What is an ordinary hero? The answer cannot be the working men and women who do their duty, day in and day out, unsung, without showy feats or high honors. This answer is sometimes given to say that ordinary people are more heroic than heroes, who do spectacular things. Sometimes it is given to say that these ordinary heroes—police officers, perhaps, or soldiers, or other first responders—are not more heroic, so to say, more spectacular, but they are more real and therefore more worthy of being honored. Either way, the person who gives it shows these “ordinary” heroes’ feats, such as they are, and honors them, whether the person uses their names or not, and the person seems to miss the irony of singing heroes for being unsung.
The defect of the answer does not lie so much in the heroes to be sung as in the singer to sing them. The “ordinary” person—someone’s mother, father, son, or daughter—who supports a family, saves a stranger, or generally benefits society without receiving honors may be a hero, I am willing admit, but then the person is not “ordinary.” The person is a hero, the genuine thing, and ought to be sung as a hero. If that sort of hero cannot be sung individually but only collectively, let that be as it may. But the song that is usually sung for them, I say, usually more of a retort than a song, is far from the source of inspiration, genuine heroism, although the singer nonetheless takes inspiration from it.
The song, I have found, usually conceals an attack upon “fancy.” The singer sees the honor due to genuine heroes, borrows the honor due to the ones who appeal to the imagination, whether historical or fictional, and bestows it on “real” people. The irony is that one of the essential offices of “fancy,” or imagination, is to sing heroes. “Fancy” is a diminutive form of “fantasy,” meaning imagination, and imagination does not make the initial distinction between fiction and history. The singer is able to disparage “fanciful” heroes and to transfer their honor to less spectacular heroes because imagination does not make the initial distinction.