Antihero. A problematic term to begin with, its overuse has further watered it down. Anti- typically means to be in opposition or even to be the opposite; the antithesis of a position is the oppositional position.
So, technically, one might interpret anti-hero to mean a villain. This is rarely, if ever, how the term is used; so what do we mean by an antihero?
Off the top of my head, without resorting to any dictionary definition, this is how I tend to picture an antihero: A person not serving any particular ideal or higher purpose, but generally self-serving, who, while going about his (or her) business in pursuit of fortune, power, pleasure, or whatever turns his crank, is suddenly confronted by a moral choice. And at that moment, not for any dogmatic or religious reasons, any creeds or codes, but simply because of some niggling inner compass — his conscience — he makes the choice that is least likely to offer personal gain, that involves self-sacrifice, that may in fact be fatal. He makes a heroic choice, the choice that allows us to continue to root for him as the hero-protagonist.
Think of the fallen samurai in The Seven Samurai or the lawless gunslingers in The Magnificent Seven. In both cases, when they learn that the threatened peasant village cannot really afford to pay them and that they are outnumbered five to one, they nevertheless decide to make a stand to protect the afflicted. No promise of financial reward and a very high probability of death — an option that the histories of these men would not suggest they would choose. They are neither knights nor saints. Yet they become heroes and, in some cases, martyrs. All appearances to the contrary, deep down they prove to be — when it really counts — good men. Or in that moment they become good men.
It has been fashionable to describe “gritty” characters as antiheroes, for example the comic-book character Wolverine. He crosses lines other squeaky-clean superheroes never would; he is more likely to kill a bad guy than to leave him tied up for the authorities to haul away to prison.
Yet his loyalty is never in doubt — he wears the uniform of an X-Man or an Avenger, so it is harder to pin my preferred interpretation of “antihero” onto him. And as the trend for gritty heroes in comics and then film gradually became the norm in the ‘80s and ‘90s, “antihero” all but lost its meaning and impact.
For a better example of an antihero — again from a western — think of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Or consider Huck Finn. Having been taught by his society’s cultural standards that to help his friend Jim escape slavery is tantamount to aiding and abetting theft (the stolen property being Jim himself), a sin that will send him to Hell, he resolutely chooses damnation.
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell,” Huck declares as he tears up the letter he had written that would have betrayed Jim and — in Huck’s misguided thinking — absolved him of sin. “It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.” In so doing, he becomes one of the great heroes of American literature (and, ironically, redeems his soul).
In sword and sorcery, the very template of the antihero is given by Robert E. Howard and his seminal character Conan. A self-serving barbarian, rogue, pirate, mercenary, with a bloodlust that is legendary, he becomes an antihero when he makes choices that indicate he does have a conscience.
One salient example is found in “The Scarlet Citadel.” Although one of the earliest Conan stories, first published in Weird Tales in 1933, chronologically it recounts one of the barbarian’s last adventures. Late in his career, Conan has become King of Aquilonia. Taken captive, he is offered a nice haul of treasure and his life, if he just agrees to leave. The alternative: the dungeon, torture, likely death.
In that moment, Conan shows himself a true king, rejecting the bribe and preferring death to the thought of betraying his adopted people. Not because of some inculcated doctrine of chivalry or some religious devotion (Crom could care less), but simply because at that moment, he realizes his subjects are more important to him than himself. They may never know of his sacrifice, but he will not be party to their oppression.
Because of decisions like this, we can think of Conan, despite his having slain hundreds, perhaps thousands, without remorse, as a good man. A hero not in the traditional sense, of course, because it is not a foregone conclusion that he would so act, as it might be for, say, a King Arthur or King Aragorn. Thus, an antihero.
True antiheroes (not just “gritty” types who get slapped with that appellation) tend to be the most interesting characters. Perhaps because they are more human, closer to us. Not vaunted above mortal man. We root for morally superior heroes, but they are at a remove from us. We realize that if we were confronted with some of those choices, we might be conflicted — we may wonder what we would truly choose, were our self-interest and self-preservation to be put to the challenge.
Antiheroes, not having a dogmatic creed or a god or higher power to make the choice clear for them or to offer succor in that choice, act from a more sympathetic, human place. And are all the more heroic for it.
Odds ‘n Ends:
I originally compiled these thoughts on the antihero for a brief introduction to a story of mine that was to appear in an anthology from Ricasso Press. Since that project was shelved a few years ago and, as far as I can ascertain from the web, Ricasso Press is no more, I am sharing them here.
The term alembic in the title of last week’s post “Oz’s Alembic: An Introduction” was recommended to me by my friend Frederic Durbin, who has made use of that word in his current novel-in-progress. I’ll explain the gestation of my new working title “The Weird of Oz” in my next post, because right now I need to get back to playing pirates (who often make good antiheroes) with my children.