The Anti-Hero

The wonderful resources at Ted-Ed have yielded great content for Bear Skin. The next I’m sharing is about the evolution of the ‘anti-hero’.

It was literary theorist Northrop Fry who observed that in ancient times, heroes of literature were divine. As civilization advanced, heroes came down the mountain to become more mortal and flawed, less heroic.

The anti-hero is not the villain, not the antagonist. The anti-hero is the main character in some contemporary forms of literature.

The anti-hero is a normal conforming member of society, but one who increasingly and daringly questions the ills of society. The anti-hero challenges society but not in a  heroic manner. Sometimes the anti-hero runs away or is killed.

Our story telling ancestors calmed our fears of powerlessness but giving us Hercules, and other heroes strong enough to fight off the demons and monsters we suspected haunted the night beyond our campfires. But eventually, we realised the monsters did not live out there. They reside inside of us. Beowulf’s greatest enemy was mortality, Othello’s jealousy, Hiccup self doubt. And in the tales of the ineffectual anti-hero, in the stories of Guy Montague and Winston Smith, lies the warnings of contemporary story tellers, playing on very primitive fears – we are not strong enough to defeat the monsters. Only this time, not the monsters chased away by the campfire, but the very monsters who built the campfire in the first place.


With this observation in mind, Hebrew literature has then long been ahead of its contemporaries for containing anti-heroes. This ancient literature, contemporary with much of the ‘heroic’ literature of Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian  and Persian civilizations, from the outset contains flawed human characters mixed with virtue and vice.

As the Hebrew tales progress, each anti-hero battles the “evil within” with varying degrees of success.

flood myth

The narratives do not end here though, with introspective thought about the flawed human and society. They point forward to moment when the divine visits earth with redemptive power.

When this divine hero visits, he does not appear like Hercules or other divinities, but instead couches himself as a mortal, and as a political spokesperson for a new Kingdom, a new society. For this he is killed.

But in doing so he deals with the evil within, the inescapable problem of humanity.

Anti-hero meets hero. Divine meets human. Myth meets history.


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