The Hero and Heroism: Then, There, Now
Two-day conference brought to you by the School of Cultural Studies & Humanities.
In May 2018, Mamoudou Gassama, ‘France’s real-life Spider Man’, became a social media sensation when YouTube footage showed him climbing four storeys on the outside of a block of flats in Paris to save a four-year-old boy who was hanging perilously from an open balcony. He was duly thanked personally by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace, awarded the prestigious Médaille d’honneur pour acte de courage et de dévouement and offered a job with the fire service. In addition, Gassama, a Malian migrant, was given French citizenship as recognition of his heroism in a move that sparked controversy on social media, with memes contrasting stereotypical images of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants, while the writer, Raphaël Glucksmann, commented, ‘I dream of a country where it wouldn’t be necessary to scale a building to save the life of a child, at the risk of one’s own life, to be treated like a human being when you are a migrant.’
The Forged by Fire project team is interested in exploring the relationship between heroism and identity in Britain since the turn of the nineteenth century. We have identified stories of individuals and professional bodies (including the emergency and health services) that centre on personal and collective sacrifice in order to save others in dire need. These include Thomas Robson, the ‘hero in humble life’, who worked tirelessly for six hours in life threatening conditions to rescue miners trapped under-ground following the Newbottle Colliery explosion in 1815, and was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal for his efforts; Margaret Ellis (pictured below left, taken from Yorkshire Evening Post, 28 Dec. 1938), the 14-year-old ‘plucky Leeds girl’, who suffered burns to her arms after helping her two little sisters escape a house fire at Christmas 1938, but who received no further attention besides coverage in the local newspapers; and Harry Errington (pictured below right), the London AFS fire-fighter who, despite having badly burned hands, dragged two of his mates out of a sub-station, which had received a direct hit from a Heavy Explosive bomb, following an air-raid in September 1940, for which he was presented with the George Cross, the second highest award of the UK honours system. Stories of heroism, pluck, courage and risk-taking reveal a great deal about the public’s understanding of heroes, prejudices about class, gender, race and age, as well as the individual hero’s self-awareness of what they did. As Errington recalled in a later interview about the incident, he felt shocked and embarrassed at receiving the George Cross because ‘I wasn’t worried about them, I was worried about myself.’
This two-day conference, the proceedings of which we will seek to publish as a special issue of an academic journal, aims to critique the hero and heroism in its cultural context, and we welcome papers that examine contemporary as well as historical examples and topics. We are delighted that Helen Dampier (Leeds Beckett University) and Max Jones (University of Manchester) will be our keynote speakers. Indeed, the conference takes its cue from Jones’s contention that the study of heroes reveals much about the cultural beliefs, social practices, political structures and economic systems of the past and present. Heroes are the products of societies and groups which define and articulate their values, assumptions and prejudices, across time as well as in different geographical and ideological contexts, and they are equally real and imaginative, taking form as much in our heads as in their actions. As Scott Allison and George Goethals put it in Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them (2011), heroes represent ourselves at our best. Hence, the title of this conference reflects the overarching theme that we are interested in – that is, the then, there and now of heroes.
Whilst there is little intrinsically new about our modern society’s fascination with the hero in its generic form, the type of individuals who are admired, celebrated, and worshipped as heroes (and, simultaneously, as villains) have shifted over time. Consequently, the term has been used widely, including sometimes in a pejorative sense (“don’t be a hero”) and scholarly studies reflect this diversity of hero and heroine types: elite and mass culture, radical and conservative, warrior and pacifist, celebrity and anonymous. Heroes can be found in all walks of life, in everyday situations as well as high and popular culture, and they reflect, and equally challenge, dominant social identities. It matters, then, that individuals are celebrated and remembered as heroes, but also who is doing the remembering, when, where and how. But heroism also requires some degree of competence or skill to overcome the obstacles put in front of us, which is why the conference will also include a practical element, with a planned first-aid session delivered by West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, in order to increase all of our abilities to ‘do the right thing’ if called upon in an emergency.
Download the Conference programme.
Booking information to attend the conference will be updated on this page during the summer.