Heroic agency in literature and in life is often discussed as a dual nature: light and shadow. The tension is typically drawn between a creative force and a destructive force. In this construction, a hero is a two-sided coin with a light side and a dark side.
There’s even a pop culture meme about a legend attributed to the Cherokee about two wolves living inside a person, one dark and one light. The metaphor goes that you should feed your light wolf and starve your dark wolf. And, of course, an obligatory counter-meme attributed to Odin in the Norse tradition feeding both and having two wolves to fight his enemies. I personally like the Odin version a little better, but it’s got problems, too.
There’s a better way to think about heroic agency.
Human thinking is full of binary. Yes. No. Good. Evil. Male. Female. Dark. Light. Us. Them. Human. Monster. It’s pervasive in science. It’s widespread in the humanities. Either. Or. On. Off. It’s intrinsic to our language. Blame the so-called duality of man.
Most attempts to challenge binary assumptions stem from an intrinsic bias toward one half of the dichotomy and against the other, like the Cherokee legend of two wolves. Many arguments fall into this “politics of demonization” category. In this formulation, only one of the two options of “valid” and “other one” is beyond the pale. I’m not judging, just observing. We’re all guilty of it anyway, whether we admit it or not, to ourselves or out loud to others. It’s not usually a useful argument to have, in my opinion. Nor do I think it can add new dimension to our thinking of heroism with its narrow, one-sided perspective.
A frequent alternative argument to binary conception is the case for relativism. Rendering everything into a spectrum or onto a circle upon which every position is of equal value isn’t any more useful. Again, in my opinion, for the purpose of discussing heroic agency. Heroism isn’t a single point on a sliding scale nor a single stop on a merry-go-round.
I’m going to marshal an argument of synthesis instead.
A hero isn’t just an either-or. Neither is a hero just a continuum. In physics terms, a hero is a particle and a wave at the same time. The distinction between an effective hero and the rest of the cast. Genius is often described as the ability to hold a paradox in mind. In story, the hero is the genius with agency. To succeed, a heroic figure must engage both luminary and shadow agency. At. The. Same. Time.
My primary problem with the Odin deconstruction of the Cherokee legend is that it removes the agency from the hero and puts it external to the hero (inside the wolves, in case that wasn’t clear.) The entire point of story is to teach us when and how to deploy our agency. It’s how we think and how we communicate. Story is what makes us human. Story is how we become better humans.
I see heroic agency as a two-edged sword. One edge may be light and one edge may be dark, but they are fundamentally part of the same tool. You cannot successfully use one edge without the other. Heroic agency is a tool, not a being like a wolf, which keeps the agency where it belongs. Inside the hero. Although the protagonist is the one to demonstrate this, every character in every story possesses the potential for agency.