Once upon a time, princesses with golden hair and angelic faces waited in dark castles for the tender first kiss of a prince, strong of arm, fearless of spirit, and pure in heart. When his lips chastely touched hers and the evil that bespelled her vanished like a soap bubble popping, there remained no question whether or not he would make a suitable husband. A happy marriage was certain because only men pure of heart and divine of character could break the spell. Magic, both in the form of vengeful evil fairies and in the bounds of most storytelling, acted as the filter for all heroes. The good succeeded, evil failed, and rare was the tale that suggested otherwise.
In my childhood, when Sleeping Beauty might as well have been glued into the VCR as often as I watched it, the closest I got to a hero with less than pure motives was Han Solo, and let’s face it, his greed was more a survival mechanism than a true reflection of the man within. All my childhood heroes stolidly clung to good: The Red Ranger, Batman for all his dark knight trappings, Spock, and Prince Philip/Eric/Aladdin/etc. And the stories they reflected mostly dealt with good and evil, with uncovering the true purity within, and with vanquishing an unquestionable evil.
Of course, there are exceptions, and for the sake of length, I must make some generalities. However, this story type is evident throughout a good chuck of fiction over the centuries. Take Achilles or Odysseus. According to modern standards, they are far from good. Achilles whines, Odysseus cheats on his wife, and yet, according to their time, these men represented the ideals of the hero: strong, capable, powerful, and blessed by the gods. Take Arthurian legend. Of course, it teems with adultery, infanticide, betrayal, and murder in the vaulted name of chivalry. But in most Arthurian stories, only the pure of heart truly succeed. Only by embracing that which is starkly heroic can any knight achieve honor and contentment. Who gets the grail? It is not the adulterers or the greedy. It is noble, sinless Sir Galahad.
There’s a reason why White Hats and Black Hats became a stereotype. There’s a reason why Indiana Jones remained a solid frontrunner in the hero category and many of his villains were Nazis. For much of history, we drew clear lines between us and them, good and bad, pure and evil. Many stories, especially those in the speculative range, explored and reaffirmed that divide.
Why? Because it was comforting. When we identified ourselves in the hero, we reassured ourselves that we were good. When we saw our enemy in the villain, whether a Nazi or a sinner, we were affirmed in our judgment of our opposition. And our stories and heroes reflected that.
But times have changed in the post-modern era. To judge another as evil, lesser, or even other meets with condemnation. Our emphasis has shifted from a solid identity as a country, religion, or group to a mindset of globalization and the oneness of all humanity. It is no longer acceptable in many circles to draw those lines in the sand and proclaim good and evil. To do so is considered naive, backwater, and unenlightened. True good and true evil are far from acceptable definers in our post-modern world.
So what does that leave us with? To portray pureness in our fiction now feels unrealistic because our world demands that such concepts do not really exist. Sure, we give them to our children to a certain extent, perhaps because, on some level, we still long for that easy definition of good and want our children to rise to that high standard. But beyond children’s stories, we long for something to identify with. Since we can no longer easily identify with a White Hat and even often condemn him as an ignorant joke, our heroes and stories must explore the areas between good and evil, the grays.
In part, as Tegan Beechey says in “Why Are Our Heroes Getting Darker?” this shift represents maturation in fiction. Similar to our individual maturation as we shift from black and white tales of princesses and rescuing knights to the wider range of adult interests and the blurring of right and wrong, our culture of readers has done the same. As we grapple with morality in its varying degrees and the concept that we cannot define right and wrong because, in doing so, we are judging someone else, we are left with little more than the gray that can be argued and explored with safe abandon.
I consider the ability to present such a wide ranging alignment of character and plot a sign of the depths to which speculative fiction can now reach. But speculative fiction has always represented our culture’s (sub)consciousness. Before World War II and the shattering of the world’s innocence, as some might say, we were allowed stories of pure adventure and awing exploration. We were allowed to believe that greatness hovered just over the horizon. Who said we couldn’t travel around the world in 80 days or find dinosaurs deep beneath the Earth’s crust? Who could truly claim that an English lord could never become King of the Apes, teach himself to read and write, and learn to speak perfect French in a matter of days?
Today, we demand real people with similar problems to us. Few believe that a truly good person exists. After all, aren’t we all really selfish, materialistic, innately flawed, and stumbling through life just trying to keep our heads above water? What one of us doesn’t know someone who has been abused, suffered divorce, faced terminal illness, or been cheated in some aspect of life? Our heroes must face problems as large and painful as we do.
To me, this is both reassuring and sad. First, I am gratified that we can explore the full range of human nature in fiction. But I am saddened by the lack of faith in ourselves that this shift suggests. I think, though, that we want to believe in some deep seed of good, for even in our gray fiction, our heroes still tend to possess good hearts deep down, and in that, I find encouragement.
These are my views: that our tendency to write and read stories about gray heroes and plots represents both our willingness to engage the full range of life in our fiction but also reflects a disorientation of identity in our culture. Our search for identity bubbles up in our contemporary heroes who struggle as much as we do to find it. This is by no means a full picture, but it is a start. What do you guys think? Why have so many of our stories and heroes taken up gray hats and abandoned their white?
For further information on the subject of darker heroes, I highly recommend Tegan Beechey’s article.