Sam Leith Sam Leith

Who are today’s fictional heroes?

Are there any heroes left at all? Lee Child, for one, avoids the word, preferring to regard Jack Reacher as a protagonist

What’s a hero? There are probably at least two answers to that. One is that heroism is a moral quality: to do with courage above all but, in its wider connotations, to do with altruism or protectiveness and self-sacrifice. The answer that probably precedes that one, though, is a more technical, narratological one: the hero is the star of a story. In storytelling terms it’s a matter of narrative focus, and the reader’s implied identification with one character above the others — or, perhaps, admiration rather than identification. Heroes are bigger, braver, more purposeful, more important than the ordinary run of humanity.

It happens that on the whole the aforementioned moral qualities have come to be attached to heroes. That’s encouraging, anthropologically speaking. But as Lee Child points out, the holotype of the literary hero came to be Odysseus: ‘One who suffers, one who endures, one who survives a long and complicated journey through dangers and perils, and thereafter emerges with his honour and identity intact.’ In fact, he writes: ‘Odysseus was motivated solely by personal pride, hubris and arrogance, but the 19th century preferred to imagine an element of altruism in his struggles.’

These days, though, ‘hero’ is a bit of a blunt instrument as a literary-critical term. Is Achilles a hero? Is Robinson Crusoe? Is Marlow? Is Ahab? Is Emma? Is Raskolnikov? Graduate essays could be — and probably have been — written on whether Meursault is the hero of L’Etranger. Pupils at Key Stage 2 might be encouraged to talk about heroes, but the sort of people who read or write for the TLS will tend to prefer ‘protagonist’ — and you might identify it as a defining quality of what gets called literary fiction these days that it’s reluctant to have heroes in it.

So it’s in that sense a bit of a provocation that the TLS launches its new publishing arm with a short book called The Hero by probably the best-selling thriller writer on the planet, and someone whose books about the itinerant ex-military cop Jack Reacher very definitely contain a hero.

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