Unless you spent this past week in a coma, under a rock, in a subterranean cave hidden under the sea, you heard about two moon-related news stories: the passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong and Prince Harry’s naughty party in Vegas.
If you think it disrespectful to connect these stories through a cheap pun about “moon shots,” bear with me. I believe that hurtling through space in a souped-up tin can, landing on a distant celestial object, and going out for a stroll with nothing but a puffy suit to protect you, was such a brave act–and the man who did it was such an outstanding human being–both the act and the man can stand a little ribbing.
Neil Armstrong was, by all accounts, a gentleman with solid good judgment. Prince Harry had the best upbringing royal blood could buy, and he has been praised for doing his charitable and royal duties with good humor. But good judgment? Not always—at least not last week.
It’s not my intention to rag on Prince Harry any more than it is to be disrespectful of Neil Armstrong. But the death of one and the tittering about the other has made me think, as such things always do, of how men of fame and/or renown are portrayed in literature.
That’s my job. Everything I do, say, and think eventually works its way back to books.
What I’ve been considering as I’ve reviewed old photos of one (Neil Armstrong) and refused to look at new photos of the other (Prince Harry) is greatness.
Neil Armstrong was a great man. Did he seek greatness? Probably not. No one ever accused him of a big ego—quite the opposite. But when the opportunity for greatness presented itself, in his case accepting an invitation to join the NASA Astronaut Corps, Neil Armstrong didn’t hesitate. Why would he? He was a pilot, an aerospace engineer, a man of science who had flown both recon and combat missions during the Korean War. The chance to explore space had to be irresistible.
And so, when the chance for greatness came to him, Neil Armstrong took it.
In literature, we love characters who embrace the chance for greatness. Example: Atticus Finch. When Judge Taylor asks him to defend Tom Robinson, does Atticus hesitate? He does not. When Sheriff Heck Tate informs him Tom has been brought to Maycomb for trial and there might be trouble from the gang at Old Sarum, Atticus stays the night guarding the jailhouse door. Even when there’s a mad dog in the street and only Atticus can safely take it out with a single shot, he does so quickly and humbly.
The opportunity for greatness was offered, and Atticus Finch stepped up to the plate—when asked. Would he have been greater had he sought out those chances? Would it have been more admirable for him to offer to defend Tom Robinson, or protect him from the lynch mob, or shoot the dog?
Or would that have been hubris? Think of Napoleon or the aptly named Alexander the Great, both terrific leaders of men, but both who suffered from pride. Is humility a required element in greatness?
My favorite example of literary greatness is the mythological Hector, the eldest son of King Priam of Troy. It was Hector’s younger brother Paris who abducted the beautiful Helen and brought on the wrath of the Greeks. The Trojan War was none of his doing, but Hector was honorable and courageous, a fierce warrior and loyal son. After he was killed in battle, his body was dragged behind Achilles’ chariot. The gods saw this as an outrage and thwarted Achilles’ attempts to abuse Hector’s body. The war was halted for 11 days so a state funeral could be held to honor the fallen prince.
Think about that. After nine years of fighting, a truce was called for a funeral. That’s pretty impressive props for Hector.
Neil Armstrong answered the call. Atticus Finch answered the call. Hector answered the call. In all three cases, with humility.
Hector never saw the Trojan Horse, by the way. The trick the Greeks used to get inside the fortified walls of their enemy was one indignity the brave prince was spared. But Hector was not flawless. The Iliad mentions Hector’s “dauntless heart” but before his final battle with Achilles, Hector retreated. He ran around the city until he overcame his fear.
Greatness doesn’t call everyone. It’s ironic that, while the news wires buzzed with the antics of one prince, his brother prince was quietly doing a job most people find admirable. Prince William, a search and rescue pilot in the Royal Air Force, went on two missions during the Vegas party firestorm. In Wales, a teenage girl was swept out to sea by a riptide, and Prince William piloted the helicopter sent to pull her safely to shore. His second call was to aid a woman who broke her leg while hiking on the coast of Wales.
Was this greatness? No. Needed and much appreciated? We hope so.
We all know Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, and we probably all know that Buzz Aldrin followed him out to the lunar landscape. But how many of us could spout off the name of Michael Collins, the third Apollo 11 astronaut who remained inside the Eagle during the moon walk? That’s the equivalent of being told, “You’re driving us to the most incredible place you’ll ever see, but you have to wait in the car.” Was Michael Collins any less great because he didn’t get out and walk? I don’t think so. I don’t think Neil Armstrong thought so, either.
At the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is not Atticus Finch who suggests they “let the dead bury the dead.” That was Heck Tate. Heck Tate made the decision that allowed Boo Radley to keep his privacy and dignity.
Was Heck Tate a great man? He, himself, doesn’t seem to think so. To Atticus he says he may not be much but he is still the sheriff of Maycomb County.
Could there be a Neil Armstrong without a Michael Collins? An Atticus Finch without a Heck Tate? A Prince William without a Prince Harry? Would Hector have been so honored in death if the chance to be great on the battlefield had never presented itself, thanks to his troublemaker of a little brother? Is it possible to have one without the other?
Who do you think embraced the chance to be great, either in books or in real life?