Thursday, 7 February 2013

Great Fictional Anti-Heroes: Richard Sharpe

Everyone’s favourite Georgian hero-thug started life as the put-upon protagonist of Bernard Cornwell’s blood-and-thunder historical action novels, before a certain gruff-voiced heart-throb made him a small-screen icon of British TV in the 90s. While Sean Bean’s portrayal is a sympathetic soul with some endearing rough edges, Sharpe as originally envisioned is a damaged, brutal man, whose difficult military career and troubled private life are as likely to provoke him to sullen bitterness or berserk rage as to plucky defiance. 

The lowest of the low in his class-stratified society, the Army life was the only hope for young Richard Sharpe, and he soon found himself in strife-torn India during a turbulent period that would make his name. Bumped up to the officer class for conspicuous derring-do and transferred to Spain as the Peninsular languishes in the grip of Napoleon’s legions, he found himself sneered at by blue-blooded peers who resented him for his origins and (at first, at least) despised by his own men for much the same reason. Yet through stubborn ferocity and an undeniable talent for competent soldiering, Sharpe survived and thrived, winning over a loyal circle of friends and comrades and coming alive through countless large-scale battles and other violent scrapes, while bedding an unseemly number of well-born ladies along the way.

Sharpe is neither idealistic nor likeable by nature, being often boorish, sometimes bloodthirsty and useless at anything that doesn’t involve war and killing. He freely admits his dearth of patriotism, having the self-awareness to know that he would have fought just as fiercely for Bonaparte had he been born French. However, his harshness is softened by redeeming virtues, like intense loyalty, endless physical bravery and a Solomon-like affection for the women in his life. Enough, in short, to make him a tailor-made protagonist for this sort of work; a daredevil barbarian hero as likely to take savage revenge on one of his innumerable foes as he is to charge headlong into the powder-smoke of battle for the sake of a friend.

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