Heroes: saviours, traitors & supermen, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

The intoxicating allure of great men
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The Independent Culture

On 12 September 2001, a photograph showed a group near the World Trade Centre holding a banner reading: "We Need Heroes Now". Lucy Hughes-Hallett, whose Cleopatra so effectively examined the myth of Egypt's queen, sets out in this artful collection of short lives of six great men (Alcibiades, Cato, El Cid, Sir Francis Drake, Wallenstein and Garibaldi) to "examine that need, to acknowledge its urgency, and to warn against it".

On 12 September 2001, a photograph showed a group near the World Trade Centre holding a banner reading: "We Need Heroes Now". Lucy Hughes-Hallett, whose Cleopatra so effectively examined the myth of Egypt's queen, sets out in this artful collection of short lives of six great men (Alcibiades, Cato, El Cid, Sir Francis Drake, Wallenstein and Garibaldi) to "examine that need, to acknowledge its urgency, and to warn against it".

The central word in her sub-title, "traitors", is deliberately challenging: five of her subjects on occasion fought against governments they were supposed to save. Heroes, she is intent to prove, are very mixed blessings.

She concedes the charisma of her characters, but lifts their togas, cloaks and ponchos to debunk them. Alcibiades was a vainglorious bisexual libertine, Cato a "stiff, half-witless cloud-walker", El Cid a mercenary, Francis Drake a pirate and terrorist, Wallenstein a warlord, and Garibaldi an exhibitionist. "An exaggerated veneration for an exceptional individual" will allow worshippers "to abnegate responsibility, looking to the great man for salvation or for fulfilment" that we should work out for ourselves.

Fortunately, this rather priggish prefatory sentiment gets lost in her driving narration. Like their contemporaries, and the posterity that often reinvented them, Hughes-Hallett is far from immune to "the intoxicating allure" of her heroes. Even portrayed with critical edge, they awesomely excel ordinary men.

Few people today know about the contributions of Alcibiades and Cato to the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome. El Cid only evokes images of Charlton Heston, Francis Drake is forever playing bowls, Wallenstein is a shadowy figure on the fringes of the confusing Thirty Years War. As for Garibaldi, every Victorian schoolgirl's pin-up, all we know is that he and his men wore red shirts and were cheered all over Italy.

Hughes-Hallett makes them three-dimensional, magnificent, and intensely real. They are showy dressers, prodigally sexual (except for Cato) and careless of mortality. She deftly recreates their political worlds, from the pioneer state of El Cid's 11th-century Castile to the intricacies of 19th-century Italian diplomacy.

The real heroes are framed by two mythical ones: Achilles, the headstrong man of honour, and Odysseus, the wily survivor. As Hughes-Hallett measures her chosen men against them, it is clear her head inclines to Odysseus. But the emotional energy with which she tell Achilles' story betrays where her heart is.

We end as hero-worshippers. Heroes feeds our hunger for personalities in history, for the wild romance of maverick, if rarely entirely noble, supermen - even though its author stands over us as we feast at her banquet like a warning Athena.

The reviewer's life of Sir Thomas Malory appears next year from HarperCollins

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