A few days ago, I was listening to the song “Hail the Hero” by Celtic Thunder, and something in the lyrics struck me:
“Hail the hero, strong and true,
Who fought the fight, and saw it through,
Who swore he ne’er would be a slave
And gave his life our land to save.”
Do you see it? No? Look at this line then:
“And gave his life our land to save.”
There’s been a subtle shift in the focus of what is being protected in a story. It used to be that the hero was trying to save a land, a world, or a people as a whole rather than being devoted to an individual. They gave everything “for the land.” Often, rulers were tied to the land in some way, either through mystical means (having a literal bond with the earth) or through responsibility as a prince or princess, a king or queen.
But now, when you look at fiction you see that the heroes aren’t motivated to risk their lives because their land is in danger. They do it because an individual they care about is in danger. You see it more in television now than in books, but even those stories are shifting the protection from lands to individuals. Heroes are finding someone to care about rather than something. Granted, a lot of the time the land or world is in danger too, and by saving it they also save their loved ones, but the motivation is different. While the outcome may be the same, the choices and internal drive of the character is different.
The idea that the individual is important is a relatively new concept in human history. Before the modern era, the only people who stood as individuals were the rulers of nations and the highest of the aristocracy. They had the land, the money, the bloodlines, the status. Everyone else was a colorless serf, tied to the land, essentially part of it, working in abject drudgery until they died. As technology improved, wealth and leisure time increased to the point that people started to gain control of their own destinies. The old orders and rigid hierarchies based on bloodline, responsibility, and personal honor started to break down.
Today, nationalism, or pride in one’s own country, has fallen into suspicion. The old idea of patriotism which helped the Founding Fathers through the Revolutionary War is now regarded as a joke, the knee-jerk reaction of gun-toting hill-billies and ignorant rednecks. It honestly saddens me that national pride and personal honor have fallen into such disrepute, although like any idea, indulging in excess can cause great harm.
The changes in attitudes are reflected in our stories. Our heroes may still save the world from destruction, but they aren’t doing it because they love the Earth or America or feel it is their sworn duty or a matter of honor to serve and protect. They do it because they love a certain person and want to protect them. I’ll admit that it adds a human element that is sometimes lacking in older literature. And I’m not saying the change is necessarily a bad thing. But our stories reflect the times, the values and interests held by the people living in them, so it’s interesting to trace this change through our media.
Take a look sometime, especially at the new interpretations of old stories, and see what you find. What did people find important at the time the story was created, and what shifted focus in its retelling?