Honor and Heroism

sturmI've always been one for the tragic hero.  Growing up I enjoyed reading stories about the valiant man who bravely died due to this or that.  I remember reading the Dragonlance Chronicles novels as a kid (a rite of passage for any true gamer geek) and being of course drawn to Sturm Brightblade.  Sturm was a member of the disgraced Knights of Solamnia and clung to his honor.  He got himself killed by standing up on the battlements of a castle and challenging a dragon he had no chance of actually killing to allow his friends to defeat an enemy army.  Honor was a huge part of who Sturm was, and it was an ideal I looked up to a lot as a child.

My favorite heroes were always the knights who would do anything to preserve honor.  I recently read through Red Branch again, which is a great novel about Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster in Irish myth.  There's a portion near the end where Cuchulain is obligated by honor to engage in single combat to the death against his best friend.  Here's part of it:

There is no way out for either of us, Cuchulain thought bitterly. Sencha the brehon had once taught him, convinced him: Honor is the treasure no one can take from you; honor is the shield no one can penetrate unless you let him. Now, honor had brought the two of them to an incy river on a bitterly cold day to try to kill each other for something neither could touch or taste or hold in his hands. Honor has somehow failed us, Cuchulain thought, wishing he had time to puzzle it through. But there was no time left. 

braveheart Braveheart is one of my favorite movies, something for which I have often (and perhaps rightly) been mocked.  As a teenager when I first saw it I was very taken in by the nobility of William Wallace and his quest for FRREEEEEEDOOOM from tyranny.  My friend Jeff was always a bit more skeptical of such displays, as was Adam; if I remember correctly they both saw Wallace's war as a personal quest for revenge over the killing of his wife rather than a battle for the power of the people.  Our motives are rarely as pure as we would like to think they are.

Honor is often another name for human pride and ego.  We build fortresses around our pet causes, construct monuments to ourselves, and call them honor.  True honor is something greater than a knight refusing to be insulted - it is a knight being insulted and refusing to exact revenge.  It is too easy for us to use concepts like honor and justice to achieve whatever ends we want and try to increase our standing in the eyes of others.  The truly honorable man is the one who is able to move beyond the perception others have of him and his honor, and do what is right.  I would be hard pressed to think of a situation where the right thing to do would be "demand satisfaction" (read that with a southern accent, please) from someone who has wounded my pride or made me look foolish in front of others.  Real honor is seldom as glorious as we imagine, and real human heroes are never free from stain, but both are worth having.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Michael says... who would be mocked someone for Braveheart being their favorite movie? Maybe someone mocking excessive manliness. But even so, Braveheart is a solidly respectable movie. Now if Starship Troopers were your favorite movie that would have been lame but Braveheart was quality.
As for honor, as a youth I always interpretted the manly dsire to protect one's honor as the strong demanding respect for their strength. I have several older brothers and am practiced at giving that respect but I never thought the desire for that respect was a virtue. I followed Confucious who said "Do not worry if people respect you or not. Worry whether or not you are worthy of their respect."
But then again I have always admired the Loki/Merlin characters in the old stories... and I do sincerely quote Confucious. That does detract from my opinion.