Heroes in Stories

Before any confusion sets in, this post is not about the real life heroes we’ve all come to know throughout history. I would love nothing more than to praise the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Desmond Doss, and more. However, I’m specifically talking about heroes in fairy tales, books, movies, and other forms of storytelling. Those heroes are representative of a something far beyond our own moral understanding and serve a purpose far greater than our redundant lives. These heroes drive home a purpose and a reason for existence. Reflecting on the qualms of real life situations, heroes in the stories serve a higher purpose of educating and mirroring the daily challenges we face.

Heroes can encompass all shapes, ages, sizes, genders, and stereotypes. However, all heroes encompass the same set of qualities to some degree. For many heroes, they simply overcome great odds to become heroic. Others put the well being of others ahead of themselves. Regardless, heroes of all shapes and sizes portray many of the same qualities that define a hero. I’d like to take a look at heroes specifically from fairy tales. Those heroes will be Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, the mermaid princess from The Little Mermaid, and Hansel and Gretel from Hansel and Gretel. I want to discuss the qualities that makes a person a hero, the common themes amongst the three groups of heroes, and the attribute and purposes of heroes in fairy tales.

Even though a hero can be defined in a variety of ways, there is a common theme among heroes in fairy tales. Steven White and Joseph O’Brien, Associate Professors of Youth Conceptions that specialize in understanding how we perceive heroes in stories, believe that heroes in fairy tales possess either one or more of certain qualities. First, heroes are noble. White & O’Brien say that being a noble hero means having high moral principles and ideals. Most heroes from fairy tales are able to look beyond morally gray areas and act above the call or normal morals. Second, heroes are usually courageous. The heroes from fairy tales end up making a decision or performing an action that a normal person would find difficult. Sometimes, fear can strike the hearts of people and cause them the inability to move or act. Heroes overcome that fear and perform incredible acts of courage. Third, a hero usually has a strong list of great achievements. These achievements on the list can range from self-sacrifice to defeating the antagonist. Finally, a majority of heroes are selfless. Heroes always put others before themselves and show true selfless natures in the process.

Jack, the mermaid princess, and Hansel and Gretel all contain these qualities in some form.

In Jack in the Beanstalk as recorded by Joseph Jacobs, Jack portrays an incredible sense of courage by climbing the beanstalk. After Jack makes his first trip to the ogre’s home, he steals from the ogres and leaves unscathed. Unfortunately, even though Jack acted with a morally gray compass by stealing the items, he ultimately showed great courage by sneaking into the ogre’s home. The ogre threatened to kill Jack, so his return to their home is the mark of a hero. Again, even though Jack stole from the ogres, his choice was ultimately rooted in bettering the life of his mother. Consequently, Jack’s life would change as well with the riches he was taking back home. Jack was selfless through his actions, and that makes him a hero. 

Although Jack is a hero, he is a necessary component to the story to perform semi-dastardly deeds for the moral and theme to be learned. It could be argued that Jack should never have gone back to the ogre’s home after his first theft. When Jack stole more items, it caused the ogres to become enraged and chase him down the beanstalk. Granted, Jack showed amazing courage and semi-selfless behavior by returning to the ogre’s kingdom. But perhaps Jack’s eyes became a little too big for his own proverbial wallet. Even though Jack technically knew what he was doing was wrong, he continued to do it for what he believed to be the correct reasons. Without Jack there to make the trade, climb the beanstalk, and eventually live happily ever after, no moral would have been learned.

The mermaid princess from The Little Mermaid as written by Hans Christian Anderson made of the most difficult decisions in life. Instead of following through with an act to kill the prince she loved, she chose to sacrifice herself in order to save him. Sacrificing herself, the princess showed three distinct qualities of heroism. First, she displayed courage by refusing to destroy somebody because she could not have what she wanted. Second, the princess was selfless in her actions by choosing to revive the prince before becoming a spirit. Unfortunately, she chose to revive the prince for selfish reasons of love. However, in the end, she realized that the prince’s life was more important than her own love and chose to perform a selfless sacrifice. Finally, the princess is noble because she eventually learned what was morally correct when she sacrificed herself.

The mermaid princess is an integral component of The Little Mermaid because she relates to humanity even though she is not a human. One of the themes of the story, in my opinion, follows the idea that we should always be careful for that which we wish. The mermaid princess wants the prince to herself, and she goes to extreme lengths to make that a reality. Without the princess, the prince might have died when his boat was sinking. Without the princess, the prince may never have been forced to marry another woman. Without the princess, the witch would never have been visited and the curse would never have been placed. She is an essential hero that teaches the tough decisions we are forced to make on a daily basis.

