Enter the Hero

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The last article, before we were interrupted by the republican debates, noted how liminal situations underscore the role of  exactly the kind of folks who populate Quentin Tarantino’s movies. Seen in this context, we realize that the “judges” represent Israel’s version of a familiar character: the lone warrior, the assassin, the warlord, not unlike the leaders of arwinthe tribal armies seen in Homer’s Iliad or in Louis L’Amour’s novels, people in some ways, not unlike Tarantino’s Bride.

The apparent isolation of the events in Kill Bill, the book of Judges, or any other story of this type arises from the intentional placement of the narrative in liminal space and time. In the absence of rules, societal structures or benevolent authorities—the Israelites in Judges could not dial 911 and wait for help to come—the focus falls squarely on the protagonists themselves, their quality, caliber, character and, most of all, their deeds. The author of Judges, like Tarantino “revels in the gusto of physical action and in the stylish ferocity of personal combat. He sees life lit by the fires of some central, ineradicable energy. The air seems to vibrate around the heroic personages, and the force of their being electrifies nature.”[1]

A liminal universe, either in history or in art, throws the characters against a backdrop of burning cities, smoking fields, marauding vandals and even the hostile forces of nature. Cruel injustices inflicted on vulnerable people go JackBauerunpunished. Into this liminal, disordered, unstable universe comes one axial point of order: the hero. They have no help or support outside their wit, skill, strength and courage and exceedingly fine and lethal weaponry.

In Kill Bill, we trace the story of “the Bride” through what emerges as a traditional vendetta tale. We learn (Iater, in Vol. 2) that at her own wedding rehearsal, the Bride and her party are attacked by assassins led by “Bill,” her erstwhile lover and employer. All in the wedding party are savagely killed, as is, seemingly, the Bride and her unborn child. But she survives, only to be sexually assaulted repeatedly while in a coma. All this we reconstruct, as the story is not told in chronological order, but via flashbacks. Still, a story emerges of a brilliant and lethal killer who now must turn all her skills and passion upon avenging not only the death of her friends, and presumably, herself, but also of her unborn child.

Hero stories are universal, and common features mark the genre. Using the book of Judges as a foil, heroic tales:

…celebrate the exploits of an outstanding individual. No eulogizing of the ordinary here, no democracy of the mediocre. Physicality becomes the idiom of excellence. Whether handsome or ugly, heroes are never common. …The storyteller relates the deeds of the heroes, invariably violent encounters, with delicious detail. Such gusto, such exaltation of the violent, scandalizes the domestic sensibility of later readers, ancient and modern. The tale master recounts the murder of Eglon by Ehud and of Sisera by Jael with gleeful energy, celebrating the heroes’ craftiness with humor, sometimes scatological or sexual. helmetLikewise,
his interest in the weaponry or implements of the heroes—Ehud’s dagger, Jael’s tent- peg, Gideon’s torches—is an element of this savoring of every violent detail.

The sheer brutal joy of such passages confronts the reader sharply with a vision of life in which honor, valor, and a good death count for more than mere comfort or longevity. The hero functions not from some external “law” but rather from an internalized “code,” more expressive of the clan and its right to vengeance than “the law” and its claims to justice. …[2]

In such material it will not do to present, as the author of Joshua does, formulaic summaries not unlike Curly Bill Brocius’ crack in Tombstone, “Well, I guess we win!” No, the heroic tale savors each shattering blow, each crash of blade, the crunch of bone. Homer set the standard, as in the account of Patroclus, disguised as Achilles, confronting Thestor in battle:

And next he went for Thestor, son of Enops,
cowering, crouched in his fine polished chariot
Crazed with fear, and the reins flew from his grip
Patroclus rising beside him stabbed his right jawbone
Ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard
He hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot rail
Hoisted, dragged the Trojan out as an angler perched
on a jutting rock ledge drags some fish from the sea
Some noble catch, with line and glittering bronze hook
So with the spear Patroclus gaffed him off his car
His mouth gaping round the glittering point
And flipped him down face first,
Dead as he fell, his life breath blown away

Iliad, 16.478-89[3]

The heroic narrator does not flinch from the violence, nor is it presented merely to shock. The graphic depiction of violence articulates a code or worldview that “…looks on life with those blank, unswerving eyes which stare out of the helmet slits on early Greek vases. His vision is terrifying in its sobriety, cold as the winter sun.”[4]

But…in an era of privation and suffering, from where might such a hero come? Wait till next time…

Notes:

[1] George Steiner, “Homer and the Scholars,”in Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays, G. Steiner and R. Fagles, eds. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962) 8.

[2] Stone, “Judges,”197-198.

[3] Quoted from The Iliad: Translated by Robert Fagles with Introduction and Notes by Howard Knox (New York: Penguin, 1990) 425-426.

[4] George Steiner, “Homer and the Scholars,” 8.

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I’m 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I’ve recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

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