When you hear the word hero, who do you picture? If you’re a Marvel fan you might think of Iron Man, Black Widow or Captain America. We look up to heroes like these because they can do what we can’t. They use their godlike powers to fight against evil, saving the world from one earthshaking supervillain after another. Whether our heroes have the shining idealism of Superman or the dark, gritty realism of Batman, they all use their power for good.
Power seems to be a precondition. If you don’t have power, how can you do anything? And the fantasy genre is famous for giving us powerful, larger-than-life characters. Fearless warriors clash against monsters from the depths of hell. Cunning wizards bring down the skies in magical duels to the death. Mighty knights battle against fierce, fire-breathing dragons. The people of medieval times were no strangers to such tales. One of their great heroes, Saint George, was famous for reportedly slaying a dragon.
But does a hero need to be powerful? While fantasy does give us some of the most powerful characters you’ll find anywhere, it also has the curious tendency of presenting us with heroes who seem weak and totally inexperienced. Think of young Charlie stepping into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or Bilbo Baggins being swept from his little hobbit hole on an adventure into a world of goblins and even a dragon. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is followed by a band of blundering misfits, including a brainless Scarecrow and a lion who’s afraid of his own shadow. These are not the heroes of ancient epic. At first glance they don’t look like heroes at all.
And yet, these kinds of characters resonate with us. Children are very often the ones we follow into fantasy worlds, whether it’s Alice tumbling into Wonderland or Harry Potter entering Diagon Alley. The works of author E. Nesbit are a perfect example of this trope. She was fond of child protagonists and featured a number of them in her short story collection called The Book of Dragons. The book is a clever and whimsical read which doesn’t take itself too seriously. I’d happily recommend you sample each story in the collection, but for now I’d like to draw your attention to just one of them. It’s a story called “The Deliverers of Their Country” and, as you may have guessed, it continues to subvert our expectations of just what makes the perfect hero.
The story begins with a plague of dragons descending upon late 19th century England. The first dragons to arrive are no bigger than insects but, while everybody is still arguing about what scientific name to bestow upon this fantastic new species, larger and more terrifying dragons soon follow. The newspapers refer to the creatures as “winged lizards.” Nesbit writes, “The papers would not call them dragons, because, of course, no one believes in dragons nowadays—and at any rate the papers were not going to be so silly as to believe in fairy stories.” The adults are clearly in denial. And so the first people to understand the dire situation are two young children. A girl named Effie and her brother Harry.
Having been raised on tales of epic heroes, the children know exactly what to do.
“We ought to wake St. George, of course,” said Harry. “He was the only person in his town who knew how to manage dragons; the people in the fairy tales don’t count. But St. George is a real person, and he is only asleep, and he is waiting to be waked up. Only nobody believes in St. George now. I heard father say so.”
Children approach problems from a different perspective, don’t they? They often see the simple solution rather getting bogged down in details and complexities. Effie and Harry believe that Saint George, despite having been dead for centuries, can still return to save the day—if only he’s woken up. You can’t fight dragons unless you believe in them. And you can’t wake dragon-slayers unless you believe in them too. So naturally it’s up to the children to do the waking. The adults in the story are not up to the task. Rather than panicking at the thought of a sea of dragons swallowing up the whole of England, these children do something truly heroic. They simply see what needs to be done and do it.
Nesbit’s story rewards Effie and Harry for their faith in the impossible and Saint George really does appear again in the flesh. You could not have asked for a better hero. After all, he’s the magnificent knight in shining armour who put his life on the line all those hundreds of years ago to save a city from the clutches of a cruel and bloodthirsty dragon. The perfect fantasy hero. And he shows up alive and well in modern times. Only there’s a problem. It seems there are too many dragons for his liking. As Saint George explains, “You should have waked me before. I was always for a fair fight—one man one dragon, was my motto.” He regrets to inform them that he'll be of no use. It appears his fighting days are behind him. And can you blame him? One man against a couple thousand dragons doesn’t seem reasonable.
And so, England’s perfect fantasy hero fails us. Saint George decides it’s better to go back to sleep than to face such a massive reptilian invasion. He leaves Effie and Harry to resist the dragons on their own. I won’t spoil the ending (you’ll have to read it yourself to believe it) but suffice it to say that our two heroes are not as quick to give up as the venerable saint. With a little help they wind up in just the right place at just the right time. Are they the classic image of power and heroism? Not in the least. But they play their part beautifully.
What separates the heroic from the unheroic? It might be the circumstances you are thrust into. Not everyone gets the chance to face off against a dragon army. Or it might be your resources and abilities. We all have different upbringings which push us in certain directions. We are all given different talents. But I would suggest that more important than all of these preconditions is how we choose to respond. What will you do with what you’ve been given? It isn’t only knights battling monsters who have to answer this question.
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies have their pros and cons, with shining moments and lamentable travesties, but they do include a brilliant quote which has to be repeated here. Though not original to the book, it gets to the heart of Tolkien’s work. In the film Gandalf says, “Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I've found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.”
Playing the part of the hero is little more than that. And it is certainly nothing less.