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Double heroes

Can a story successfully sustain two heroes of equal status? By "hero" I mean both the one who takes the hero journey (as described by Joseph Campbell et al), and the one supported by the narrative structure as the focus. Ordinarily there is one hero (male, female, comic, tragic, or other), and their singularity reflects the deeper meaning of the hero journey: i.e., every person's individual growth into a wise adult, which ultimately can only be accomplished alone. However, I am wondering whether is it possible to tell a story that tracks two people's hero journeys, such that when asked, "Who is the hero?," the reader/listener/viewer has no choice but to say, "Well, they both are."

It's tempting to say Lord of the Rings is such a story. There are lots of "Sam is the real hero!" voices out there; plenty more who contend that Sam and Frodo accomplish it together on equal footing; and probably plenty who would say that you have Frodo on the one hand and Aragorn on the other, doing parallel hero journeys. They do get equal time in the books (and films). However, when asked the basic question, "Who is the thematic, central hero of Lord of the Rings?," basically everyone will say, "Frodo." Why? Because he has to carry the Ring, important task Numero Uno. Period. The story abounds with heroic characters other than Frodo, no question--which is why we love it--but he's at the very center.

The other night I saw Cold Mountain, and it gave me pause in wondering who the hero really was. Could be Ada, could be Inman. They both go through hell, certainly, and get equal time doing so; and their goal is to converge, so they share that equally in a way too. However, I'm tempted to lean toward Inman as the truer "hero," since he actually leaves home and journeys back again, rather than staying and suffering the way Ada must. (Good movie, by the way. It's been years since I read the book, but it seemed a good adaptation. Also, for some reason it pleased me that they gave Jack White an actual part. Does his own singing!) :)

So, anyway: can two heroes share a spotlight? Will it work? Or must one concede to the other?

Not that you care, but I ask because I'm trying to plot my next novel, and am getting the suspicion that I chose the wrong character as hero. Wondering if I should switch the label to the other guy, or see if I can work them both into the flip-sides of the same hero coin.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 8th, 2005 11:46 am (UTC)
Strange & Norrell, anyone? I figure as long as I am kept caring about whatever is Going On Now, it doesn't really matter who gets pegged as the official hero. My usual completely useless advice is "If it works, keep doing it. If not, stop."
Jun. 8th, 2005 12:00 pm (UTC)
Heh! Good example. Can't believe I didn't think of it. They're definitely flipsides of the same hero coin...one curmudgeonly, one modern...both getting into trouble. :)
Jun. 8th, 2005 01:27 pm (UTC)
Well, the 'duality' factor with questing-heroes happens quite a bit in literature. Four examples off of the top of my head:
In The Odyssey you are provided with both Odysseus and his son, Telemachus.
In King Lear you have two old men protagonists, Lear and Gloucester.
In Pride and Prejudice you have the two sisters who are foils of one another but who are still equally heroes/protagonists.
In Lonesome Dove you have Gus and Woodrow Call going on a literal and figurative journey for different reasons that isolates both.

Those are just a few... as far as literary mechanics go, it isn't that rare.

Jun. 8th, 2005 01:52 pm (UTC)
Instinctively I'd call Elizabeth the heart/hero(ine) of Pride & Prejudice, since it's her achieved union with Darcy that forms the climax of the story--the other sister's (or sisters', actually) tribulations all contribute and build up to hers. It's been too long since I've examined Odyssey or Lear to comment on those...though in general, Shakespeare was good at naming plays after the central character, which makes me guess many readers would hand the "who the story revolves around" prize to Lear himself. But by that token, Romeo and Juliet might be a good dual example. And I think Gus & Call are also a good example--it's hard for me to choose who the overall hero of that story would be. Similarly, maybe Butch & Sundance. :) Guess they aren't terribly rare...
Jun. 8th, 2005 05:15 pm (UTC)
I meant Sense and Sensibility :)
Jun. 8th, 2005 04:31 pm (UTC)
However, when asked the basic question, "Who is the thematic, central hero of Lord of the Rings?," basically everyone will say, "Frodo."

I disagree. In my opinion, it is Gandalf. He is the Maya who orchestrates the Middle-Earthly struggle against the evil Maya Sauron.

(Parenthetically, this raises some other questions. We are told that the Istari order, the Council of Wizards, numbers five individuals. Of these, only three (Gandalf, Saruman, and Radaghast the Brown) are ever mentioned by name; presumably the other two are around somewhere but irrelevant to this tale. One of them is apparently "killed" during the course of the saga, and returns; another is apparently "killed" near its end and ???)

(Can Mayar be physically killed? Ultimately, what happened to the Balrog?)
Jun. 8th, 2005 07:01 pm (UTC)
Since Gandalf does the coming-back-to-life bit, there is some argument for that. In the J. Campbell order of things, though, he serves pretty clearly as the Mentor to the Hero, providing said Hero with nifty magical Gifts to use along the way.

And I have no idea what happened to the other Mayar or the Balrog. :) Thought the Balrog was smote. Smitten?
Jun. 10th, 2005 06:12 pm (UTC)
Jun. 9th, 2005 06:42 am (UTC)
I see Frodo as definitely the hero of LOTR, because he was the one with the most important conflict that had to be resolved (his struggle with the ring). Sam, Aragorn, and Gandalf may have been equally important to the quest, but ultimately it wasn't their conflict.
For your story, I would ask yourself which character has the more interesting conflict and which conflict better serves your plot and theme, then choose your hero accordingly.
Jun. 9th, 2005 02:35 pm (UTC)
Have you ever read Wilderness by Zelazni? I don't know if it counts, but there are two characters, each trying to get to civilization from, well, wilderness, and there is a gap in um... I think something like 40 years between each encounter, but each character gets a chapter, then the story switches to the other one, and then it's back to the first one, and so on. The stories intertwine, the dreams, imagery is similar, but it's really hard to describe the book. The point is, I don't think there is any way to say who's the hero of the book, since it's basically just the two of them, and they each get equal share of the story.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )