Hardback copy of THE UNFORGIVEN by Alan Le May

Often when we think of heroes, we think of strong characters who brandish their fists or weapons while standing tall against what is wrong with the world, against foes who would do evil. We also often think of such characters as moral, with strong ethics that cannot be altered. We think of such figures as being resolute, unwavering.

I’m not going to argue here the differing philosophies of moral absolutism versus moral relativism, but sometimes even the most morally stout heroes must change when faced with new information or differing circumstances. Sometimes they have to. Sometimes being willing to change is a heroic act in itself, whether the hero be real or of the fictional variety.

Of course change is common, almost necessary, for many character arcs within fiction, especially for a positive conclusion to the traditional hero’s journey. But is an emotional, mental and even spiritual change necessary? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

What got me to thinking about all this was recently while I was reading the Western novel, THE UNFORGIVEN, by Alan Le May, the book being the basis for the somewhat famous 1960 movie starring Burt Lancaster and directed by John Huston. (Before we go any further, let this be your spoiler warning, for I will be talking about the climaxes or conclusions to several fairly well known stories below, though I will attempt to give away as little as possible).

In THE UNFORGIVEN, there isn’t a single protagonist but multiple viewpoint characters; if one insists upon a single protagonist, then it must be the Zachary family as a whole. The tale involves this family and the struggles and dangers they face on the Texas frontier of the mid-to-late 19th Century. Throughout this novel there is a family secret, the true identity of the youngest Zachary daughter, 17-year-old Rachel. It turns out Rachel is not actually a child of the Zachary clan, but was something of a foundling when she was a baby. Trouble arises when it comes to light that Rachel might have been a babe of the Kiowa people, a Native American warrior tribe. The Kiowa, of course, want the return of their child even if it is years later, but the Zachary family continues to claim Rachel as one of their own despite conflict with the Kiowa and with other peoples of the Texas plains. Ben Zachary, the oldest son and head of the family since the father’s passing some years earlier, is the would-be hero of this novel, but ultimately Rachel is the true hero. That being said, it is Ben who eventually faces the biggest test of change. Near the end of THE UNFORGIVEN, Ben has the opportunity to learn the truth of Rachel’s background, to learn whether she is a Kiowa or not. Yet the mystery is never solved. Despite the question of Rachel’s parentage, Ben decides he would rather not know the truth, that it matters little, because Rachel is his sister whatever blood she is descended from.

Ben changes. He has to, or risk losing someone he loves.

Now one might argue Ben made the wrong decision, that it would be better off to know, but within the framework of this story, it works, and it shows Ben’s true heart and his true strength of character. Despite the animosity between his kin and the others in their world, despite the nagging questions concerning Rachel’s life, in the end Ben finds the ties of love stronger than those purely based upon blood.

The same author, Le May, comes to similar conclusions in his novel THE SEARCHERS, the novel upon which another famous movie is based, this one the 1956 Western film starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. In the film version, Wayne portrays Ethan Edwards, who heads out in search of his niece Debbie who was taken captive by Comanche after the brutal slaughter of Debbie’s family headed by Ethan’s brother. The trail lasts years and years, and along the way Ethan discovers Debbie has been married to a Comanche and now considers herself a Comanche. To this news, on several occasions, Ethan declares he will kill Debbie, that he would rather see her dead than be one of the “heathen.” In the end, Ethan does find Debbie, but he has a change of heart at the last moment, and instead of slaying her, he takes her home to her remaining family. In the eyes of the film viewers, if Ethan had done otherwise, if he had indeed killed Debbie, he would not have appeared as a hero but as a villain.

Similar changes can be found in characters throughout literature going back to earliest ages. Even Achilles, hero of THE ILIAD by Homer, goes through a substantial moral change near the end of the story. After Achilles defeats Hector in battle, he takes Hector’s body and desecrates it because Achilles continues to rage over Hector’s slaying of Achilles’ companion Patroclus in battle. The desecration continues until Hector’s own father, King Priam, sneaks into the camp of Achilles and speaks to the hero. It is only then, upon seeing the pain within a father who has lost a child, that Achilles allows Hector’s corpse to be taken away. In the end, despite his wrath, Achilles does the right thing.

Even the Holy Bible has heroes who make such changes. King David is without a doubt the most well known of the Old Testament heroes, and he shows his mettle often in combat but also in the temple. David’s sins are numerous, and the Bible’s writers do not hide even the worst of them, but when called to task, David always relents, admits to his faults, and asks forgiveness after showing contrition. This is one of the reasons David is called a man after God’s own heart.

Poster for season two of THE MANDALORIAN.

In the modern era, we continue to see heroes who face their own change. For instance, in Disney’s Star Wars show THE MANDALORIAN, the main character Din Djarin is known as something of a zealot with a creed that stipulates he must never remove his helmet for others to see his face. Yet after two seasons, when Din must release his ward, Grogu who is often known as Baby Yoda, we find that he removes his Mandalorian helmet for Grogu to finally see his face, his natural features. This was no easy event for Din, and it shows how much he cares for Grogu, that he was willing to make such a change, such a personal sacrifice, for the little guy.

An example of a character who was unwilling to change was god-like Morpheus, also known as Dream or The Sandman of the Dreamlord, in the DC Vertigo comic book series THE SANDMAN, written by Neil Gaiman. Ultimately the tale of Morpheus is something of a tragedy, but one that unveils hope in the end. Faced with the potential destruction of his ethereal domain, The Dreaming, Morpheus comes to realize all of this is his own fault, that he had been unwilling to alter the rules under which he exists. He had personal reasons for not bending or breaking the rules, but the price is The Dreaming, a magical, mythical world home to thousands if not millions of individuals, many of them creations of Morpheus himself. It is too late for Morpheus to change, but to save The Dreaming and those within it, he must ultimately give all of himself. And he does. Yet he lives on in a manner through a new version of the Dreamlord, one which will not bear his name but is much like Morpheus. So, there is tragedy but there is a renewal, a hope for The Dreaming and for the world. In many ways, Morpheus goes through the ultimate change, allowing himself to die while being replace by another who is sort of him but not exactly, so perhaps THE SANDMAN isn’t ultimately a tragedy.

Obviously characters within fiction do not have to change, do not even have to face the traditional hero’s journey, especially serialized characters. For instance, a young Conan the Cimmerian who is a thief is not emotionally or mentally (or spiritually, by Crom!) all that different from the aged King Conan. And with the exception of some alternative universe stories, Batman is always pretty much Batman.

I’ll wind things down now by suggesting that a willingness to change in a character is a sign of growing up, a sign of emotional and mental strength, and of maturity. One’s morals must dictate change under the right circumstances or those morals aren’t worth much. That’s not to say a character can’t stand steadfastly by his or her values, but that stubbornness in the light of contradicting facts and perhaps a contradicting truth can make a hero into a monster. Whether or not that happens in fiction is ultimately up to the author, weaving any particular tale toward that hero’s journey or to some form of tragedy. Whether or not such happens in real life is up to the individual, and it is part of the reason we have real-world heroes and monsters alike.