Heroism. Heroes, Superheroes, vigilante symbols, and individual men and women seen as saviors have been dominating the media in films, television series, newspaper articles, literature, history, and many other fields of study for us humans. They have all had recurring and powerful elements and features in the different heroic stories that have been told, but none have captured emotion, and intrigued readers and viewers as much as the spiritual and determined portrayal of sacrifice. The role of patience, endurance of pain and the sacrifice to save the people and ideas a hero deeply cares for has been the most captivating aspect of specific stories that convey this about their protagonists.
Consequently, the emotion that arises from sacrifice being a final deed of a main hero, has been the most ultimate and unparalleled climatic aspect in legends and heroic tales, simply because it is an act that is least expected by any man or woman in the modern (the span of time from a century ago) world; to get hurt, go into hiding, or die for a person or a belief in order to save or protect them. This is because an observed hero is expected to be the subject of a great act of good and kindness to save lives – while sacrifice portrays the act which may put the life of this hero at risk. This in turn, if acted by the hero shows his or her willingness to risk their lives to save those of others, hence making selflessness of the hero evident for the audience. As a result, this act is what evidently proves the truth behind the hero’s loyalty and honesty in what they claim to love or care for the audiences, readers and viewers of heroic stories.
Therefore, why sacrifice? Many writers, such as Dr. John Lawrence, Robert Jewett, and even Rebecca Housel explore the attention gripping factor of a hero - undergoing sacrifice by choice and emotional wisdom – and explain in their texts that this is done to create and build a character that has a significant attentive impact on the viewer’s or reader’s mind. This allows them to learn and understand the moral of a great story, and character, by reflecting on the grand personality inhabited by these heroes, when they commit their act of sacrifice. Therefore, as mentioned by the writer Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it is these features of sacrifice and endurance that truly build the foundations of popular myths and legends that we all share (74 – 78). Hence, since this becomes fundamental and primary to what anticipates people to follow, read and watch the stories of the best of known heroes, I shall explore the topic of sacrifice in heroism, and the explanations given on it by a variety of credible sources.
A prominent example is the author Rebecca Housel and her piece, “Myth, Morality and Women of the X-Men,” since she incorporates the theme of sacrifice not just as an ultimate and climatic deed by a hero, but also sacrifice and endurance of pain being a part played by female heroes as an “ethic of care” (82). Primarily, due to her insight and explanation of women in heroic culture, Housel explains sacrifice and patience as being an overwhelming deed, and is seen as one committed by concerned and caring female protagonists. This was such in relation to the concepts of ethics of care or ethics of justice, these women are portrayed and convey sacrifice and endurance in their characters by their writers to enhance the image of women in their society and prove their ability to be sacrificial (76-80).
In this text, Housel further expresses certain concepts of heroism that is put forward by other writers like Gilligan that are known as ethics of care and ethics of justice, which is seen specifically played by the role of female superheroes (78-84). She gives the example of when these ethics become synonymous with the endurance that certain women like Jean Grey, the Phoenix, and Storm in X-Men films and comics reveal when they face the tribulation where by sacrificing their lives or their presence in general can save the lives of several others. This craft in their characters that reflects care, and justice in the face of their enemies, is what can teach greatness to the readers and viewers, and to reflect the similar greatness of women’s characters in reality (86).
This personality is explained when Jean Grey demands her life sacrificed when she realizes her danger to people after she is seen destroying multiples of lives in her unconscious surge of madness (Housel 87). Hence, when sacrifice becomes a leading element of portraying a feminine hero, it intrigues the subject who watches or reads this even more, and therefore it becomes a genuine field of exploration of heroic characters and individuals. Hence, this makes Housel a crucial source of information to provide evidence and convince readers that the sacrificial trait in a created hero is an ultimately attention gripping and climatic characteristic of a protagonist – a reminiscent spiritual ability to sacrifice oneself – rather than physical abilities or merely the courage to face one’s enemies.
