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From Heathcliff to Jaime Lannister and Back Again: Byronic Heroes in SFF

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Quiz Question: What do the following genre heroes (or should I say, anti-heroes) have in common?

  • DC’s Batman (Think Dark Knight, not the ’60s ABC campy Adam West)
  • Harry Potter‘s Severus Snape
  • Star Wars‘ Han Solo
  • Lord of the Rings‘ Aragorn
  • Game of Thrones‘ Jaime Lannister
  • Dark Tower‘s Roland
  •  Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (in his many guises)

Like Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, and Notre Dame’s Hunchback

Jaime and Brienne

in Hugo’s novel, each is a character archetype of a whole literature of nineteenth century literary heroes—melancholy, romantic anti-heroes who find roots in Lord Byron’s 1812 narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage—they are Byronic heroes. So how’s a Byronic hero different than regular old hero-hero? Thanks for playing!

Those of you who have read my columns for years, know that I have a definite “thing” for Byronic heroes, whether from classic literature or from modern pop culture. In my book Chasing Zebras, I devoted an entire chapter to casting Dr. Gregory House as very much a Byronic hero. More recently, I suggested that the first three seasons or so of ABC’s Once Upon a Time portrayed Rumplestiltskin as a Byronic hero. Whether he still fits the archetype, is a matter of opinion. (What do you think?)

sguByronic heroes are highly intelligent, cynical, moody. Some are anti-heroes, some aren’t. Some are complete villains! But all tend to brood and are often found struggling with their own integrity and with their pasts. They are among the darker literary heroes, but that’s not to say they can’t have a lot of good lurking beneath the surface. But that good is usually submerged, often deeply—only to be revealed under very specific circumstances (and often by an empathic partner).

Genre literature: books, comics, film, TV are filled with Byronics.

Google “Byronic” and “Batman” and you’ll come up with about 80,000 hits. Google Byronic and Snape and you’ll get more than 100,000; Han Solo gets nearly 40,000. So does Mr. Spock. Poor Tony Stark (Ironman) gets more than a quarter-million hits. Rumple gets 12,000. You get the idea.

Sometimes, especially when talking about movies or television and a character that’s been portrayed by several actors, the Byronic nature of the character is dependent on who’s playing him (or who’s writing him). So for Batman, think Christian Bale, not Adam West. The Hulk? Edward Norton or Mark Ruffalo, not Bill Bixby. For The Doctor (of Who fame), perhaps think David Tenant’s portrayal as the Tenth Doctor.

The Victorian poet Lord Byron’s lover Lady Caroline Lamb described the writer (and by extension, all “Byronic” heroes) as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” They are often heroes by default, possessing no overt “heroic” or even altruistic motive, drawing us in with their dark magnetism and charisma. There’s always an inner-conflict brewing just beneath the surface that compels us to wonder “why?” What’s eating away at his soul bit by bit? Sometimes, not even the script pages provide clues, and it’s all in the acting–in the body language, the eyes, a millisecond of yearning or despair hovering just them.

It’s why Robert Carlyle’s portrayal of both Nicholas Rush on Stargate Universe and his Rumplestiltskin on Once Upon a Time—for the first four seasons—completely hooked me, despite the fact that the scripts for those series pay little mind to any sense of inner-conflict. Eventually in season one of Stargate Universe, we learn that Rush lost his wife to cancer and he’d shut himself off from the pain, even before her death. And it haunts him. We get glimpse (only a frame or two) in the pilot of his pain as he gazes tearfully at a photograph of a woman on his bed stand, only to learn later that it’s his wife Gloria.

I first saw Rumplestiltskin as a Byronic hero in the pilot, again, only a glimpse as the depraved captive of the Evil Queen looks beyond the bars, showing us in a brief moment the anguish behind the eyes. I had to know more!

Byronic heroes come in many stripes: some of them are irredeemable, often meeting tragic ends, (John Milton’s Paradise Lost portrays Satan as a Byronic hero). Sometimes they are completely redeemable (think Han Solo).

So, what makes a hero “Byronic?”

Intelligence

It’s at the root of their survival. Otherwise we might dismiss them (or they’d be in jail or dead). Maybe he’s hyper-observant with keen deductive reasoning skills and intuition, or the perceptiveness of a savant. Genius and ingenuity that keeps our Byronic hero one step ahead of everyone else: the bad guys—and good guys. Sometimes that genius makes them annoying to the mere intellectual mortals around them, but in the end, they’re thankful for the “mad skillz” that bring down the real villains.

