The Importance of Heroism

Happy New Year!

I hope you had an enjoyable holiday season. I’m feeling rested and refreshed from a lovely time with family and friends. My husband and I were reunited after several months living in different countries. My brother came into town with his family, and my nephew was home from college. All in all, we had much to celebrate — and celebrate we did!

Now the season is fading, and the New Year getting under way. Many of my colleagues will be back in action at Avila University starting on Monday. I’m trying to decide when to take down the Christmas tree, and prepping many things for my upcoming spring sabbatical in Costa Rica. I expect to have much to share with you during 2015, and I look forward to your company along the way. 🙂

Over the holidays I continued reflecting on my favorite books of 2014. Rising above them all, as many of you probably remember, was Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al Rassan. Along the way I discovered that I’m not the only person who compares Kay to that other great story teller, George R.R. Martin.

When comparing two story-telling titans, who comes out on top really boils down to certain personal preferences. Both of these authors appeal to me because they write tales that communicate a sweeping expanse of history. They craft rich and complex cultures, plots packed with intrigue, and characters who are well-rounded and beautifully flawed.

Yet when all is said and done, as much as I admire Game of Thrones, my vote for the better story goes to The Lions of Al Rassan.

One element of Al Rassan that appeals to me is its treatment of heroism.

Heroism can have many definitions. The most inspiring kind of heroism, in my mind, is a sort of day-to-day heroism, in which ordinary persons rise above a landscape of human failures and cruelties to remind us of the best in all of us. This type of heroism is not necessarily accomplished by slaying a dragon or charging into battle. It’s accomplished through kindness and service given to others, sometimes at great personal risk.

Heroism is the capacity to reach across boundaries of culture and conflict toward a place of compassion and better understanding. On an individual level, it will rarely change the course of history in one fell swoop, but it almost invariably changes each of us as persons. It lights our way with hope and gives us companionship in the darkest of times.

One of the many things I’ve learned from Kay’s work is that I really really like to see this kind of heroism in my stories.

Westeros, as richly imagined as it is, has little patience for heroes or heroines of this sort. As one advances through A Song of Ice and Fire, it becomes increasingly clear that kindness will get the characters nowhere. The more vile the person is, the more likely he or she will win the game. Characters who begin with some sense of honor eventually learn they must set this aside in favor of ruthless cunning and a thirst for vengeance. They must do this or they, like Ned Stark, will perish. (I suppose I should mention at this point that my analysis is strictly limited to the novels as originally written; the HBO series has tinkered with the story, introducing plot lines and characters that soften this aspect of the saga.)

I know we live in a cruel world, and as a reader I never look for books that deny this. But we also live in a world of hope, in which there are countless small acts of heroism every day. I like to see this aspect of human nature celebrated in our fiction, just as much as I like to see the dark side exposed and dissected. For me, the greatest tales reflect the full range of human nature. Al Rassan is one of those great tales. It’s the kind of story telling that I aspire to.

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