“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.” – Lt. James Gordon, “The Dark Knight”
A man can only take so much grit.
All the books, all the movies, all the games are full of characters who know the darkness. Take Batman. Or Rorschach. Or the entire cast, living and dead, of the once-solid book series that has become Game of Thrones. These are people who recoil from the black-and-white, embracers of the hallowed grey middle, where there reigns the relativistic paradox of right and wrong being both non-existent and in conflict.
We don’t believe in the old heroes, the boy of the fairy tale, innocent in a world of turmoil. We sit around mourning that there are no more heroes, no more men of integrity to shine upon our jaundiced eyes like the copper serpent. But the truth (as proven in the free market) is that we don’t want men of integrity. What we collectively want is someone to relate to, someone whose heart is a benighted jungle and who falls into righteous action by near-coincidence, if at all. We want, most of all, someone who doubts themselves.
It’s getting worse, over time.
Don’t mistake my meaning. It is not conflict that’s the subject of my complaint. It’s the crisis of conscience, the desire that our heroes be as unsure as we are, because if they’re not sure, how can we be expected to pick the brave path over the easy one?
For example: I read Lord of the Rings and fell in love with Aragorn. The Dunedain ranger has, to put it shortly, a lot going on. He is the king-in-exile, tormented by his own greatness, cursed to love a woman who is beyond the grasp of mortal man. His sword is broken, his people in disarray. And, most relevant to our discussion, his blood is tainted. It was his ancestor, Isildur, whose greed preserved Sauron, whose moral crisis rescued evil.
Here’s the thing, though. In the books, Aragorn is a classic hero. His entire life since he was brought under Elrond’s care at Imladris was directed toward becoming king once more. It is his destiny, and everything he does, from befriending Gandalf to joining the Fellowship of the Ring, is directed toward this end. He is a fierce warrior and is proud of his heritage. His strength emphatically does not come through submission to others, but from knowing who he is. In a similar vein, his love of Arwen is not a source of pining or self-doubt. On the contrary, it is a source of hope and inner strength; in her his love will transcend mortality, as his line will find transcendence in the reclaimed throne of Gondor. His only doubt is whether he will be able to live up to the glory of his ancestors.
Aragorn according to Peter Jackson, fifty years later, is a brooding (aren’t they always?) anti-hero racked with doubt. He doesn’t know whether he wants to be king. His way at the council of Elrond is one of deference and false humility, and his tortured love of Arwen is a weakness. He doubts not whether he can live up to Isildur, but whether Isildur is worth living up to, and in this, his entire character is assassinated.
That is the primary accomplishment of the anti-hero: even when they win, they are not sure if the victory is better than the defeat. They always have about them the air of nihilism and the potential for self-justified suicide. Tyrion finally kills his lifelong tormentor, then spends a thousand pages moping. That jerk Holden Caulfield “phonies” himself all the way to the psychologist. Tony Stark’s bluster and self-centeredness nearly destroys the world twice, and earns him PTSD.
These are not the heroes we need, nor the ones we deserve. If you think the lesson of Harvey Dent is that there are no white knights, you’re looking at it all wrong. The lesson of Harvey Dent is that we should all aspire to be the white knight, even if we might fail.
We need the story of the classical hero. We need men who believe in their cause, who are righteous, and who inspire the masses. We began with false innocence, and have tempered that with years of disillusionment, of flawed people barely making do. It is time for step three, the time when we become cynical about disillusionment, when we realize that just because most heroes are not perfect doesn’t mean we cannot strive for perfection.
We have proven that we are not fragile. We all know about the dark knight. We know that Harvey Dent was not a hero, and it has not totally broken us. But we cannot survive only with the dark. We face troubled times and a chaotic world, and our doubt of our own cause is an anchor around our neck.
Do we want our favorite Torah moments to be the zig-zag cantillations, the occasional moment of doubt? Is that what is expected of us?
Are we willing to pick one of the myriad moments of biblical forthrightness and certitude, and make it our own?
Outside of Tolkien, we, too, have our inscrutable kings. We could explain David according to the deep understanding of the midrash or kabbala, in which he is a tzaddik free of sins whose motives are pure. We could explain him according to the simple reading of the text and come to our own conclusions about his morality as a deeply conflicted, troubled person. Must we for some reason choose the latter over the former?
And is that reason leading us to victory?
Do we need our own troubled consciences?
In the end, it is trust in our own goodness that will carry us through.
For the new year, it is time to step into the light.
Originally posted on Hevria.
Originally on Hevria