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Saviors, Traitors, and Supermen—A History of Hero-Worship.

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett.
Knopf. 496 pp. $30

With his streaming hair and virile good looks, clad in his signature attire—a splendid red shirt topped by a poncho—Giuseppe Gari­baldi swept into 19th-century Italy like a hero from a medieval romance. His timing, as befits a hero, was perfect. As uprisings flared from Milan to Sicily, Italians were waiting for a redeemer. Garibaldi was their man.

Except he wasn’t: After skirmishing with the Austrians near Lake Como for a few weeks, most of his troops defected and he gave up. But no matter, writes Lucy Hughes-Hallett: “The man who dared to defy the might of an empire with his little band of poorly equipped men had proved himself worthy of the great role allotted him.” Garibaldi was to experience many such defeats, but, combined with his extraordinary personal magnetism, they fed his myth, until all of Europe was enraptured. When he visited London in 1864, half a million people met his train. The crowd rushed against it with such force that the walls were torn off and the train fell apart.

No previous hero was a more popular celebrity than Garibaldi—only the fifth-century B.C. Athenian general Alcibiades could compete with him in glamour. Yet the public trivialized Garibaldi’s true claim to greatness, his unselfish devotion to the cause of Italian nationalism, and instead saw him as a sex symbol and even a marketing tool (his image helped sell Garibaldi biscuits).

The author, a critic for The Sunday Times of London, assembles the lives of eight men who stood in glorious, sometimes menacing isolation from their peers. Heroic status depended as much on the vagaries of public perception as on the hero’s own deeds; in some cases, perception trumped reality altogether. Just as Garibaldi’s heroism was widely misconstrued, that of others was simply manufactured. The 11th-century Spaniard El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz) and the 16th-century Briton Sir Francis Drake were self-serving mercenaries who, thanks to patriotic whitewashing, came to be hailed as national heroes after death.

Whereas these men had a seductive edge of danger, a touch of Achilles’ divine rage, Al brecht von Wallenstein, commander of the Holy Roman Emperor’s armies during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, was wholly, savagely terrifying. “As a teenage student he was nicknamed ‘Mad Wallenstein.’ . . .  He was one of a group who set upon a local man in the street and killed him.” The adult Wallenstein learned to hide his emotions, a talent that made him inscrutable and, hence, even more frightening. It was widely believed that he had made a Faustian pact to ensure his invincibility in battle.

Each of the men spotlighted here was thought, in his day, to be capable of a feat that no one else could pull off. Only Alcibiades could save Athens, its people judged, even though they had once condemned him to death for sacrilege. Wallenstein alone could defend the enormous and unstable Holy Roman Empire.

In its subject and basic structure, Hughes-Hallett’s book recalls Thomas Carlyle’s lecture series On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, published in 1841. Carlyle’s “great man” theory of history fell out of fashion long ago, and the author doesn’t seek to revive it. Instead, she finds a deep ambivalence in hero worship. Heroism, she points out, is radically anti-democratic. The hero stands apart from common humanity by his gifts, whether they’re authentic or fictional. And the 20th century proved with dreadful clarity the link between the cult of the hero and authoritarianism. Adolf Hitler, invoking Wallenstein, scorned “half-measures,” while Benito Mussolini, who assumed Garibaldi’s epithet il Duce, declared, “Better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.”

Hughes-Hallett is a wonderful writer, and these stories—often-byzantine narratives of reversals and comebacks, schemes and counterschemes—are carried by the graceful vigor of her prose. Even so, Heroes feels overlong. One chapter in particular is compromised by the murkiness of the historical record: El Cid never comes fully to life. But these are minor flaws in a book that is otherwise thrilling and captivating. In the end, Hughes-Hallett rejects the lethally seductive Achilles for his Homeric foil, Odysseus, “a person heroic enough not to die but to live.”

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