Historians will tell you that the word comes from the Greek Hērōs, meaning “protector” or “warrior”, or cite the myth of tragic lovers Hero and Leander, the priestess and her suitor who was consumed by the waves as he swam across the stormy Hellespont to reach her. Ask Google to define it and you’ll get “A person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. That doesn’t cut it for me. My heroes aren’t all men, or all brave high-fliers. Some of them aren’t even human.
One such made the news a few days ago. Miss Piggy has been honoured with a Sackler Center First Award, presented to her by Gloria Steinem at Brooklyn Museum’s Center for Feminist Art. Previous recipients of the prize include writer Toni Morrison and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Each year the museum honours a “trailblazing, game-changing, inspiring woman” who has broken down barriers in her field. This is truer in Piggy’s tale than most – she was never expected to make it off the farm. As she wrote in Time magazine, “I was told that my life would be nothing but mud, sweat and tears … and the occasional trip to the 4-H fair. I refused to accept someone else’s definition of my life and my future.” It was delightful to watch Piggy accept her award this week, so I’ve decided to pay tribute to the other not-quite-human heroes who have all taught me a thing or two about how a person should be, even though they aren’t people themselves.
“For once maybe someone will call me ‘Sir’ without adding ‘you’re making a scene’.”
Like everyone else who grew up in the 90s I spent my teenage years watching satellite TV and listening to grunge bands. Some might think this would put me at a disadvantage when it comes to my intellectual life. Not so. All Simpsons fans know that Homer is one of the greatest philosophers of our age (and that the show itself is chock full of secret jokes about mathematics). Homer is one man who represents the entire human condition. He begs the question: how can a person live well in an unpredictable world they cannot control? Homer may appear to be a middle-aged slob in a job he hates, under the cosh of the worst boss imaginable but he cherishes his family, friends and community. He finds transcendence in the music of Grand Funk Railroad, and the hedonic embrace of doughnuts and beer. He is the embodiment of Voltaire’s famous conclusion to his philosophical text Candide. In an imperfect world, contentment comes from doing what we can: “We must cultivate our garden.”
“This is the end of everything! At least it is the end of the career of Toad, which is the same thing; the popular and handsome Toad, the rich and hospitable Toad, the Toad so free and careless and debonair…imprisoned so justly for stealing so handsome a motor-car in such an audacious manner, and for such lurid and imaginative cheek, bestowed upon such a number of fat, red-faced policemen.”
If you haven’t read The Wind in the Willows since you were a kid, promise me you will go back to it. Kenneth Grahame’s story is clever and illuminating in all kinds of ways. At heart it is an Edwardian parable about the birth of the modern city and the British class system. The beautiful but indifferent natural world (which Toad is so keen to leave behind in his shiny new motor car – POOP POOP) provides a backdrop. Our anthropomorphic antihero’s tale takes place over the course of four seasons which Toad barely notices, so disconnected from nature is he. The animals gaze at the mysterious “Wide World” beyond the Wild Wood. Rat, Mole and Badger reject the Wide World, but Toad is desperate to get there. When he abandons his aristocratic pile on a whim he ends up in “gaol’ and Toad Hall is overrun by a mob of riotous weasels. The Edwardian morality tale ends with Toad asserting his authority, restoring the social hierarchy, vowing to reform his playboy ways and holding onto his fortune (which may not chime with our times, but there’s a lesson for playboy bankers in there somewhere… ).The rest of us can take inspiration from Toad’s indefatigable spirit, resourcefulness, charm and way with words.
“We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life”
Let’s face it, a camp, golden robot butler was always going to be my kind of guy. But I might not have guessed that he could teach me so much about what it is to be human. When Threepio almost-quotes the Bhudda (“life is suffering”) he prompts us to ask: if droids can suffer, are they alive? R2D2 evidently thinks not – he bleeps a comment at Threepio, who admonishes him “Don’t you call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight blob of grease” but Star Wars fans have chewed this point over at length. Threepio is a hero of mine because of his impeccable manners, his focus on serving others and the fact that these very qualities lead him to help save the galaxy on several occasions, despite being a mere protocol droid.
“Me want banana!”
Speaking of serving others, The Minions, who first made an appearance in Despicable Me back in 2010, are my favourite cinematic creation of the decade so far. In a confusing, distracting, morally ambiguous world (a lot like ours) The Minions exist in a state of perfect mindfulness. They are fully present in the moment. They are selfless. They commit to their chosen course of action 100 per cent. They try their hardest, co-operate and understand that an individual’s contribution can to something bigger than themselves can be huge. They live fully, laugh easily and seek joy.