One of the most important elements of the Fate franchise are the characters known as Heroic Spirits: entities from the past, present, future, and alternate realities that come together to fight for the mythical, powerful, Holy Grail. Most times the spirits are indeed heroes of old: King Arthur, Lancelot, Odysseus, Robin Hood, but other times, they're not so great. Each hero carries their own set of ideals and in no better way is that put on display than in the 2011-2012 anime Fate/Zero, where the idea of what it means to be a hero in a world that does not allow for heroes was put to the test.
Defining heroism can be difficult. When someone talks about heroes they are often talking about superheroes like Superman or Spider-Man and not the everyday heroes like firefighters or doctors. But the common theme of each hero is their desire to do good, right? Yes, but, to an extent. What if a hero only wants to better themselves for the good of the world? What if you can't save everyone: are you still a hero to the people you let die? Or, in the end, does it all balance out?
These lines of thinking lead to numerous intriguing character arcs that powerfully impact the plot of the series. The ideals of heroism are deconstructed to such a degree that each character comes to embody some level of heroism in their own right, and in doing so exposes the moral rights and wrongs, or at least, how they perceive those morals.
As such, let's take a look at each heroic ideal the characters possess and analyze to what extent they show this ideal and how this effects their narrative arc as a whole, or if it really has anything to do with being a hero.
"The Needs of the Many Over the Needs of the Few" - Kiritsugu Emiya
The Savior Complex - Young Kiritsugu
Symbol of Hope - Irisveil's Dream for Kiritsugu
Heroes as Idols - Gilgamesh (Archer)
Now, as previously mentioned, not all Heroic Spirits were heroes of their time. Obviously not Bluebeard, as shown in Fate/Zero, or Medusa in Fate/Stay Night, but there is something to be said about Gilgamesh that would give him the status of a hero. He serves the purpose of showing what dedication to one's self and what the adoration of others can do.
Gilgamesh obviously has the ability to walk the walk after he talks the talk: it's part of his real-life legend and it's on full-display in Fate/Zero, but he takes it to an extent of villainy and making everyone his playthings. Yet, in the ending credits for Fate/Zero, his past life is shown and it matches similar to the legend of Gilgamesh. A man of both human and gods and he is faithful to those that serve him. He only betrays his closest servant due to ineptitude.
Gilgamesh is not a good person, nor is he much of a hero, but he became a hero simply through his status and the idolatry of the people that would hear his legend that he ascended to the status of a hero. This is similarly dangerous to how Irisveil views Kiritsugu, but as Kiritsugu wants only to be a figure of change and not permanence he would never become such an idol. This idolatry could also lead one directly into...
Martyrdom - Artoria Pendragon (Saber)
Love and Honor - Diarmuid (Lancer)
Glory - Iskandar (Rider)
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