We live in a cynical age where we've learned the hard way that people we're expected to look up to don't always deserve our respect. Presidents and monarchs have dirty secrets. Priests hide sex scandals. Captains of industry pilfer pension funds and sportsmen take drugs.

Not all of them, of course, but enough to disappoint.

Maybe they always did and we're just better at finding out now.

Anyhow, the point is that these failures have led us to be cautious about investing our adulation another time, like someone who's had a bad relationship and won't ever let themselves fall in love again.

And by some weird reverse psychology, that lack of trust gets turned into a "good thing". If nobody is a real hero then there's no pressure on me to be one. If nobody is extraordinary then it's okay for me to be ordinary too. If everyone cheats and lies and looks after number one...

Now our fiction, and especially our adventure and fantasy fiction, reflects two things: how we think the world is, and how we want the world to be. Sloppy lazy writers pander to the lowest denominator, peopling their world with the characters and situations that they believe their readership expects - venal shabby characters having easy sex and easy betrayals in a world where honourable people are fools and victims and where protagonists of stature must have some dark flaw to average them down to "realism".

Those writers betray their own insecurities in their work. They don't believe they can "sell" a true hero. True heroes require some suspension of disbelief, and suspension of disbelief requires talent to write. They don't believe their audience has the imagination or nobility or character to accept such a hero.

There's a key passage in Terry Pratchett's excellent fantasy novel Hogfather where his hero, Death (the personification) prevents a plot to stop the sun from coming up. He's asked what would have happened if the mythological creature responsible for its rising hadn't been saved. "A mere ball of flaming gas would have lit the world," he replies. Events stripped of their meaning lead to a world stripped of any soul.

Asked why little fictions (such as Santa) should matter he answers, "You have to start out learning to believe the little lies." He explains that they to teach us how to accept the big fictions: "Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing..." And then he goes on to argue that unless we can imagine things that don't exist we cannot create them so they become real.

It's sophisticated, life-enhancing stuff for a humour book, and Prachett understands perfectly why we need to write about heroes. If we can imagine heroes then we can be heroes. If we have heroes amongst us then we're challenged to be like them.

There's a long-forgotten scene in an old Gruenwald issue of Captain America where Cap catches some kids shoplifting superhero comic books. He asks them how they can read those stories and still think it's okay to steal. And that reminded me of how I once got in the way of some bullies at school just because I knew it's what Steve Rogers would do.

Pulp fiction often specialises in tarnished heroes. They have character flaws - they drink, or gamble, or fall for the wrong girl, or carry some tragedy inside them. They've made some terrible mistake in their past. But the heroic part of them comes from conquering those flaws, from doing what's right despite their limitations. Many live in gritty sinful worlds but do the right thing at the last in any case. The more limitations, the greater the heroism to overcome them.

Put another way: a guy who runs a 20 mile marathon for charity is a hero. A guy who does it in his wheelchair's an even bigger hero.

I think we're starting as a society to appreciate heroes again. It's a more mature understanding, perhaps, and it's slow to form. But here in the UK we've been getting a fairly steady stream of military coffins back from Afghanistan and they're always flown back to the same airforce base, RAF Lyneham. The nearby village is Wootton Bassett, a small place of 11,000 people. Every single time those coffins are brought through town those people line the streets in silence to pay their respects. They see it as their tribute to heroes.

Keep the faith, folks.

"Nurture your mind with great thoughts; to believe in the heroic makes heroes" - Disraeli

"As you get older, it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary" - Hemingway


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