If I cared enough, I’d try to find out when the notion of a superhero was created- or at least when these powerful characters started to become prominent. The X-Men, Superman, Harry Potter, Captain ‘Merica and all their fictional compatriots have taken over entertainment. It’s fine, but if we look back at older literature- sometimes much older, protagonists were nearly always regular humans. There was nothing special about Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, or Jean Valjean. Perhaps the only significant characteristics that protagonists of times gone by shared were either incredible wealth or extreme poverty. Frankly, either of those traits acted as a cheap means to create narrative freedom that middle-class characters don’t easily have. That’s it.
The complaint I have with fantastic characters is that by them, everything else becomes less fantastic. The more significant and powerful our protagonists are, the less awesome the rest of the world becomes. Not only that, but we end up without foes who can’t be beaten. G.K. Chesterton claimed that our smallness was a necessity for giants to be very large. Much of what I have to write is inspired by Chesterton’s thoughts. As much as that bothers me, he’d be thrilled because in his world, novelty was a vice. But that topic is its own essay.
Extraordinary things only stand out as such to ordinary people.
Some people are ugly. Others are dumb. And still, some people are slow and unathletic. Shame on me for writing that, because those are horribly rude statements. So, I’ll admit to being completely unathletic. I have the hand-eye coordination of a drunk toddler. I can neither throw nor catch a ball without falling all over the place. I’m also bad at history. And I’m vain. I could go on. I write these things not as a form of self deprecation, but as a matter of fact. I’m not amazing.
In my lack, I can appreciate good athletes, historians and people with little regard for the opinion of others. My smallness has made others larger in my eyes. The problem that follows for some is the fear of those who are greater than themselves. I would like to say that’s only a problem in dark alleys, ball pits and on Black Friday. The larger world isn’t necessarily threatening. I mean sure, there are some large predators out there. There are plenty of bigger, stronger badder things that will have their way with you, given the chance. Last summer, I ate lunch beside a pack of hippopotami. They kill more people in Africa each year than any other wild animal. I ate with slight trepidation because even though those creatures appear to be giant fatties, they can run faster than humans do. And they have huge mouths for crushing white guys like me.
It’s important to understand and accept the fact that we are little and can lose. That not all endings are happy and that frankly, we’re weak and sometimes ugly. We have a foe that none of us can defeat, because it’s in our DNA. We can’t escape sin. Western culture has made great attempts at eradicating sin by means of philosophy, but renaming it or embracing it doesn’t change its nature. Sure, murder and theft are still largely villainized, but we’re making everything else less significant.
I wonder what would happen if collectively, we could acknowledge our limitations. I believe that our lives would become more vibrant, that giants would soar above us and we’d see our place as tiny, limited humans. We’d discover that in our weakness, there’s a strength to be found outside of ourselves. And perhaps in our lack, we would then seek that strength and be surprised at what that kind of giant would do to our stories.