Magnetism

Whether it’s through the sheer force of their intellectual power or something else, there is a larger-than-life vibe to all Byronic heroes. Despite their flaws, constant brooding and frustrating moodiness, they seem to draw people in by the sheer force of personality, always at the center of things, even when not interested in being there.

Maybe we readers or viewers perceive the wounded spirit that drives our hero’s less attractive attributes, and are driven by a natural desire to heal him. Woundedness is a classic literary device to humanize an anti-heroes. Even before we knew he was good, there was always something about Snape, right? Despite Dr. Rush’s frustrating self-serving drive, we knew (or at least I perceived) that something was behind it. He’d not always been that way. And lo and behold, we discover (not that far into Stargate Universe’s narrative) that Rush had, indeed, been quite a different man.

But it’s also the irrepressible energy when the “game’s afoot.” We want to follow Holmes when he’s on the hunt. Or Ironman. Or Batman. Or Captain Jack. The sheer force of personality makes these guys a natural leader, and we must follow—even when we can’t quite keep up with the thought process. One of my favorite quotes from the brilliant TV show House (OK, admittedly not exactly a genre show on its face, but absolutely a Sherlock Holmes.) comes in the second episode of season two. As he explains something to lesser physicians, they are hopelessly lost, finally catching up with him as he leads them to the point of a lengthy metaphor. “Welcome to the end of the thought process,” he says. Exactly.

In the same episode, we see how effortlessly House commands a large team of experienced physicians as he executes an experimental and dangerous diagnostic protocol on a young cancer patient with a blood clot in her brain. The procedure is so dangerous and intricate, it requires rehearsal to get it just right.

Commanding a large team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, cardiologists, and neurologists; nurses and technicians, he plays them like a symphony conductor. And they hang on his every word, trusting him for his knowledge, self-confidence and through the sheer force of his personality, captivated by the genius at work.

Troubled Past and Painful Present

Batman’s parents were murdered in front of him. Mr. Spock is the product of a interplanetary marriage, conflicted and pained by his emotional (human) side, which he tries (and occasionally fails) to suppress. The past of our Byronic heroes informs every part of their present: the cynicism, the aloofness, the jerk-ness, but also the wounded spirit, world-weariness and the vulnerability just lurking beyond our grasp.

Scratch a cynic’s veneer and you may discover an idealist. Although not every Byronic hero has an idealistic or romantic side, most do—sometimes so deeply buried beneath a lifetime of torment, it only emerges under the rarest of conditions. Once Upon a Time’s Rumplestiltskin is a hard man. He is tough and harsh. He was betrayed from the time he was a child by a cruel father and a dismissive wife who betrayed him. But there are moments when we get glimpses of the idealist, the kind man who pursued an idea to stop the ogre wars that led children to their deaths. The character suffered, however, when the creators of the series seemed to forget (or erase) Rumple’s nobler self.

Even Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister—a real villain at the beginning—has a noble heart buried quite deeply, shielded and toughened by his brutal, cruel father. I never thought that Jaime Lannister could be redeemed, yet his journey has been on the most interesting and compelling in the entire HBO series. And I cannot fail to mention his brother Tyrion’s own Bryronic tendencies, and his own journey. Perhaps Jaime and Tyrion are in some ways opposite sides of the same coin.

The Classic Outsider                                                 

Lestat in Ann Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, Edward Cullen in Stephanie Meyer’s novel Twilight, Torchwood’s Captain Jack, Bruce Wayne, David Banner, Scott Summers… The list goes on. The genre’s Byronic heroes are almost always classic outsiders. There is something that sets them apart from everyone else. Maybe he’s a mutant, maybe he’s got a physical disability, maybe he’s a non-human living amongst humans. They are aliens of one sort or another. It’s their differentness that pushes them outside the circle, whether to become inward dwelling recluses or complete outlaws. But it makes them among the most adaptable of heroes.

As classic outsiders, Byronic heroes need unique, highly developed coping skills. They have to be cunning and adaptable to survive in a world that either dismisses or scorns them. Faced with adversity, perhaps a family that casts them out or a lover who proves faithless, they go off to war, they get an education, develop some sort of intellectual superpower. When they return, perhaps not triumphant, they are stronger for the experience.

There’s a line in the 2008 film The Dark Knight spoken by Bruce Wayne’s servant and protector, Alfred. “You’re the one who can be the outcast and do the things that no one else can… A watchful protector; a dark knight.” Wayne’s alter ego Batman is described as the necessary evil to combat the greater evil. It’s the outsider status that makes Batman possible.

Byronic heroes are, more than anything else, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Yet we are drawn into their orbits, intent on knowing them beneath the cape, behind the mask, beyond the icy exterior. And they will forever live as an essential genre archetype. (At least I hope so!)

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."