Definition of Hero
As a literary device, a hero can be defined as the principal character of a literary work. The term hero has been applied not only in the classical sense, but also in the modern literature for the principal character of a story, play or novel.
This term also is employed in another sense for the celebrated figures in certain ancient legends and heroic epics like Gilgamesh, the Iliad, Beowulf, or La Chanson de Roland. However, it has traveled a long way from a classical hero Oedipus and Odysseus to Hamlet and then modern hero, Willy Loman. From confrontation of monsters to mental dilemmas, a hero has transformed from an attractive prince to a common man.
Examples of Hero from Literature
Odysseus is the principal character of Homer’s epic “Odysse.” Odysseus is also known by his Latin name, Ulysses. As the king of Ithaca, Odysseus has been presented as the dominant character of the ten-year long Trojan War. He became famous due to his struggles in the war. Odysseus is well known for his brilliance, versatility, wit and ingenuity that an epithet “Odysseus the cunning” is used for his character. He is the best example of a larger-than-life-figure type of a classical hero.
Beowulf is the hero of the epic poem of the same title from Old English. The epic consists of 3182 alliterative lines and is considered the oldest surviving epic in the Old English. This long poem is supposed to have been written between 8th and the 11th century. As an adventurous hero from the race of Geats, who offers his help to the King of Danes against a monster called Grendel, Beowulf displays legendary courage and sacrifices his men to save the king. He fought the monster until his own death; thus achieving greatness in the ancient poetry, and becoming a classical hero of the English literature.
Hamlet is the hero of the play “Hamlet” written by William Shakespeare. He is a sort of modern hero in that he faces physical as well as psychological dilemmas. However, he is also akin to classical heroes, for he is a larger than life figure and the would-be king of Denmark after his uncle, Claudius. However, he is akin to a common man, a modern hero, in that he faces the same universal dilemmas about life and death as a common man faces. That is why Hamlet has achieved so much popularity, for he represents a common man facing common problems, despite his being a prince.
Modern hero is reduced to a common man, who simultaneously suffers the “slings and arrows” of the time and society. It is because an ordinary man has the same life as a king has. Therefore, Arthur Miller has made Willy Loman a hero of his famous play, Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman represents a common man who could not face the pressure of the modern world and commits suicide. The difference between Willy Loman and Hamlet shows that evolution that a hero has gone through from a prince facing common problems to a common man facing common problems.
Function of a Hero
A hero is the major character of a narrative. In classical sense, the hero is not only involved in dangerous adventures or wars, but also in feats and exploits of unparalleled courage and bravery. He possesses extraordinary mental faculties and physical abilities. He takes the narrative long with him to the end that is usually his victory or, in some cases, his death. However, a modern hero plays a complex role in facing mental dilemmas, as he is an ordinary man intended to bring out complex modern psychological issues, a modern man faces. This long journey of a hero from a prince to a common salesman has brought several changes in a narrative, turning tragedy into a tragi-comedy and a complex modern tragedy, absurd writings and then modern pieces. Therefore, the character of a hero in a literary piece not only brings unity in action, but also makes other characters prominent when they are compared and contrasted with him. That is why a hero is considered the central figure of a narrative or a play, and even if a hero is not present in a piece, efforts are made to create one.