, that raises you higher, that makes you realize that you believe in something more than yourself, that you too have a dream and that you too will make that sacrifice one day. Because this is who you want to be. This kind of true hero.
When did I encounter him first? It must have been McMurphy. Has there ever been a man like McMurphy? I love him through and through.
McMurphy is a con man. He is in it for himself. His every action focuses around himself; he is an egotistical, self-centered bastard who is in it for the money. That's what his actions say. That's even what he says. So for a while, he fights against the Big Nurse, against the Combine, but then he realizes that he is committed and that the patients were using him to fight their battle. So he gets cagey. He starts toeing the line. He does exactly what the Big Nurse wants. Because, in his words, "I don't mean nothing personal, you understand, buddies, but screw that noise. I want out of here just as much as the rest of you. I got just as much to lose hassling that old buzzard as you do" (Kesey 167).
But that's when Harding sets him right and explains that McMurphy has more to lose than any of them. Because the majority of them aren't committed. And McMurphy gets quiet and then he gets angry. Because he can't understand how it's possible- how these men have been so beaten down, so hurt, are so emasculated-that they are here voluntarily. They're not even committed.
And this is when the great change occurs. It occurs slowly, subtly; change is always incremental. But McMurphy is no longer fighting for himself. Because he has absolutely nothing to gain from this- and everything to lose. No, now he is fighting for something greater than himself. He's fighting for their freedom, to help them, to build them up and set them free.
And at the last, McMurphy is the one who chooses to sacrifice himself for them, who chooses to give up everything that he is; his grand, wonderful and exciting life, for them. He has ample opportunity to get out of that ward. Harding warns him and tells him to get out. But he chooses to stay. Because he's committed, and he has to see it through.
And it's the ending that makes him a hero, because this was his choice. At the beginning, when he was hassling the Big Nurse, he had no idea what he was getting into. But then he learned, and he got cagey. And then he got over being cagey, knowing full well what it would cost him, knowing the price he would have to pay, choosing it, and he put himself on the line and he fought- because it was the right thing to do.
- We couldn't stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn't the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving-picture zombies that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after the humor had been parched dry between two electrodes.
We made him stand and hitch up his black shorts like they were horsehide chaps, and push back his cap with one finger- like it was a ten-gallon Stetson, slow, mechanical gestures- and when he walked across the floor you could hear the iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile.
Only at the last- after he'd smashed through that glass door, her face swinging around, with terror, forever ruining any other look she might ever try to use again, screaming when he grabbed for her and ripped her uniform all the way down the front, screaming again when the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out, bigger than anybody had ever even imagined, warm and pink in the light- only at the last, after the officials realized that the three black boys weren't going to do anything but stand and watch and they would have to beat him off without their help, doctors and supervisors and nurses prying those heavy red fingers out of the white flesh of her throat as if they were her neck bones, jerking him backward off of her with a loud heave of breath, only then did he show any sign that he might be anything other than a sane, willful, dogged man performing a hard duty that finally just had to be done, like it or not.
He gave a cry. At the last, falling backward, his face appearing to us for a second upside down before he was smothered on the floor by a pile of white uniforms, he let himself cry out:
A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn't care any more about anything but himself and his dying.
~One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 267
But it is not only this obvious sacrifice that makes someone a hero. It is the sacrifice of anything that one cares for for the sake of a higher good; it need not be one's life. Dying is the most extreme example. A true hero is someone who does not make his decision in the heat of the moment but who makes it after much reflection and thought, who comes to his decision rationally and coolly, who truly understands his choice and will follow through on it. Such a person is Frodo Baggins.
In perhaps the most chilling scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, everyone remains silent, wondering who will embark upon this suicidal task. This is one of the great errors in Peter Jackson's film version, for he turns the scene into a brawl and a fight, which Frodo ends by exclaiming, "I will take the ring!" But there is a quiet power to the way in which Tolkien structures the scene. Everyone has heard about this ring of doom and the impossible burden and toll it will take upon its bearer. And then:
- No one answered. The noon-bell rang. Still no one spoke. Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. A great dread fell upon him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.
"I will take the Ring," he said, "though I do not know the way."
~The Fellowship of the Ring, 303
And he pays. He pays dearly. As he explains to Sam:
- So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
The Return of the King, 345
The same happens with Prince Lir and Lady Amalthea in The Last Unicorn. Lady Amalthea protests and tells Lir that he should not allow the magician to change her back into a unicorn. She tells him of the consequences, makes it very clear that as a unicorn she will not and cannot love him, despite his love for her. She is willing to live out the rest of her days as a mortal and to forego her quest. But Prince Lir is a hero. And in a sad but infinitely beautiful statement, he informs her:
The word escaped him as suddenly as a sneeze, emerging in a questioning squeak- the voice of a silly young man mortally embarrassed by a rich and terrible gift. "No," he repeated and this time the word tolled in another voice, a king's voice: not Haggard, but a king whose grief was not for what he did not have, but for what he could not give.
"My lady," he said, "I am a hero. It is a trade, no more, like weaving or brewing, and like them it has its own tricks and knacks and small arts. There are ways of perceiving witches and of knowing poison streams; there are certain weak spots that all dragons have, and certain riddles that hooded strangers tend to set you. But the true secret of being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock at the witch's door when she is away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned, prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story."
The Lady Amalthea did not answer him. Schmendrick asked, "Why not? Who says so?"
"Heroes," Prince Lir replied sadly. "Heroes know about order, about happy endings- heroes know that some things are better than others. Carpenters know grains and shingles, and straight lines." He put his hands out to the Lady Amalthea, and took one step toward her. She did not draw back from him, nor turn her face; indeed, she lifted her head higher, and it was the prince who looked away.
~The Last Unicorn, 179-180
But perhaps the greatest hero is Taran Wanderer. He wishes to wed the Princess Eilonwy, but wants to be worthy of her. He therefore goes on a journey to find out who he is, hoping that he is of noble birth. He is obsessed with visions of glory and honor, of the birth that is his by right and the fact that he would then be able to ask for her hand in marriage. But his journey is one of discovery, and by the end of it he has realized the truth about his dreams.
- "When I was a child I dreamed of adventure, glory, of honor in feats of arms. I think now that these things are shadows."
"If you see them as shadows then you see them for what they are," Annlaw agreed. "Many have pursued honor, and in the pursuit lost more of it than ever they could gain. But I did not mean a hired sword..."
Taran Wanderer, 261
- "As for my parentage," he added, "it makes little difference. True kinship has naught to do with blood ties, however strong they may be. I think we are all kin, brothers and sisters one to the other, all children of all parents. And the birthright I once sought, I seek it no longer. The folk of the Free Commots taught me well, that manhood is not given but earned. Even King Smoit in Cantrev Cadiffor told me this, but I did not heed him.
"Llonio said life was a net for luck; to Hevydd the Smith life was a forge; and to Dwyvach the Weaver-Woman a loom. They spoke truly, for it is all of these. But you," Taran said, his eyes meeting the potter's, "you have shown me life is one thing more. It is clay to be shaped, as raw clay on a potter's wheel."
~Taran Wanderer, 271
I have wondered for a long time what it is that I would have to sacrifice. And I have wondered whether I would have the courage to do so, knowing the price, knowing the consequences, knowing full well what it would cost.
I think I know now.
And as for the rest, only time will tell.