The Myth of The American Superhero is in my opinion, the most informative source of evidence that supports the claim on the concept of sacrifice in being the climatic characteristic of heroic stories, or the monomyth of one culture because here, Dr. Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett reveal that although with changes of technology and cultures over time, certain aspects of a true hero remain elemental and permanent to the stories told about them – making themmost intriguing to the reader or viewer of the story. And furthermore, that these are the ability of the protagonist to take responsibilities and the problems in a community in their own hands, and plunge themselves to find a solution for the problem, and to take a hit from the villains that support that problem, instead of letting the people or the victims to be victimized further (106-125). Hence, this is fundamental to my claim that sacrifice is the most crucial characteristic that can be portrayed for a hero, and this begins with their courage to step in the danger, and help those who need aid – no matter the dangers and ordeals that are to be faced by the protagonist, who does it for the protection of people.
In addition, this description by Lawrence and Jewett in “John Wayne and Friends Redeem the Village,” also proves this claim because it reveals that sacrifice does not necessarily have to end with the hiding of the hero, his death, or him being forgotten, but the simple idea that by being a single hero who steps into the wilderness to help the victims of a city or a village, sacrificial and brave are definitely attributes that can define him (89-105). Furthermore, Lawrence and Jewett’s pattern of heroic stories, where the hero eventually leaves, “riding off into the sunset,” brings out a slightly different segment of a sacrificial character; that of which, like the Western characters played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, the hero leaves without expecting excessive gratitude or bounty in return for his determined act of sacrifice to fight the village’s oppressors.
A hero’s compelling character is what makes him or her more controversial, and captivating. Why? This is because it is what a hero does that excites the reader, not merely his or her background. And sacrifice is an action of great personal statement, to prove him or her to be a true hero. An author who elaborates on the value of sacrifice as an integral part of a character’s craft in the portrayal of a mythic hero, especially female heroes, is Danny Fingeroth, who in his text “Amazon Grace,” claims, with several modern examples such as Storm from the X-Men comic books, that patience and the endurance inhabited by a female hero, the key aspects of sacrifice, are some of the few yet strongly contributing reasons to the rise of the female superheroine in the modern media (86-90). He teaches the reader that women finally have the capability to portray a character that can have determination and sacrifice to be a savior and such that scholarly sources mustn’t “ignore the superheroine” (92).
Therefore, Fingeroth puts the image of women as being prominent, or at least have been on the verge to rise to prominence in the mythic media. He does so as he claims that alongside individual contribution in history, such as Rosa Parks, movements towards the right of education, or even their increased general presence in sources of media to allow the community to habituate to their increased portrayals in stories, the great contributor to anticipation for women in the media and the public was due to a key element of a character trait, an important aspect of the protagonist that creates the personality of a mythic hero and convinces the reader or the viewer to be more intrigued by the person, which is the act of sacrifice, and the ability to harbor a sacrificial and selfless attitude (88-92).
This argument of Fingeroth is firmly evident, because once again, just as expressed by the previous authors, it is sacrifice and its derivatives – long-term endurance of pain, patience for a change, and commitment to a change of lifestyle – that are final and climatic to the portrayal of a persona. Furthermore, Fingeroth’s argument links back to my claim that sacrifice is the ultimate ‘wild card’ that can make the reader get excited and intrigued by the actions and decisions of a character, and eventually come about to love them; the metaphorical tool that has been used in the media to bring out women from the shadow of media’s sexism, and convince the world community of their value and right to be prominent in the mythic and heroic world, as Fingeroth claimed.
Joseph Campbell, writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, explored and gave a transparent insight into highly significant and historically well-known examples, such as the hiding and rise of the Buddha, to prove his claim and the characters’ conveyance of his explained process of “separation-initiation-return” (74-83). With these examples, he steps further into their sacrificial trait when he narrates their life stories, and reflects on these attributes as being the elemental factors that creates a heroic character of the monomyth, the one legend we all know and share. Therefore, as Campbell claims sacrifice and the patience endured being most prominent in the “initiation,” stage of a hero’s life, he incorporates a deeper commitment of sacrifice in a hero in the chapter “Refusal of The Return,” when he shows us that the ultimate ability for a hero to portray a sacrificial attitude is, like the namesake of the title, to never return, or accept death or permanent hiding as an ordeal to teach his people his climatic lesson of life (179-182). Fundamentally, this makes sacrifice in being the most captivating and intriguing element for the reader of a heroic tale, since Campbell evidently proves that any of such characteristic traits that describe sacrifice and patience in a protagonist are general in all mythical legends and tales – recurring in any tale of a sacrificial hero.
Therefore, despite the differences in the backgrounds of various stories, the idea of sacrifice, and one’s acceptance to hiding, death or elimination in any form to protect those which a hero cares most about, will give the story an utmost vibe of anticipation for the reader, specifically increasing excitement in exploring the character who was responsible in carrying out that act of sacrifice. As a result, Campbell’s description and insight on sacrifice makes a very reminiscent scholarly definition of sacrifice as the most intriguing and emotive heroic personality, specifically with the example of King Muchukunda, who was a King who accepted hiding and an unattended life to represent a character of solitude and sacrifice; that with war comes a cost to life, and despite his honesty and loyalty, he felt that he deserved this fate, in order that his people learn not to preach violence and hatred for generations to come. Therefore, as apart from looking at various examples in religious and ancient history such as King Muchukunda, an example of making peace, Campbell targets this topic of heroism fundamentally and in depth with his evidently portrayed claims and opinions to define sacrifice in a hero (180).
But ultimately, is sacrifice always the same? Does it mean death? Is it necessarily a characteristic commitment that emerges from a single individual? Well, despite the common basis of sacrifice in a majority of myths and legends, eventually there are stories that reveal the concept of sacrifice, and an extreme experience of endurance, to not only be the act of multiple characters, but also one in which those characters may survive, or live. An example of this is the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates in the 1988 book Touching The Void, that broke the typical trope for the portrayal of sacrifice in the story of a hero.
In this non-fiction novel Simpson recalls their successful yet disastrous climbing of a twenty-thousand feet Siula Grande mountain in Peru; the necessary sacrifice played collaterally by the two of them in order to survive, the endurance of Simpson for his survival in the ice crevice, and Yates’ dilemma - the trial of a tough decision for survival or the brotherhood of saving a friend. Furthermore, the tension, physical and psychological pain of the moment experienced by both Simpson and Yates clearly described by Simpson, enhances the need for a final act of sacrifice at the time of the event.
This plays as evidence and reveals that the decisions made by each of these two friends was in the gravity of the situation, such that their act of sacrifice were true act of loyalty for one another, and a legitimate and honest care for each other’s lives (Simpson 180 -200). This flow hence reaches the climatic point where the sacrificial trait was a final deed that was to be done to save the life of a friend, cared for by each of the characters, and as mentioned by Simpson, their willingness for death, “ready to die to free him from me, and release my burden of guilt on him” (196).
Consequently, this strengthens the idea for readers on the concept of sacrifice, and its level of service being a final, ultimate deed that will allow the hero to face death, even if death is not his final fate. In addition this branches away from the typical stereotype of sacrifice being the role of a single individual, as here we see it done by Simon as he stays atop of the cliff even after cutting the rope that connected him to Joe, since the faith in his friend’s life was a sacrificial trait by itself, and it proves to be what connects true friendship together (202).
Readers’ anticipation of a sacrificial hero enhances their perceived idea of sacrifice to be the most righteous label of heroism for a character, and an undisputed reason for liking him. This is the core value of sacrifice for a story. From the base of its pillar, its very support from early on in the story, George Martin’s A Game Of Thrones’s greatest moral is the commitment to sacrifice, conveyed with a phenomenally calm, humble, yet powerful attitude of the character Lord Eddard Stark. A father of five, a deeply loyal husband, and a king-like figure as a responsible leader of his people, Eddard Stark becomes the definition of sacrifice and the ability to endure utmost pain from his enemies in Martin’s fictional tale of monarchs and their tribulations (8-15).
This builds an intense personality when Stark risks his life to the hypocrites that have become family with his old friend, gives up to the lie that was set up about him as being a person of greed for the realm’s throne, and becomes willing to be executed by the unrighteous hatred of the authorities of his land (30-40). And this, all merely for one reason, to protect the life and future of his wife and children, and avoiding them to fall into the hands of the family of liars that brought that ruin to him initially. This is the basal heroic structure portrayed through Stark, which is created by only one trait – the sacrifice committed to protect those he loves most – which makes him a crucially fundamental personality to support my claim that a sacrificial hero excites a reader or viewer the most. Hence it makes him the book’s most emotionally invested character when he is willingly killed without resistance; successfully built by Martin and the humble, patient dialogue he crafts for him, and therefore the most prominent figure of a sacrifice and its connection to being a strong element of a heroic personality.
