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Lee Child Knows What Makes a Hero

By |2019-12-13T11:40:19-05:00November 26th, 2019|Nonfiction|

No one is better qualified to comment on the nature of the classical hero than Lee Child. After all, his Jack Reacher is not only the most popular series character in fiction today, but also an archetype of the mythic hero from times both long, and not so long, past. Child’s splendid essay The Hero (TLS Books) for the Times Literary Supplement serves as a brilliant treatise on the nature, origins, and evolution of the driving force behind the development of literature itself.

It’s great fun watching Child writing as himself, as opposed from the blisteringly blunt point of view of the iconic Reacher himself. Given the breadth of his talents, I suppose, his erudite and scholarly approach to the material should come as no surprise.

“Let’s start with opium,” the essay begins, swiftly building to the origins of the word “hero” itself. “What did Hoffmann name his product, that at best left its users laid out and passive for hours at a time, inert and endlessly contemplative, and at worst ruined their lives and killed them? He called it heroin, from the German for heroic. Why that word?”

Why indeed? David Morrell mined similar territory when he wrote of the word “assassin” springing from the drug “hashish.” But that is a far more commonly known vernacular than the linguistic revelation produced here. And Child’s essay proceeds in the eminent fashion of a scholar to stitch together strands of the history of storytelling and fiction itself dating all the way back to the Stone Age. “Fiction became curiously central to our nature,” he writes. “Stories not least among them. Encouraging, empowering, emboldening stories, that somehow made it more likely the listener would still be alive in the morning.”

Fiction, in other words, as a mechanism of survival as well as entertainment. “There are only two real people in fiction — the storyteller and the listener. The story proceeds based on the teller’s aims and the listener’s needs.”

That stitches a direct line, more or less, from the birth of story to the nature of characters like Reacher, heroes around which the story revolves to keep the reader’s, originally listener’s, attention. That much has never changed. “The New York Times bestseller of the day,” Child writes, “was the storyteller with twenty rapt listeners at her feet.”

In The Hero he has chosen to focus not so much on the subjects of those stories as on the tellers themselves, the first fiction writers per se who relied on ancient versions of Reacher to make their tales relevant. That’s heady stuff that ultimately brings us Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in which the fabric of the modern hero was first revealed in terms of a mythical quest. That leads to a discussion of Robin Hood and then James Bond, exploring the villain’s role in defining the hero’s nature. Which brings us to Jack Reacher himself.

“Reacher,” Child writes, “slotted very neatly into the folk hero tradition, specifically the knight errant subgroup, which seems to be universal in appeal — as in, for instance, the Japanese ronin myths, in which a samurai, disowned by his master, is sentenced to wander the land, doing good.”

The Hero leaves us with a far deeper and keener understanding of what keeps us turning the pages of a book long into the night. It should be must reading for all college level English classes, leaving us with the stark impression that while man has changed mightily, the storytelling that propels him has not because of the hero at its center. A smart, savvy and sumptuous treatment that gets precisely to the point Stephen was making when he said, “It’s not the tale, it’s the telling.”

The Hero is now available for purchase.

About Lee Child:

Lee Child spends his time reading, listening to music, and watching the Yankees, Aston Villa or Marseilles soccer. He is married with a grown-up daughter. He is tall and slim despite an appalling diet and a refusal to exercise.

About the Author:

Jon Land
Jon Land is the bestselling author over 25 novels. He graduated from Brown University in 1979 Phi Beta Kappa and Magna cum Laude and continues his association with Brown as an alumni advisor. Jon often bases his novels and scripts on extensive travel and research as well as a twenty-five year career in martial arts. He is an associate member of the US Special Forces and frequently volunteers in schools to help young people learn to enjoy the process of writing. Jon is the Vice-President of marketing of the International Thriller Writers (ITW) and is often asked to speak on topics regarding writing and research. In addition to writing suspense/thrillers, Jon is also a screenwriter with his first film credit in 2005. Jon works with many industry professionals and has garnered the respect and friendship of many author-colleagues. He loves storytelling in all its forms. Jon currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island and loves hearing from his readers and aspiring writers.

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