Dark Angels: Batman, Mormonism, and the Byronic Hero

The horrific shooting at a midnight showing of the Dark Knight has made the fundamental questions of the trilogy all too real.  To what degree should decent people go to protect themselves? What if one of the “good guys” had been allowed to carry a gun into the theater?  Unless Americans want to embrace anarcho-capitalism en extremis, citizens need to entrust their safety to certain individuals.  But how do we decide who has the moral judgment to wield that power? The words of Commissioner James Gordon from The Dark Knight are noteworthy: Batman “wasn’t the hero we deserve.” He’s “the hero we need right now.” Who/what was the hero the people of Aurora needed? A crackshot vigilante, stricter gun laws, or federally-implemented metal detectors?

Nolan appeals to a longstanding archetype in literature and life, so iconic that we have a name for it from 19th-century English literature: The “Byronic Hero,” named such due to English poet Lord Byron’s popular depictions of troubled men facing problems beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals.  Bruce Wayne was willing to go to dark places for the greater good, Wayne often found himself facing almost-cosmic forces of evil alone.  Eventually, Wayne triumphs and Imagewins praise for saving his people but only after being vilified for working outside the system. Said Byron of such a hero “Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt/From all affection and from all contempt.” Virtually every hero these days bears of the trappings this hero:  Gregory House, Jack Baeur, and Jason Bourne, just to name a few.  Think the vanilla-bland Mormons don’t like these guys, that we only make heroes out of self-sacrificing mothers, loyal fathers, and visionary Presidents? Think again.

This post is dedicated to Mormonism’s bad boys, its “dark knights” Sometimes, this led men to become war criminals.  For analytical purposes, I limit it two cases–though you can find variations on these men across the spectrum of Mormonism.  Some were rogues, and some were men of the institution.  All of them were so loyal to the Mormon community that they were willing to go to dark places in its defense.

1) Orrin Porter Rockwell
Destroying Angel, Troubled Man/I won’t judge the blood on your hands.-“Modern-Day Sampson,” country music song from Joseph: A Nashville Tribute

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Porter Rockwell

Rockwell, one observer wrote, “was a strange-looking member for any Church.”  After the Saints were forcibly removed from Missouri, he allegedly attempted to assassinate Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs.  Boggs survived, though he was left seriously wounded.  Boggs always danced around his role in the shooting, saying that he had “done nothing criminal.” In Utah, Rockwell charmed and killed criminals, spies, gambling/prostitution prospectors, and, given the numbers, a few innocent people.

You can tell a lot about Mormons by how they feel about Porter. The more positive the response, the more likely they live in the Intermountain West and descend from old stock Mormons.  Occasionally, you also might see this response when living in geographically isolated Mormon communities generally; many of the Saints in Eastern Kentucky (where I lived) held Porter in some regard. But if they express tepidity, embarrassment, or even moral outrage at Rockwell’s actions, they’re probably from, say, Portland.

2) Bill Hickman
No one is going to believe the testimony from creatures like Hickman–Thomas Fitch, Brigham Young’s legal counsel

Hickman is Port gone bad (though imagining a “good” form of Rockwell does require some ethical gymnastics).  Hickman joined the faith in Missouri only months before the Saints found themselves wandering through the Missouri plains.  He became a bodyguard for the Prophet, helped to rescue him from a kidnapping attempt.  In Utah, he served as Brigham Young’s messenger, diplomat, mailman, and scout.  Never entrusted with a position of ecclesiastical authority beyond being a bishopric counselor and, later, a Seventy, Hickman was not decisionmaker; he followed orders.  When the Saints faced constant Indian raids at their way station in Kanesville, Iowa in the late 1840s, Hickman summarily executed two Indians fo

Bill Hickman

r stealing the Mormons’ horses.  While Church leadership excommunicated him for the killings, they did so hesitantly.  Sure, merciful policies were always preferred.  They all knew that Hickman was willing to do more to defend the Saints than the self-righteous Saints whining out of some warm-and-fuzzy notions about compassion and long-suffering.

But could Hickman be trusted? Throughout his association with Brigham, Hickman loved to play the part of loyalty while working behind-the-scenes to undermine him.  When Hickman was working as a spy and guard during the Utah War, he impulsively executed a mountain trader named Richard Yates, even though every level of his chain of command from Brigham Young to Thomas Callister had directed him to “befriend” the mountain traders if at all possible.  Instead, Hickman killed Yates as an act of vengeance for Yates’ role in the capture of Hickman’s brother, George by the American troops.   But shortly after killing Yates, he reportedly said to another Mormon: “What’ll the ole’ Boss (Brigham Young) think?”

Young felt a paternal concern for this zealot; Hickman was a quick shot who lacked discipline and moral judgment.  When Hickman was suffering from a major wound following a shootout with another Mormon in downtown Salt Lake City, Young chastised him for his violence and told him quite plainly to “stop it.”  Hickman didn’t listen.  By the end of the decade, Hickman had fallen so far out of favor with Church leadership that he attempted to implicate Brigham Young in the killing of Yates.  The federal authorities were more than eager to take the opportunity.

What We Learn About Mormon Culture:
It’s not a complicated, strange, or terribly new lesson: to borrow from the logic of the Cold War, tribal thinking requires pragmatic thinking.  Jon Haidt, the now-renowned psychologist of political morality, says that the human brain is more wired to navigate social alliances than it is to find truth.  When someone is fighting for our tribe, then they’re independent and “willing to get their hands dirty.”  If they’re fighting for the other tribe, then they’re treacherous and coldhearted.

The age of the Mormon dark knight is over.  In modern Mormonism, institutional loyalty, orderliness, and moderation mark Mormonism’s rules of engagement with outsiders. The Mormon people no longer see themselves as a separate and sovereign entity.  Beyond protecting Church leaders and Church property, the Mormon people no longer need to make policies regarding territorial integrity and the Saints’ security.  We have police to do that for us now.

We like our Dark Knights. They help us to preserve our own sense of righteousness.  Commissioner Gordon said that everyone should have a friend “willing to plunge into the filth so that we can keep our hands clean.” The idea of Porter Rockwell riding through the night–our “dark angel”–fills the old-school Mormon spirit with a thrilling (yet disconcerting) sense of communal pride.  Reckoning with this feeling is an essential part of becoming a modern Mormon.

One comment on “Dark Angels: Batman, Mormonism, and the Byronic Hero

  1. Spencer says:

    glad I found your blog. Great writing!

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