Ultimately, this character’s utter willingness for death, pain or a separation from his family is reminiscent of core honesty in his love for them, and his continuous sense of stress for their lives portrays him as a protagonist whose commitment of sacrifice is a persistent attitude in his life (460-466). “I’ve been trained to be ready to die all my life. Ready to die before the war. If it buys the happiness of my daughters, safety of my boys, and freedom of my wife. Then I’ll take it” (458). This craft of personality by Martin reflects one who the deed of sacrifice and its finality is faced with complete bravery. Therefore, a character who is ready to sacrifice himself without fearing its cost to his own life plays as evidence for the loyalty of his love and extends to my claim on the arousal of intrigue and emotion by the subject reader. When the person commits sacrifice, the intensity of its outcome is proven to be unbearable, yet it is acted upon by the hero to genuinely protect that which he cares for most – making sacrifice the most final and climatic deed capable by a hero.
Oppression is one of the grandest elemental backgrounds to a story that call for the rise of a hero to stand up against it in resistance. And one that is in the form of racism and racial discrimination serves as a stronger, more controversial resistance to humanity, hence making the rise of a fearless personality a greater necessity for those people, the victims, who need it. The counterpart of the brutal edge that racial oppression goes, is sacrifice, to disrupt and resist it by reversing it to the edge of loyalty and heroism. And director and writer Quentin Tarantino accentuates this idea when he introduces the sacrificial, cathartic nature of a victim of US slavery in the anti-bellum southern United States in 1858, Django, who is separated from his wife and sold to separate plantation owners (Django Unchained). The influence of the German dentist Dr. King Schultz, who frees Django and gives him the opportunity to fight and use a gun, is the character who incorporates sacrifice and bravery into the story and in Django, when he motivates him to find and rescue his wife from a ruthless plantation owner in Mississippi.
Furthermore this is heightened especially when he narrates to Django the legend of the German princess Broomhilda and the hero who fought the dragon, a metaphor for the oppression, to rescue her because he “wasn't scared. He went through the volcano and fought the dragon, for her” (Django Unchained). This is when sacrifice and fearless become the great part of Django’s character when he reflects those exact attributes as he fights through, and goes to the edge of his life for the honesty of his love. And he does so only to rescue the one person he only is shown to know from the oppression and victimization of slavery; his wife Broomhilda, who shares the same name as the German mythical damsel in the tale narrated by Schultz.
The willingness and fearlessness of Django to use violence is another aspect of this sacrifice because Tarantino clearly reveals the danger for a black person to behave in a dominating, violent behavior in the South United States in that time period, and Django’s knowledge of it proved that he would have rather been that victim of oppression than his wife – a climatic sacrificial attitude to be portrayed as selfless and loyal to the person he loves most. (Django Unchained). This makes him an intensely intriguing character and therefore not merely a hero in this story, but a hero that is loyal and concerned enough to risk his life for the freedom and safety of his wife. Therefore Tarantino builds up a very climatic atmosphere by reflecting the consistent rise to Django, his enduring act of catharsis and his emotive dialogue and language; proving to the audience that sacrifice, the compliance of an individual to giving his own life for fighting oppression and to protect of that which he cares more for, is the ultimate and the most powerful trait that can create a true, anticipating heroic personality.
Christopher Nolan, a writer and a director of various thrillers and mystery films always successfully manages to create a single protagonist that is a subject of difficult trials and dilemmas where a simple, clear, yet painfully enduring choice can be the cost of his life, or the life of those around him, specifically those whom he loves most. In this sequel of his Batman series reboot, The Dark Knight, Nolan heightens this concept by putting the character Bruce Wayne, the true persona of the hero Batman, an observer and the subject of brutal murders around his city by the hands of a psychopathic villain, a type that he has never confronted. As this villain, the Joker, commits these murders, he publicly addresses Batman to give up his true identity in order the murders to come to an end. This increases the pressure on Bruce to give himself up, and raises the hatred from the people towards him, putting him in a lone position between making a choice to risk his own life and those he cares most for (The Dark Knight).
