But in these debased times you can get the accolade for much more passive acts. The most common, of course, is not dying of cancer. If your tumour is malign and you do anything other than go into an immediate and terminal decline, then you are up there with Hector and Lysander. This week, however, such unconscious bravery made a hero out of 38-year-old Nigel Wesson, when he involuntarily lent a hand to a tiger. Soon we can expect a Queen's award for those who have lost a limb to a zoo animal.
To be fair to Mr Wesson, it was not so much the fact of his being injured by Rajah, Chipperfield's largest Bengal tiger, that has made him a celebrity, but his reaction to it. For those unfamiliar with the story, Mr Wesson, a comparative newcomer to the world of tiger-tending, had been feeding the animals at Chipperfield's training centre in Oxfordshire. Mr Wesson said he reached into Rajah's cage to close a partition. (He was, according to the circus, supposed to do this job with a long pole. Tigers, apparently, are at their most excited just after lunch. Men, of course, are the opposite. Oh well. Mr Wesson won't be making that mistake again in a hurry.)
Zoos and circuses have their own reasons for being thankful to Mr Wesson. He has supplied a bloody reminder to a blase public that the animals on display are exotically and thrillingly violent. More of us will now go to see them, hoping to experience that pleasurable frisson when the large caged cat turns to us and roars.
But, we British admire him for his sang-froid. Yesterday's Mirror, whose reporter had been to Mr Wesson's bedside, recounted the tale of "one pal who visited chirpy Nigel in hospital and revealed that the brave keeper had told him he was 'dying' for a pint of lager". Others commented that "he told us what had happened as if he'd just met us in the street". Though presumably he did not shake hands.
"It's just one of those things," Mr Wesson is reported as having said. No it isn't. It is a completely other thing, to be set alongside travelling on the roof of a train or stowing away in the landing gear of a jumbo jet. But we love this sang-froid. It seems to us to be the quintessence of Englishness. It could be Captain Oates on that terrible polar night in 1912, "I'm going out. I may be some time." Or Lord Uxbridge, to whom the Duke of Wellington turned at the height of the battle of Waterloo, and said, "By God sir, you've lost your leg!" To which Uxbridge replied, "By God sir, so I have!"
It is unimaginable that French people or Italians would behave in this way. Look at their footballers. And that rugby player who complained about having his ear bitten off wasn't English either. Wouldn't we have thought more of him had he stayed on the pitch, and then at the final whistle - taxed with injury to his ear - put his hand to his head and replied, "What ear?"
Our ostensible reason for admiring such behaviour is that it represents calmness in a crisis and is therefore a more efficient response. The person with sang-froid will keep the passengers of the stricken liner from panicking, supervising their orderly descent into the lifeboats. Nor will he or she rush for the exits when the fire alarm goes off in the crowded cinema, but will remain seated enjoying the popcorn and Kia-Ora.
This is actually nonsense. Sang-froid requires the person that possesses it to behave as if there were no billowing ocean and no imminent threat of immolation. The last person whom one wants next to one in a crisis is a sang-froidiste. First they will attempt to ignore what is going on. Then they are obliged to minimise it. And finally, as the flames lick around their trouser legs, they will attempt to reassure you that they feel fine. They take suspect packages to lost property.
In some cases this may simply be stupidity or a lack of imagination. Ronald Reagan, when he was the victim of an assassination attempt, is said to have quipped to the doctors: "Don't tell Nancy." Some believe that he simply couldn't comprehend that there was any chance of him being very seriously injured; indeed, he just hadn't thought about it.
Maybe. It is more likely though, that sang froid is simply an affectation. This is about style, about wit, about maintaining control. Oscar Wilde, had he just lost his arm to a tiger, would have behaved in a similar way to Mr Wesson. Was it not Oscar who said that when the final trumpet sounded, and he and Bosie were lying on their Elysian couches, he would pretend not to hear it.