Axe Murder at the Ball Game; Our Shifting Conception of Heroism

One nice thing about soccer games between six-year-olds is that no one kills anyone with an axe. You might see a drunk mom screaming at the ref, or a couple of dads in a fistfight, but that’s about it. People don’t bring broadswords to Pee-Wee soccer events.

It hasn’t always been that way. As exhibit A, I present Egil’s Saga, a 13th century Icelandic tale composed (the scholars think) by Snorri Sturluson. Early in the story we encounter a ball game between our hero, Egil, age six at the time, and an older boy, Grim, age eleven:

“The game began and Egil proved to be the weaker, while Grim made the most of his strength. Then Egil got so angry that he lifted the bat and struck Grim with it, but Grim took hold of him, hurled him to the ground and gave him some very rough treatment. […] Egil went to look for Thord Granason and told him what had happened.

 “ ‘I’ll come with you,’ said Thord. ‘The two of us will pay him back.’

“ Thord gave Egil a thick-bladed axe he was carrying, common enough at that time, and they went to the field where the boys were playing. Grim had just caught the ball and was racing along with the other boys after him. Egil ran up to him and drove the axe into his head right through to the brain.”

So – I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t hire Thord as my Little League coach. Even more interesting, however, is the reaction of Egil’s parents:

“When Egil came home, Skallagrim [his father] made it clear that he was far from pleased, but Bera [his mother] said that Egil had the makings of a real viking and it was obvious that as soon as he was old enough he ought to be given fighting-ships.”

The modern equivalent would be discovering that your son had murdered a kid with a brick during a game of pick-up basketball and deciding, as a result, to buy him a Dodge Viper.

Given this level of parenting, I suppose it’s not surprising that Egil never outgrows his childhood brutality. Just at the end of the saga, when he is an old man nearing his death, there’s a great moment in which he tries to decide what to do with two chests of silver he won earlier in his life:

“I want to take my two coffers with me, the ones I got from King Athelstan, both full of English silver. I want them carried up to the Law Rock when the crowd gathered there is at its biggest, and I’m going to throw the silver about […] I’ll bet there’ll be a bit of pushing and punching. Maybe in the end the whole assembly will start fighting.”

When you can no longer kill people yourself, I guess it’s a comfort to know your money can still be used to start a respectable brawl.

The thing I find interesting about these passages, and about Egil in general, is that he is the story’s protagonist. He is the hero. Modern notions of genre and plot structure don’t really apply here, but everything about the saga invites us to sympathize with Egil and to root for him, even when he’s picking fights with the innocent or murdering his Irish slaves.

Between the time Egil allegedly lived (10th century) and the time his saga was finally penned (13th), Christianity came to both Norway and Iceland. Sturluson himself received theological training. And yet, the narrator of Egil’s saga refrains scrupulously from any imposition of Christianity’s ethical precepts onto his pre-Christian characters. Of St. Ambrose’s four cardinal virtues – temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude – Egil possesses only the last, and yet he is admired by the narrator (and presumably by the audience), for his own qualities, primarily his physical strength and his ability to compose poetry.

Fantasy, of course, is replete with protagonists of dubious morality – assassins, con-men, barbarians. It’s not often, however, that the writers of these characters find themselves able to utterly discard our modern notions of morality. As one example among dozens, we can take a look at Durzo Blint, the ruthless assassin from Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows. In the very first chapter Blint splits open a few bad guys, not realizing, evidently, that his murders are witnessed by a local orphan. It’s revealing to take a close look at the end of the chapter, when Blint discovers this hidden child:

“Just above Azoth on the other side of the floor, Durzo Blint whispered, “Never speak of this. Understand? I’ve done worse than kill children.”

“The sword disappeared, and Azoth scrambled out into the night. He didn’t stop running for miles.”

Blint tells us (and Azoth) that he kills children (and worse), but then he blinks. He doesn’t actually do it. Why? Well, we’d have a pretty damn short book without Azoth, for one thing, but for another, Weeks isn’t willing to allow his protagonist to inhabit an utterly alien morality. If you swapped Egil in for Blint, Azoth’s brains would be leaking into the mud.

I’m not trying to pick on Weeks, here. I love his book, and this type of thing is extremely common in fantasy. We (as readers and writers) can wrap our minds around invented magical systems, new races, and civilizations millions of years old more easily than we can accept protagonists whose ethical makeup is entirely different from our own. Steven Erikson’s barbarian, Karsa Orlong, is the only exception that leaps immediately to mind, and Erikson has written an outstanding essay on just this topic, asking, “How far from our own sensibilities can we be pushed before it’s too much?”

