From Publishers Weekly
If you were hosting a celestial dinner party and could invite anyone from history, who would attend? Lincoln, Einstein, Shakespeare? But it might be shrewder to collect the truly mesmerizing characters who combined transcendent charisma and resolve, such as Achilles or Garibaldi. Having long pondered precisely such people, Sunday Times
of London critic Hughes-Hallett would likely give a humdinger of a bash. Her fascinating, wide-ranging book lovingly plumbs the careers of seven well-chosen men to trace the history of the hero in Western culture: in addition to the two mentioned above, she includes the Athenian Alcibiades; Roman senator Cato the Younger; the crusader El Cid; the pirate Francis Drake; and war plunderer Albrecht von Wallenstein. What sets these men apart? A preternatural ability to inspire, "a disdain for the cramping compromises by means of which the unheroic majority manage their lives." To exalt scoundrels like Drake or Wallenstein is to challenge our modern dictum that all are created equal; recognizing this, Hughes-Hallett appends a cautionary coda about the antidemocratic legacy of these Nietzschean "supermen." She notes that a hero needn't be virtuous; he need only "inspire confidence and... appear, not good necessarily, but great." Compellingly portraying her heroes, Hughes-Hallett is equally brilliant in evoking both the allure and the danger of hero worship. 32 pages of photos, 16 in color. (Sept. 19)
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Overused to the point of meaninglessness, the word hero
receives some rehabilitation from this perspicacious British critic. After selecting six famous figures from history and two from mythology (Achilles and Odysseus), Hughes-Hallett proceeds to puzzle over the superhuman qualities attributed to them. Her discussions are notable for their insightful appraisals of personality and motivation and for the revealing manner in which she contrasts crass historical reality with exalted reputation. For example, she notes that Rodrigo Diaz, El Cid, was as much a mercenary as a champion of Christian Spain; his eleventh-century campaigns, or depredations, typify the social disruptiveness of the hero, a fundamental quality Hughes-Hallett detects in all her subjects. Yet, she argues, heroes also have an aura that can often redeem defeat or disunity. Hence the willingness to excuse what are defects in ordinary mortals--the recidivist treason of Alcibiades of Athens, for example. Cato of Rome, Drake of England, Wallenstein of the Holy Roman Empire, and Garibaldi of Italy are also examined in these cogent reflections on the heroic character in history and literature. Gilbert TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved