A New Type of Hero? Equestrian Statues, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and A Really Cool Yorkshire Mother
I’ve been thinking a lot about heroism lately, and how we have come to define that term. Despite the birth of existentialism and Camus’ celebration of the ‘Sisyphean hero,’ overall I don’t think our definition of heroism has shifted much from the classical and religious tropes we know and love: courage, sacrifice, honor and duty, family first, a kind of ‘nobility of soul’ that raises the man- it’s nearly always a man- ‘above the common swine.’ These kinds of heroes are unencumbered by the limitations placed on them by fate, society, natural law, or the laws of physics (here’s looking at you Superman). And whilst the ‘anti-hero’ trope goes some way towards imagining a more complicated type of hero, they’re similarly unburdened, usually through being some kind of criminal, misfit, or philanderer (here’s looking at you Eric from “True Blood.”)
Take a look at a typical Roman-inspired equestrian statue: Andrea del Verrocchio’s Bartolommeo Colleoni (1479). Here is the ‘classical’ hero of old. We can say a lot about his bearing and posture, all of which are contrived to convey a figure of noble bearing, courage, duty, blah blah blah. But what sums this up as a ‘hero’ for me is Colleoni’s disregard for limitations of any sort. Up on his pedestal he is naturally framed by the nothingness of air. With the horse’s front leg (nearly) always raised in equestrian statues, Colleoni and his mount look as if they’re about to trot off their plinth into a void that will, unrealistically, catch them, a bit like a comic-book hero smashing into earth only to bounce back up again right as rain.
OK, I know this is a bit of a leap, but Tywin Lannister from “Game of Thrones” personifies this type of hero perfectly, albeit in a slightly weird and twisted way. He ticks all the ‘hero’ boxes. Courageous? Yes. Willing to sacrifice anything? Definitely. A sense of honor and duty? Spadefuls of the stuff. Putting family first? This trait not only defines Tywin- it’s his entire ‘raison d’etre,’ even if he unwisely puts too high a price on the Lannisters’ reputation and name. In his surprisingly tender scenes with Arya in season two, this obsession was subtly revealed to be a sort of ‘tragic flaw:’ the hero derailed by a lust for power. Equestrian statues perfectly capture the Tywin spirit: once more into the fray, nothing will stop us, no limitations. What this type of hero frets about is getting caught up in human frailty and sentimentality. Hence Tywin cannot allow himself to feel anything approaching love for his family, for this would undermine his abilities as a leader and conqueror. The fact that he evidently is desirous of forming authentic attachments (to Arya) suggests that he has sacrificed this part of himself for the ‘greater good.’ It’s a satirical reimagining of the classical hero, but it’s telling that we kind of, occasionally, sort of admire and root for Tywin. He’s a nasty piece of work- a villain to all intents and purposes- but because he possesses so many ‘hero’ characteristics we’re baited into wanting to like him.
Let’s contrast this type of heroism with another GOT character who, surely not coincidentally, bears a very similar name: his son, Tyrion. Tyrion is a dwarf, drinker and self-confessed whoremonger, outcast from his family, despised by his sister Cersei, and generally dealt a bad hand. Even after his moment in the sun, reluctantly leading the Lannisters to victory at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, he doesn’t receive any credit for playing the ‘hero.’ Despite his unheroic tendencies, Tyrion tends to wend a path towards doing the ‘right thing,’ but he does so by working within, not fighting against, his limitations. Tyrion knows he’s a bit of a coward, especially physically. He has no desire for battle-glory and is a terrible fighter, so enlists the mercenary Bronn to act as his personal body-guard. He knows, too, that the only way he can succeed in life is to accept the cards fate has dealt him. “Never forget you’re a bastard,” he advises Jon Snow when they first meet, “no one else will.” Tyrion, immodestly aware that he has a brilliant mind, does all he can to exploit this advantage to keep himself afloat. He’s not opportunistic; he’s just surviving. Tyrion displays many of the ‘classical hero’ traits- courage, duty, and ‘rightness,’ but he doesn’t seek to ‘be’ any of these things. He arrives at them because of his hyper-awareness of his limitations; for instance, refusing to sleep with Sansa because he knows she finds him physically repellant. Everyone has a breaking point, of course, and for Tyrion it’s at his trial, when he finally spits some rebellious vitriol at his condemners. But even here, it’s only because he knows and has accepted another limitation: that ‘all men must die.’
This new breed of hero is painfully aware of his limitations, though he’s not likely to mentally obsess over it like existential heroes do – he’s too cynical and self-deprecating for that. His limitations often force him to have to ‘fight’ for his own goodness and redemption, or even arrive at it inadvertently, and this is a breath of fresh air. These heroes aren’t tragically flawed, so-called because the hero can’t himself see the flaw, a.k.a Oedipus or GOT’s Obeyrn. This hero senses, groping in the dark perhaps, but senses, what is limiting him, and can thus either accept it or try to beat it down. I love “Mad Men’s” Don Draper because he’s so often on the verge of realization, but then it always escapes him as he gets sucked under by force of habit and societal obligations. It’s a real rollercoaster ride, but we appreciate him for trying nonetheless. With both Don Draper and Tyrion we are as unsure of their redemption as they are themselves, but their ongoing battle for it is where the inspiration lies.
It won’t have escaped your notice that the heroes I’ve been discussing are male, but there are female characters that embody qualities of Tyrion and Don. “Mad Men’s” Peggy is the strongest example, Skylar in “Breaking Bad,” is another, minus the cynicism, and I’d love to see GOT’s Margaery Tyrell have a bit more to do; she has all the makings of a strong female heroine. The problem is that female heroes tend to play second fiddle to the men who shape their lives. It’d be nice to see more stand-alone complex women on TV and film…and so on to David Hockney’s photo-portrait, “My Mother, Bradford, Yorkshire.” (1982).
This beautiful composite captures Tyrion and Don Draper’s type of heroism perfectly. Hockney’s mother seems all-too aware of the role she has been cast in, as captured neatly by the uber- reductive title and emphasized by the domestic setting and the family photo in the background. Although she has spent her entire life in this milieu, here she sits, throne-like, queen of her domain, proud and stoic. There is something slightly sad and wistful in her gaze, and a hint of passivity or resignation in her folded hands and crossed feet. The Picasso-esque photographic distortions are integral to the meaning of the work. They hint at an underlying chaos of mind that may have something to do with old age, but surely also to do with juggling multiple-roles and identities whilst living up to the regal title, “My Mother…” Yet this fragmentation and splitting of self doesn’t undermine the subject’s aura of strength and confidence one jot. At the same time as Hockney reduces her to a single role, he places her on a plinth of her own creation; one that acknowledges the shifts and slides, mistakes and uncertainties, defeats and victories that we all must confront every day. I’m pretty sure this is what heroism is, and I think David Hockney and George R.R Martin would agree with me.