Thematic Sheet

Heroes

“Fairy tale heroes spend their time breaking records.”

Jean Giraudoux

“Heroes”, this word alone evokes for all of us a perfume of adventures, myths, tales and legends that accompany each of us. The figure of the hero comes to us from the mists of time with the epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest heroic tale of humanity.

THE HERO OF THE FAIRY TALE

Although the marvellous tales are situated in an out-of-place and out-of-time, their direct and symbolic language, as well as the idea of a happiness accessible to all, transform them into a universal message.

Illustrations by Grimm Twins

Wonderful tales have an initiatory dimension: the protagonists have to show skill and courage to legitimately enter the adult community, overcoming trials leading the story to a happy ending.

Children, by identifying with the heroes, appropriate their skills, thus developing their self-esteem and confidence.

THE HERO: AN ORDINARY MAN?

The hero is the main character around whom the story evolves. The etymology of the word ‘hero’ comes from the ancient Greek word hérôs, whose Indo-European root means to protect. The hero’s task is to protect others in the face of danger and adversity. In order to do this, he is often endowed with extraordinary abilities that make him superior, capable of performing exceptional activities. In myths, his strength and abilities are largely derived from the favour of the gods.

However, the hero of the marvellous tales is very different from that of antiquity: he is not superior to other men, but rather an ordinary person, a woman, a man, a child or even an animal. At the beginning, he is often disadvantaged (the hero is the youngest of the siblings, the smallest…), but he rises considerably in the course of the story. Sometimes he receives help from others in return for his altruism: characters with magical powers, known as “auxiliaries”, may come to his aid or give him objects with extraordinary powers that will be useful when he needs them most.

Today, the concept of the hero has changed: each of us can be considered a hero! In our daily lives and through our actions… doctors, nurses, policemen, football players, etc.

THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF HEROES

Vladimir Propp, a Russian folklorist, has identified two types of heroes. The first type is the “hero-victim”, involuntary, forced to react and to manage to survive or to get out of difficulties. The second type of hero is the ‘hero-investigator’ who acts on his own initiative.

This distinction does not apply to all fairy tales: two characters can play the role of hero, just as he can be both questor and victim, of his siblings for example. The hero’s identity can also be threatened by a usurper character who takes his place (Read the tale: Forte, Fortissimo Spaccaferro (Strong, Stronger, Ironbreaker)).

Illustrations by Grimm Twins

The hero always succeeds, alone or with the help of someone, in regaining the position that was stolen from him, thus proving his worth and the rightness of his claim.

The hero-victim and the hero-investigator experience similar events and situations, the difference being the origin of their involvement. The hero-victim is often hunted or imprisoned, while the questor is driven solely by his own will. Both may be aided by a helper or a magical object.

Illustrations by Grimm Twins

Some heroes, at the beginning of the story, are not heroic at all. They prefer to be lazy (as in the tale : Sette di tutto (Seven of everything)), and are sometimes endowed with little intelligence. In the course of the story these characters will evolve positively, but sometimes the “good-for-nothing” hero is deceived by other characters who are more intelligent than him: if you are stupid, rude or ungrateful, you will be punished for what you do. (Read the tales: La volpe con gli stivali (The fox with the boots), Caccarentola)

WOMEN IN ACTION

In many fairy tales, like their male counterparts, women and girls show courage, strength, intelligence and are not afraid to be challenged by and to oppose men. In these stories, the character of the female figure is often surprising, given the period and historical context of the story.

Among the Sicilian tales of Giovanni Pitré, an Italian folklorist (late 19th – early 20th century), the stories collected from the storyteller Agatuzza Messia show a complex female figure. The marvellous tale Caterina la Sapiente (Catherine the Wise) describes an intelligent and learned woman – a strong character who often appears in Italian folklore. Pitré’s version, later taken up by Calvino (a version by Barbara Lachi can be found in the library of tales), can be seen as a certain equality between men and women, as well as a very modern vision of education. In another tale, Piume e Spade (Feathers and Swords), the heroine defies and overcomes her male opponents, using her strength and ingenuity.

The women portrayed in traditional stories are far more heroic than is generally thought. They are strong, determined and committed. With their powers and knowledge, they occupy a place that belongs to them alone.

THE HERO’S JOURNEY

In the vast imaginary territory of heroes, the American anthropologist Joseph Campbell identified in 1949 a standard pattern that he called the “hero’s journey” in his book, The Hero with a Thousand and One Faces. This scheme would be anchored in the unconscious of humanity and we would all share it.

Legend has it that the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, wandered from refusal to refusal with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader on his hands until he discovered this scheme, passed on by Scorsese or Coppola (depending on the source). Then, all that was left to do was to rewrite the whole saga, by getting stuck, step by step, on this magic potion, of which here are the main steps. This roadmap has become a classic of writing courses and apprentice screenwriter’s manuals.

Separation

  1. The adventure’s call
  2. Refusal of the appeal
  3. Supernatural help

Initiation

  1. Crossing the first threshold
  2. The belly of the whale
  3. The path of trials
  4. Meeting with the goddess
  5. Temptation
  6. Reunion with the father
  7. Apotheosis
  8. The supreme gift
  9. Refusal of return
  10. The magical escape

Comeback

  1. Deliverance from the outside
  2. Crossing the threshold on the way back
  3. Master of both worlds
  4. Free in front of life

CHECK OUT THE LIBRARY OF TALES:

Heroes-investigators

– The Wooden Dress or Donkey Skin (La robe de bois ou Peau d’âne)
– The Little Girl and the Orc or Little Red Riding Hood (La petite fille et l’ogresse ou Le petit chaperon rouge)
– The enchanted garden (Le jardin enchanté)
– Seven swords and seven feathers (Sept épées et sept plumes)
– The magic ship (Le bateau magique)
– Briseur de fer (Fort, Plus fort, Briseur de fer).

Heroes-victims

– In silence (En silence)
– Candida e i Briganti (Candida and the Brigands)
– Balbina e la malasorte (Balbina and the bad luck)
– Prezzemolina (Raiponce)

Héroïnes

– Catherine the Wise (Catherine la Sage)
– Feathers and Swords (Plumes et épées)
– The Wooden Dress (La robe de bois)
– The Little Girl and the Orc (La petite fille et l’ogresse)
– The Enchanted Garden (Le jardin enchanté)
– Seven swords and seven feathers (Sept épées et sept plumes)
– In silence (En silence)
– Candida and the Brigands (Candida et les Brigands)
– Balbina e la malasorte (Balbina and the bad luck)
– Prezzemolina (Raiponce)
– La nef magica (Le bateau magique)
– Spaccaferro (Fort, le plus fort, le briseur de fer)
– Caccarentola.