By David Kittredge
“With the age of antihero, baddies and goodies became less distinguishable from one another.” I found this comment posted on Bang2Write, a writer’s conference website and felt that the statement to be a good down to earth summation of the antihero. Antiheroes, whether in literature, film or in the real world, are characters that we love to hate and in return the character who loves to be hated. Usually a villain and thus a social outcast, the antihero also possesses some traits of normalcy. They can love a partner or a spouse, have children that they nurture, or can be defenders of the downtrodden. These normal human attributes help to paint in the gray areas of their overlapping tendencies of the deviant and of the nurturer. As the pendulum swings from its extreme positions of the wicked and the righteous, the two opposites can be blended during its arc, leaving the onlooker of the antihero’s actions unable to pinpoint their true motives.
The antihero often gains popularity during times of scarcity, usually for food such as was the case in the Great Depression or in times of laborious hardship as was the situation in feudal England.
It was in feudal England that the myth of Robin Hood grew with stories and songs of him with his band of merry men robbing the rich only to give back to the poor. A commentary written by a monk in the 15th century, claims that the people would rather listen to “tales and songs of Robin Hood” than go to church. In feudal times, a commoner did not, except in rare cases, own land but instead farmed the land of noblemen and in turn received a meager subsistence which did not often include protein. People could be executed or at least imprisoned for harvesting the “King’s deer” or for the poaching of any game animal on a nobleman’s holdings, which included almost all of the land. Peasants often relied the eel runs or inexpensive mammal entrails for their protein intake. Examples of this epicurean practice still remain in the British Isles today with delights such as jellied eel, kidney pie or haggis, the latter being a mixture of sheep’s guts combined with oatmeal which is boiled in a bag made from the bovine’s stomach. A constant diet of haggis might cause anyone to consider turning to a life of crime.
Another factor which endeared the outlaw Robin Hood to the people was his forbidden love of the noblewoman, Maid Marion. People of “noble blood” were not allowed to couple with commoners. This belief is still alive today, as evidenced by the scorned marriage of His Royal Highness Henry Charles Albert David Duke of Sussex to now Rachel Meghan Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex, (aka) Prince Harry and Meghan (nee) Markle. I was wondering what her last name was now but apparently, she doesn’t need a surname with a title that is nearly as long as an Imperial British Mile. This couple has now achieved antihero status through their nuptials and their separation from the royal household, aided by constant coverage from the paparazzi who bombard us with photos of the royal pair while the press engorge us with miniscule tidbits of their unfruitful, yet overly laden, abundant lives. The prince and the duchess have paradoxically become antithetical in regard to the royal family and at the same time antiheroes in the eyes of the commoners or to characterize the situation bluntly, antithetical antiheroes.
Two early American literary antiheroes were Huckleberry Finn and his pal Tom Sawyer in the Mark Twain novels. The two boys skipped school to play along the Mississippi River, refused to wear shoes and at times were runaways. Mark Hearn stated in his 2001 annotated version of the Twain classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that Huck was “the first antihero in the American nursery.” The book was criticized when first published in 1885 for its harsh language, came into vogue in the 1900s and is now again criticized as being racist, although the two main characters are anti-racist. It seems ironic that when the novel was first published readers may have had concerns that the two main protagonists were anti-racist.
Out of the Great Depression of the 1930s emerged several antiheroes, all of them ruthless, murderous bank robbers. These years were marked by a dearth of goods including food as folks tried to scratch out an existence let alone find work at a job that may or may not provide a living wage. The antiheroes of this era were perceived to be getting back at “The Man” by robbing the banks owned by men who were perceived as being rich. Unfortunately, banks hold the money of people from all socio-economic classes. One of the main factors for the depression was that goods were made to last, unlike later with planned obsolescence, which ensures the constant purchasing of product. The bankers, many of whom had lost fortunes, were nonetheless considered to be rich men, demonized by the common folk who at times cheered on the murderous desperados of their day.
Bonnie and Clyde were the most notable antiheroes of the early 1930s due to their good, photogenic looks, their forbidden romance, Bonnie Parker was still married when she threw in with Clyde Barrow, and their sense for the melodramatic. Bonnie, in addition to being a loyal gun moll, was actually a talented poet who started writing in prison doing a stint for attempting to rob guns from a hardware store, with the Barrow Gang. Some of her works include “The Story of Suicide Sal” and “The Trails End,” also known as “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” both of which were suicidally themed and prophetic. Both of these poems were written in the prison vernacular of the day, with a good rhyming scheme and a very pronounced beat. After her release from prison, when the grand jury failed to indict her, she rather than counting her blessings, rejoined Clyde and his gang, out of her love for him.
To be continued...