Therefore, Nolan dramatically narrows the gravity of the situation to prove what can bring a character to sacrifice his position, reputation and life to save the hope in the people of his city, Gotham. Hence, when after safely incapacitating the Joker, and being forced to kill a now-turned-psychopath friend, Harvey Dent, to rescue a child’s life, Bruce frames the responsibilities of the murders of his dead friend on himself and takes the fall for the murders, such that the people do not lose hope in Dent’s psychotic downfall. In addition, he takes no credit for the Joker’s capture, and ultimately blames the death of Dent on himself, saying “I am what Gotham needs me to be.” This was done as an ultimate sacrifice to maintain the hope of his people and protect them from the loss of trust and the possibility of madness to occur, as it was portrayed as a trait by the Joker himself. (The Dark Knight).
This heavy act of sacrifice through a pain endured to bring peace for others is a very iconic example to convey sacrifice as an action that can, and should be carried out at certain times to tip the balance the world in favor of good and to restore faith for humanity. This is Nolan’s powerful craft in bringing all of these with the dialogue and the title for this film together, to enhance the image and the value of sacrifice in a true hero. As a consequence of his dramatic and emotive writing, Nolan succeeds to emerge sacrifice as the final element, a final piece of the puzzle, and an answer to all the confusions Bruce had on what he had to do save his people from madness.
Ultimately sacrifice also becomes the final answer to the climax of this film, which is Batman’s personal statement of his necessary sacrifice, and his choice to go into hiding as an outlaw of his “crimes.” This proves it to be a final choice of deed for a character to transform to a genuine hero, supporting the claim to the importance of sacrifice in a heroic character, like Bruce’s selfless, caring soul to save his people through a desperate, sacrificial lie. Therefore, Nolan finally reveals that with sacrifice, this character can then be righteously suited to the attributes of “a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight” (The Dark Knight).
Therefore, every author and crafter of written and visual sources portray and describe the value, impact and importance of the intriguing act of sacrifice as being highly prominent and emotionally enhancing to their readers and viewers. They have hence proven that sacrifice and its derivatives, such as the endurance of pain, the patience towards change, going into hiding, or the willingness to die for who or what one cares for, an element that has revolutionized and ever since unparalleled in mythic and heroic cultures. Furthermore, with evidence from several examples of heroes, legends in mythic tales, or “the monomyth” as described by Joseph Campbell, sacrifice is seen as the final and climatic act committed by the hero, and it is a deed portrayed to be the one that leads to a permanent status of either death, hiding or at least an entire change of lifestyle of the protagonists.
However, is sacrifice really a positive change for heroic stories? The presence of sacrifice has not only enlightened the image of heroism in the media; it has completely re-engineered characters, heroes and myths of all time. With the claims and credible examples given by the explained sources, we ultimately learn that sacrifice may emerge into different scales and types of sacrifice, or many different heroic individuals who would be capable of performing it. Sacrifice has accommodated heroes in reality, who do it to protect their families or loved ones, to female superheroes who did it out of their caring and just attitudes, and men who sacrifice their lives to save an entire realm of people. Therefore, due to the emotion and excitement it raises for a reader or a viewer, and the lesson it teaches for a character’s grand personality, the act of sacrifice, is rightfully, the highest of all heroic deeds.
If there are those who want to explore a pinnacle of heroic character, then they must explore that of Hussein (AS), the grandson of the world renowned Prophet Muhammad (SA), and learn of, for many, the greatest story of sacrifice known to man, and for the cause that changed the world. The reason my expansion on him is the shortest is sincerely because to this day his sacrifice keeps millions of eyes in tears and millions of hearts and tongues, including mine, speechless.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press. Princeton.
Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. 2012. The Weinstein Company. DVD.
Fingeroth, Danny. Superman On The Couch: What Superherhoes Really Tell Us About Ourselves
And Our Society. Continuum. New York and London. 2004.
Housel, Rebecca. “Myth, Morality and the Women of the X-Men.” Superheroes and Philosophy:
Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way. Open Court. Chicago. 2005.
Lawrence, John Shelton, and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Wm. B.
Eerdmans. Grand Rapids. 2002.
Martin, George. A Game Of Thrones. The Random House Publishing Group. New York. 1996.
Simpson, Joe. Touching The Void. Barnes and Noble. New York. 1988.
The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. 2008. DVD.