I’m very curious to hear how readers would answer that question. Also, I wonder what other fantasy protagonists out there really do buck the central aspects of our modern ethical and moral systems? What modern writers, like Sturluson, are able to fully imagine an alternate conception of heroism?

6 thoughts on “Axe Murder at the Ball Game; Our Shifting Conception of Heroism

  1. I believe George R.R. Martin did, with Jaime Lannister, for example. He was a murderer and guilty of incest too- but somehow, I still liked him when he showed glimpses of his humanity (at first, I was absolutely horrified at how “bad” he was).
    I think modern day authors are conscious of the message they send while writing because of the way it might be perceived (and they don’t want to give bad examples to kids growing up- if they write Young Adult Fantasy, for example), so heroes are mostly good people (even if they start out bad, they end up good or repentant)— and villains are the ones who are reserved with only one Cardinal Virtue.

    But reading this post has infused something else in my head. Maybe I can write a hero with only fortitude as a Cardinal Virtue someday😉

  2. This reminds me of The Iliad. The ancient Greek conception of heroism was also quite different from our modern sensibilities. I fear it’s been too long since I read it, but I’m thinking of the part where Achilles pulls out of the fight against Troy because his slave was taken away from him, essentially causing the death of hundreds or thousands of Greek warriors as they start to lose the war. And this was the action of one of the greatest of Greek heroes.

    • Totally. Greek “arete” involved a notably different set of priorities from our modern notions of heroism or virtue. There’s a great book about the Iliad, actually, by a guy named Jonathan Shay called Achilles in Vietnam. Shay is a psychologist who deals with military vets, and he draws some interesting comparisons between their mindsets and those of the Greek heroes, esp. Achilleus. Might be worth a glance if you’re interested in this stuff…

  3. You’ve made some valid, interesting points, Brian. The story about the Viking kids was interesting, I hadn’t heard that before. Let me try to add to it.

    “How far from our own sensibilities can we be pushed before it’s too much?” When we cease to identify with the main character and begin to consider them a villain, it is too much (unless that’s what the author wants). Or, when compassion for the character begins to challenge our own morality. E.G. if someone reads a 1000 page book about a likeable character who goes around spray-painting everything, the reader would be inclined to spray-paint something themself.

    This reminds me of an interesting phenomenon, not sure how real it is. There is an inverse relationship between how violent an audience’s life is and the violence of the stories they enjoy. Media today is becoming increasingly violent and immoral, while we (Americans at least), live in a time of relative peace and prosperity. The old Disney movies seem all sweet, innocent, and lovey-dovey; to a fault, they always seemed to me to have something sinister underlying them. Then it hit me: these were produced around the time of the World Wars and Great Depression. People wanted an escape from the horror of their lives. 9-11 would have gotten a brief mention on a slow news day in WW2, at least in Europe.

    If you’ve ever seen the movie The Postman, there is a scene where a bunch of bad-ass survivors in a Mad Max type of world are about to watch a movie. A war movie starts to come on and they all boo and throw things, until The Sound Of Music comes on and they all cheer. (Not sure if that’s in the book, great book though.)

    Certainly there are many other factors, but I think there is a certain inverse relationship between violence in real life and violence in media.

    -Bill

    • That’s a fascinating idea, Bill. All the more interesting, given that we could actually test it (if we had the time). Could go through a variety of historical places and periods, check the violence of the art of the time against the prevalence of war, social unrest, famine, etc. My initial thought is that a couple of words (e.g. the Iliad) don’t seem to fit this mold, but I wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Someone should do this in a systematic way! In fact, maybe someone has. I’m going to do a little googling…

      • Cool, Brian. I’m glad you seem to understand my point and consider it interesting and plausible. You would have more experience and resources to research it than I have. There may not be enough historical records to fit the Iliad to the model.
        The next step to the theory is that when literature becomes increasingly violent and cruel, the new generation that reads it begins to think that going to war is a good idea. Wars tend to happen every generation or so. In US history there is the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), War of 1812 (1812-1815), Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Civil War (1861-1865), Spanish-American War (1898), World War 1 (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945) and Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam War (1959-1975), Operation Desert Storm (1991), and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is some sort of cycle here, and understanding it can help to predict the future. Certainly literature is a factor: it is words that start wars.
        Keep up the interesting blog!

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