Daft and dangerous: ‘Herc’ explores the emotional labour in loving a hero

The heroism of Hercules is questioned, and quite rightly so, in this fearless and funny retelling of the Greek myth, writes Thango Ntwasa

24 March 2024 - 00:00
By Thango Ntwasa
The author's quirky bio reads:
Image: Luke Evison The author's quirky bio reads: "Phoenicia Rogerson is altogether mortal, with a rather less chequered past than Hercules. 'Herc' is the result of a lifelong infatuation with Greek mythology, and Rogerson is greatly enjoying being able to claim her book purchases are for work. These days she lives in London, where she can often be seen trying to convince people that grammar is cool — no, really! — and jumping into freezing water, because you just can’t take the Cornwall out of the girl.


Phoenicia Rogerson, HarperCollins

***** (5 stars)

A few weeks back, the manga world mourned the passing of icon Akira Toriyama. It’s hard not to feel somewhat forlorn when one realises he died without seeing a worthy cinematic adaptation of his global smash hit Dragon Ball. Inspired by the mythical characters in Journey to the West, Toriyama’s tales of Son Goku and his motley crew have become valued fixtures in today’s manga culture. However, his character is somewhat bland. Obsessed with training and defending our planet from alien life forms, Goku is a melting pot of every hero stereotype. He is a buffoon with a heart of gold who, if pissed off, will gladly smite you into another dimension. But when the fisticuffs come to an end, we see just how one-dimensional the character is. Goku neglects his wife Chi-Chi and his children.

Goku, like many fictional heroes before him, is a symbol of noxious masculinity. The same can be said for Herc (Heracles or Hercules) in Rogerson’s novel. The story follows the horror that the people around him went through in trying to love him. This number includes family members like his brother Iphicles, who grew up in Herc’s shadow, and even Hylas, Herc’s first friend and lover.

While the 12 labours of Hercules are usually the normative narrative, Rogerson shows us what happened before them; how his friends, family and lovers were affected by them; and what happened when they were completed. The spotlight is on everyone he loved, married and killed.

Herc by Phoenicia Rogerson.
Image: Supplied Herc by Phoenicia Rogerson.

Rogerson’s novel shines in the early years of Herc’s life. We get a detailed account of how his parents were horrified by Zeus’s deceitful sexual assault and impregnation of his mother Alcmene. This is followed by decades of beef between the king of the gods and his wife Hera, who demands the child be named after her. To spite her, Zeus shortens the name to “Herc”, rather than using “Heracles”. 

Which brings us to some of Herc’s mental health issues. The modern retellings of Herc see him navigate life with the unshakeable moral compass of a Teletubby, but Rogerson tosses all of that off Mount Olympus. Early in the book, he gets into a drunken rage and kills his wife Megara and their seven children. The scene is brutal, and the reader is spared none of the details. Megara is described watching her children being killed as she herself burns slowly to her death. This becomes the set-up for his 12 labours, which he must complete to atone for the gruesome murders. As there is no explanation of his perspective, we are left only with his excuse that Hera possessed him, which means readers must contemplate if there are other possibilities: whether he has an addictive love for violence and/or whether he is able to disassociate himself from the gruesome murders he commits.

Speaking of the loves in his life, we get to understand the hardships his parents had raising him. His father struggles knowing he is not his son, while his mother has a hard time dealing with her son possessing god-like strength as he ambles around their quaint home. This sets up Herc’s struggle with being tender, which he is finally able to resolve when he meets Hylas and they explore Herc’s bisexuality. While he has genuine feelings for the women he meets, Herc’s romantic relationships with the men he loves are much more nuanced, as they are able to accommodate his love for a violent quest. It is also a love where he can express himself without the fear of bruising his paramours. 

In contrast with modern retellings of Hercules as a noble hero who would stand side by side with the likes of Greta Thunberg today, Rogerson explores a reality where Herc was most likely a wine-guzzling git who would do chest bumps while podcasting with Andrew Tate. This is a highly recommended read if you are looking to understand what it really means to love a “hero”.