Last week my wife and I enjoyed a mid-week date night.
“Jason Bourne is still in theaters. I’d love to see that,” she said.
So we did. The final shaky-camera-car-chase nearly made her throw up. And I had to close my eyes as Jason, again, brutally beat then strangled his nemesis. No music, just gasps. Intimate death.
In the car I asked her, “So why do we like these movies? What is it about Jason Bourne that keeps us coming back for more?”
“We empathize with him,” she replied. “We like to root for him to get revenge.”
Hollywood loves the revenge story. Revenge won the Best Actor Oscar last year: The Revenant. Apparently heroes are more compelling when they have a score to settle, and someone to bludgeon with the wooden leg of a chair.
But Hollywood confuses heroism with egoism.
A hero is defined as “a person who is idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” In stories, the hero is a person possessing good qualities and with whom we are expected to sympathize. In mythology heroes were often divine beings with superhuman qualities.
This is especially true of the Norse hero code. E.V. Gordon, a close friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and author of An Introduction to Old Norse, wrote, “The greatness in Icelandic literature lies primarily in its understanding of heroic character and the heroic view of life.” The Norse hero displayed uncommon power of will, along with great spiritual, intellectual, and physical instincts, and great passion. The Norse theory of courage defines true heroism as someone who does not retreat even when they know they face ultimate defeat. The Norse hero sought to distinguish himself from evil by doing good, which often meant self-sacrifice. The Norse hero never relented. And his self-will grew according to the opposition he faced.
When we meet Jason Bourne in the first film, he has amnesia. His quest: to discover his true self. The odyssey of self-discovery includes a shady black-ops program for which our “hero” apparently volunteered.
In the newest installment, Jason Bourne, (spoiler alert!) our “hero” knows his identity, and his violent past. He’s in hiding. But when Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) finds him in order to give him vital information about his past, Jason re-emerges as an avenger: for himself, and for his father, whom he discovers a fellow assassin killed. Though Jason spares the mastermind of the program that created him, he chases and murders his father’s assassin. We can all breathe a sigh of relief. Our “hero” has found retribution for his victimization and stolen identity. He gets his, and, oh, by the way helps stop a corrupt CIA chief.
Contrast Bourne’s ego-centric narrative and hell-bent revenge quest with that of the simple yet daring character named Puddleglum found in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. The Silver Chair is the fourth book in the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia series. David Magee (Life of Pi) will adapt it for the screen, signaling a reboot for the franchise. In the story we meet a marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum, a character who more closely hews to the Norse hero ideal than the Bourne ideal.
Perhaps the most endearing character in Lewis’s Chronicles, Puddleglum is a pessimist. But his heart is good. He really wants to help Jill Pope and Eustace Scrubb on their quest to find the lost Prince Rilian, son of King Caspian. And they succeed! As they plan their getaway from Underland, where Rilian was held captive, The Lady of the Green Kirtle blocks their escape and enchants them. She tries to convince them to stay in Underland by charming them with lies, telling them Aslan, Narnia and everything in Overland is not real.
But Puddleglum breaks free from the enchantment and gives a Norse-inflected speech that displays what true heroism is all about: obedience and love.
“I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia . . . . We’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
Puddleglum embodies the Norse code of courage through the heroic act: putting himself at risk, refusing to give up hope, and facing sure death in order to do what is needed. J.R.R. Tolkien said it is “the heroism of obedience and love not of pride or willfulness that is the most heroic and the most moving.”
This form of heroism is profoundly lacking in movies such as Jason Bourne. Much like beauty, heroism in our culture has turned in on itself. It’s self-fulfilling rather than self-sacrificing; stuck in the muck of egoism when it should be touching the transcendent ideas of love and obedience. We root for it. Unfortunately, that for which we root, we risk becoming.