Here you go–a genuine Viking Super Hero. Well, OK, maybe a bit over the top. Went for some vaguely Icelandic/Norwegian colors (check out the flags), plus a big “V” pattern for “Viking” (duh), his mask is (hopefully) reminiscent of a Viking helmet, and his cape is fastened like a Viking age cape with a brooch/pin. I added the arrows shooting from his fingers because, well, half the super heroes out there shoot stuff from their fingers or hands (or eyes, or whatever), and wouldn’t it be arrows in the Viking age? Actually, I got pretty excited when I first read Arrow Odd’s saga and found an actual super villain shooting arrows from his fingers!! Let’s hear it for Ögmundr, the doppelgänger nemesis of hero Örvar-Oddr (who has a super-shirt and some super arrows of his own). This amazing power has now been harnessed for the side of truth, justice, and the Viking Way. The muscles are inspired by my own, of course. If YOU would like to feel like a hero, please go to my DeviantArt page and buy a print or mug with this beautiful, completely and totally authentic picture of a Viking Super Hero, and support your local neighborhood Norse Mythologist!
Heroes and heroism of a wide variety of flavors are on my mind at the moment. Watching the Olympics right now. Just finished rewatching Captain America, showed both of my summer courses the movie Thor a few weeks ago (painful, but I’ll cover the problems with the movie some other time), and enjoyed Joss Whedon’s Avengers a week or two before that. Watched the new Spider-man movie, after having it recommended by a friend I admire very much, who also told me about just how meaningful the Spider-man movies have been in her life (it was pretty legit, actually, and led to some of the thoughts later in this post). My nieces are now playing with my old Marvel Superheroes Role Playing Game that I picked up in Jr. Hi. Rereading Lord of the Rings right now, and while I know the plot backwards and forwards, I’m finding myself especially inspired this time by the perseverance of the protagonists in the face of uncertainty and despair, by the humble heroism of the hobbits, and even by the humble heroism of the more traditional heroes, from Aragorn to Prince Imrahil (they may not always seem to come off as humble servant-leaders, but I think that’s more a result of Tolkien’s infatuation with high style and formal dialogue in those portions).
I think one may legitimately criticize the very idea of “heroism” in the history of Western culture (as in this review of Gene Wolfe’s Wizard Knight)–the heroes I study in Norse literature are certainly very closely identified with the exalted image the Icelandic aristocracy had of itself–but I think the idea of a “hero” still holds a lot of very positive potential. If we want to encourage kids (or adults) to use whatever powers, abilities, advantages they have been given for the good of others, in particular on behalf of those without the same degree of agency, then why not invoke the cultural capital of “hero” as a term? Well, OK, that can easily turn into some exaltation of the preferred class (upper middle class white kids, for example, or aristocratic sons of Icelandic chieftains and other large land owners), along the lines of the white-savior complex that critics have seen in the Stop Kony campaign (no further comment there right now– other than, it’s good to help people, it’s hard to do it well, we should keep trying to help people even though we won’t get it completely right, and we should keep trying to get it completely right). More difficult, but certainly possible, is the use of the figure of the “hero” to give the disadvantaged a hope for responsible power and agency of their own. That’s a complex issue though, and I won’t tackle it here.
I don’t know if any instance of the “hero” can hold itself entirely aloof from criticism (even significant criticism), but I do think a lot of the weight here lies in reception, in the way in which the audience/individual uses the figure of the hero in the construction and development of their own identity. Take the obvious wish-fulfillment of super powers, or just the heroic stature of anyone from Indiana Jones to Helgi Hundingsbani. It does matter how the author/teller sets up the premise, but generally I think there is room for either a more narcissistic identification with the hero (LOOK AT ME I AM AWESOME AND WILL SAVE YOU ALL!!!!), or a more nuanced use of the hero as a way to meditate on oneself as a unique individual with power to affect the world for good or for ill. “With great power…” well, OK, maybe that’s been said too many times, but there are still moments when I am able to “get it” and appreciate the sense of responsibility it gives.
What about the fact that not everyone gets to “be” the hero? The hero is typically set off from the rest of the world, after all–their exceptionalism seems to be part and parcel of the role. Nevertheless, I think the moral imperative of the self-sacrificing, serving hero is prominent enough in the semantics of our cultural production that I am still comfortable striving to be “heroic” myself, and wishing that everyone else would as well. As Karl Lionheart says in Astrid Lindgren’s Bröderna Lejonhjärta, if everyone were like his heroic yet pacifist brother Jonatan, there would be no “Tengils” in the world (Tengil is the evil dictator of the book) and no need for battles to defeat them. Would I throw myself in the way of bullets for someone else, girlfriend or not? I hope that I would–because if we had a world full of people willing to give their lives for others, then we wouldn’t have to worry about those bullets in the first place. Meanwhile I am becoming more aware of just how much cultivation of the heart, mind, and body (in terms of good instincts, not big muscles) it takes to behave selflessly–heroic stature feels a bit further off than it did when I sat in my room reading comic books in Junior High.
All these notes assume we identify with the hero–but I’ve heard a compelling reading of the heroes in comic books and westerns which would primarily take them as an outgrowth of a democratic society’s anxiety over both the monstrous and the exceptional. Lots of interesting stuff there, but I will wait to talk about that another time (esp. since I can’t remember who wrote the study in question…)
Anyway, there are some random thoughts that have been percolating in my brain the last couple weeks!
Edit: Just remembered this article on Comic Con which my friend Julie posted on her blog— all about the collision of the thoughtful and the thoughtless in the world of heroes. But this is probably material for another post…