The Psychology of the English Hero
October 13, 2006.
Is there such a thing as English honour? I mean really, what is this thing bandied about in every film and novel about the English ruling classes? I only bring it up after watching the latter half of a 1960s TV adaptation of Kidnapped - the Robert Louis Stevenson novel.
The word honour was uttered with such metronomic frequency I had to watch what turned out to be good entertainment.
It seems that while the English cluck their tongues at today's martyrdom-seeking types, they have had their very own home grown ones - the upper middle class variety of honour and heroism, with all its obsessions with inheritance, social position and love/hate feelings for aristocratic authority.
Here is the plot: Young and earnest David Balfour is kidnapped, sold into slavery and cheated out of his inheritance by a scheming uncle in 18th century Scotland. While on the run in the Scottish Highlands, he falls in with a Jacobite rebel, Alan Breck - who murders a local chieftain supporter of the occupant of the English throne - and Aileen, the daughter of the man wrongly accused of the murder.
David bravely returns to Edinburgh where he faces down the Lord Advocate – the representative of the king and the highest authority in the land. He testifies that the accused is innocent, to which the Lord Advocate – who intends that the man should hang to avoid sectarian violence – admonishes him to not pursue this course. ‘Thousands will die for this one man, and Scotland will be destroyed’ he pleads (I paraphrase).
Even David’s companions try to dissuade him arguing that he will only destroy his own life for a doomed cause. They eventually give up before his principled stand with one of them saying, ‘go and do your duty; and be hanged, if you must.
Like a gentleman.’ Young David is all for the scaffold provided he tells the truth even if the innocent accused is guaranteed death and his country – ruled by the English – torn asunder. ‘Then let it fall, let the whole rotten Scotland fall so that an innocent man may go free,’ he tells the Lord Advocate.
Very heroic and blood-stirring stuff!
Illustrated image of a Zulu general fighting the British
But then our David goes on to give his reason for standing by the truth. Not his growing love for Aileen or her father, the accused. No, his stand is based on a conversation he had as a boy with his father who told him ‘that the law is higher than any man, it bends to no one and truth is its keeper.’
It is at this moment that he also reveals that he would like to attend law school should he survive this test. Our hero is willing to die for the law. To be more exact, he is willing to be tried by the same law that he knows will kill him.
His great aspiration is to be joined with the institutions that the preceding 90 minutes of the film have spent showing us being applied dishonestly and violently in his country. David's aspiration might be to become Lord Advocate.
This is the peculiar nature of his honour which requires that he give death a wide embrace recognizing that what is killing him is what he loves. This honour which I think is English in its nature, and allows him to face a sad fate unflinchingly is an abstraction.
It ignores villainies perpetrated on others in its name. It came to me that the English claim to the mantle of an honourable people is based not on their refusal to cheat or murder but because they have been willing to die for the conceit that their kind do not cheat or murder.
Thus the heroes’ squares built for the redcoats who faced the Zulu Impis at Islandwana (during the war against South Africa’s Emperor Chaka) and shook hands before turning to face the final thrust of the assegai.
Nothing needs be said of the murdering and raping of Africans which brought them to that impasse. What matters is that they died looking heaven-ward to a vanity that allowed them to pursue without brakes any brutal conduct against the Zulus.
From the Suez Canal to Mau Mau uprising and the many other battlefields that are splattered with English blood, evil is washed clean by this sacrifice of the young.
This is why the English hero can be a cad until the very last moment when he pulls off a spectacular save in the honour department. It is only in battle that the English are at their best when offered the opportunity to look away from the hells they have created toward an earthly heaven only reachable by dying.
Or could it be that the nature of all liberal heroism is to love the very alter that you are dying on as opposed to more religious varieties that urge matrydom for the sake of heaven?
Perhaps this is why African politics nowadays give birth to few heroic actions into death: we do not believe in the alter (the state) that might demand our blood and have found ways into heaven that do not demand we destroy earthly institutions.
MMK is a London-based Kenyan writer and journalist. He is currently on a working tour of Africa and blogs as African Bullets and Honey.
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