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  • Writer's pictureJohn Brage

Some Call It 'Courage'

Bravery is the quintessential heroic quality. A hero has to have some skin in the game. His life has to be on the line. She is the only one who can save the day, but in order to do so, she has to risk something (her life, her health, her future) of immense personal value. But what is bravery? And what isn't bravery?

Bravery isn't the absence of fear. It is the ability to experience fear and still do what needs to be done. If our hero isn't afraid, he can't be brave. Fear is an apprehension of experiencing something unpleasant. The big, bad dragon is preparing to crispy fry you and have you for dinner. That's going to hurt. But you can't slay the beast without getting close to that flamethrower breath. The textbooks on storytelling describe the various categories of conflict. Man v Nature is a classic. Nature wants to rend the flesh from our heroine's bones and grind them into paste. The fear of pain (and death) is primal. This is a classic confrontation endlessly repeated in stories throughout the centuries.

Moral courage is far less common. Our hero has principles. He is then confronted by a situation that either tempts him to abandon them or appears to require their abandonment in order to succeed. The Star Wars movies provide excellent examples. The Jedi are selfless and passive. They make great sacrifices to be who they are. They don't have families. They don't hold great wealth. They don't seek official positions of power. The Sith, masters of the Dark Side of the Force, are aggressive seekers of power. Their lack of principles allow them to act pragmatically, increasing their likelihood of success. The Jedi must constantly resist the siren call of the Dark Side. Anakin compromises his Jedi vows by secretly marrying Padme. His love for her becomes the conduit for his seduction by the Dark Side. Palpatine convinces him that the Dark Side is misunderstood and offers the only hope for saving Padme's life. Mace Windu later engages Palpatine in a lightsaber duel while trying to arrest him. Windu is a proponent of Vaapad, a lightsaber form that calls for the duelist to channel his inner darkness. In the midst of his battle with Palpatine, he declares that Palpatine is "too powerful to live". Instead of simply attempting to take Palpatine into custody, Windu decides to kill him. Anakin has witnessed Windu's change of heart and it brings him to question the sincerity of the entire Jedi Council. The result is Windu's death and Anakin's embrace of the Dark Side. Windu's temporary deviation from Jedi principles in favor of a pragmatic solution had disastrous consequences. It is the equivalent of St. George seeing the dragon and running away.

Man v Self is another category of conflict. A character struggles between his beliefs and his desires. He is placed in a position that forces him to take a long, hard look at the moral bedrock he has built his life on. Rocky Balboa (yes, I'm going here) willed himself to a championship. Then he reeled off a number of successful title defenses gathering wealth and fame. But it was an illusion. Mick, his trainer, loved Rocky and didn't want him to get hurt. The line of fighters he had defeated were bums. He discovered this reality immediately before Clubber Lang beat him to a pulp. Rocky was now unmoored. He had to re-establish the foundation of his core beliefs before he could move forward. Apollo shows him how to regain his hunger. Rocky is able to get back in touch with the man he was when he first became a champion and ultimately rediscovered success.

This theme is commonly delivered in stories involving betrayal, particularly by a mentor or a loved one. It also appears in stories with taglines that include phrases like "until he discovered that everything he believed was a lie!" In "Dances With Wolves" John Dunbar is a war hero who loves his country. He has accepted the government's general message about Native Americans - they are primitive, violent, and less than human. Once Dunbar is assigned to man a "fort" on the frontier (all by himself, as it turns out), his personal experiences with the Lakota Sioux convince him this message is wrong. The Lakotas are smart, resourceful, and caring. Aspects of Sioux culture, particularly their close social bonds and respect for nature, lead Dunbar to conclude that it is superior to American culture. Although the Lakotas have accepted him as a member of the tribe (and have named him "Dances with Wolves"), Dunbar, as a white man, is the only member of the group who has any chance of convincing the American government that its policies towards Native Americans are misguided. Essentially, his discovery that he has been on "the wrong team" causes him to confront his "old team" which now sees him as a traitor ("Injun Lover"). Although the movie doesn't disclose Dunbar's ultimate fate, it does describe the historical reality that within 15 years of the end of the movie, the last of the Sioux are subjugated by the U.S. Government. Dunbar (along with a white woman who had been living with the Lakotas, Stands With Fist) is now a man without a society. He can't stay with the Lakotas because he is uniquely qualified to attempt their salvation, and white society now sees him as a race traitor. But Dunbar remains a hero because his adoption of these new truths he has discovered about the Sioux forces him to take a significant risk to try and protect them.

Ultimately it is moral courage that sustains the greatest heroic figures. In conflicts between opposing physical forces (Man v Man), both sides typically have figures capable of performing even in the face of personal, physical risk. It is much rarer for a heroine to maintain her principles even when confronted with powerful external forces. The victories are much more difficult, but in doing so they resist the temptation to become that which they oppose simply to achieve a victory. Because if a figure has to adopt the characteristics of its enemy in order to defeat it, has the enemy actually been defeated?

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