Cri de Coeur

Alberto Manguel

Compared to today's vile heros, Ned Kelly-the Australian outlaw who wrote the angry, articulate Jerilderie letter in 1879-seems as innocent as an ogre-slaughtering hero of fairy tales.

The writer and historian Thomas Carlyle, who coupled extraordinary prejudices to extraordinary wisdom, declared in 1841 that “the Hero can be Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will, according to the kind of world he finds himself born in.” Carlyle was not saying that the circumstances of our environment exclusively shape who we are, but that our surroundings determine that which we appear to stand for. Though Ulysses’s actions remain the same, in the telling by the Romans he was a brutish, ruthless trickster; in that of the Greeks, a hero. The two denominations are not necessarily contradictory.

The truth be told, most of our heroes are ruthless tricksters, whether their ruses succeed or not. Depending on whether we consider them to have been on the side of the devils or the angels, we consecrate them in our pantheon or damn them for eternity. Robin Hood, Joan of Arc and Che Guevara were all outlaws, and we have granted them the status of heroes because, however bloody their actions, we have decided that they chose the better side.

But what side is that? From the time of our earliest tribes, we have established legal codes to allow us to live together in the expectation of harmony. Not to kill and not to rob are engraved in the laws of every society, and yet eve

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at


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