Hansel and Gretel as told by the Brothers Grimm is a story about two kids that must outwit, outsmart, and out think a witch. The two children in the story are relatively clever as they perform amazing acts of bravery. First, the children must overcome their grief at being abandoned by the adult role models in their life. They decide to leave a trail of bread crumbs in order to find their way back home. Unfortunately, the trail is destroyed, but the kid’s showed clever planning. Second, once the witch had them captured, Gretel was able to outsmart the witch by convincing the witch to stick her head in the oven before shoving her into the fires. Finally, both kids agreed that it was not possible for the duck to carry them both, so they agreed that one would cross at a time. The kids showed acts of bravery by not succumbing to their fear of being left alone in the woods by laying the bread trail. They also showed courage and a noble nature by outsmarting the witch. Finally, they were gracious and selfless by not only agreeing to take back jewels from the witch’s house for their father, but by allowing the duck the courtesy of only carrying one child at a time.

Even the young at heart are capable of great deeds and both Hansel and Gretel display this in their story. If the kids were adults, the impact would not carry the same weight.  The main moral of the story, in my opinion, involves never trusting strangers, regardless of their manners and treatment. The kid’s saw how the witch was evil and overcame great odds to escape. The story and the two children are a constant reminder of the innocence that comes with being a child.

In each hero’s fairy tale, the heroes possessed many of the same qualities. However, the main theme of all of the stories involved some form of self-sacrifice as a result of some form of greed. In Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack climbed the beanstalk multiple times out of greed. He wanted more and more of the items found in the ogre’s kingdom. He knew the items he stole would help alleviate the poverty for him and his mother. The ogres proved to be evil because of how they wanted to kill Jack simply for being a human and because they were hungry. Eventually, Jack showed incredible courage by ascending the beanstalk and eventually ensuring a happily ever after for his family.

The mermaid princess also acted out of greed. She loved the prince and wanted him for herself. Her actions eventually led to the prince becoming poisoned/cursed, and she had to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure his safety. By overcoming the evil intentions of her sisters and the curse, the mermaid princess was showed why she was a hero. In the end, she sacrificed herself to better the life of the prince.

Like the other two, Hansel and Gretel were able to overcome evil by tricking and defeating the witch. Unfortunately, it was their greed, albeit out of hunger, that drove them to the witch’s house. After they were captured, they were able to use their wit to outsmart the witch. Gretel was ready to sacrifice herself for her brother’s safety, much like the other heroes. Both kids showed amazing courage as they overcame great odds to find their way home, provide for their father, and escape the witch.

All three heroes took incredible strides towards heroism. Instead of sitting back and choosing the easy path in life, they chose to make heroic decisions of courage and self-sacrifice, which ultimately led to the downfall of something evil, whether it be a physical antagonist or something more mental and psychological.

Heroes serve many purposes in stories of all kinds. In fairy tales specifically heroes are written into the stories for three main reasons. The first reason is to provide some kind of role model for your average joe person. Most people, myself included, live a relatively simple life. The heroes in this story provide inspiration that cannot be found in other aspects of living. One of the main reasons so many people look to celebrities as role models is because of their relatability to the heroes in fairy tales. These heroes provide a good moral compass that can relate to the decisions we make in our every day lives (or so we’d like to think celebrities do the same).

That leads to the second purpose of a hero: morality. Each hero displays the difference between what is right and what is wrong. They teach us that just because something can be construed as a good decision does not necessarily mean it is the right one. Finally, whenever evil is present in the world, there needs to be some presence of good to overcome it. Each fairy tale with a moral, theme, and/or an antagonist, needs a hero to overcome that evil. These heroes are put into the stories with the main intention of providing a guiding light for the morally questionable in nature.

The qualities of selflessness, courage, noble in nature, and a list of achievements are all complemented by the hero’s needed presence in the story. Without the hero, there would be no cause to celebrate the fall of evil. Without the hero, there would be no reason to see the differences between what is right and wrong.

Regardless of how the heroes are perceived, there is a set mapping of what makes a hero a hero. Perhaps we should all strive to be a little bit more like the heroes in older fairy tales. Either way, understanding the many facets of what it takes to be a hero is the first step of many to becoming a hero in your own life.

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