So recently the most excellent Keiko posted about the tragic figure of Mae Hughes from Fullmetal Alchemist.


Keiko writes,

Hughes’s death came because he got too close to the sun hence he burnt. … He is a great researcher and has a sharp mind which allows him to see the bigger picture and connect the dots. In any other investigation or job, this would be amazing but, it is also fatal to him. He was able to connect the dots way too quickly with this instance which meant he learnt what was going on with the homunculi and how long this plan was in motion before anyone else and that’s what, essentially, got him killed.

The line about being burnt because he flew too close to the sun is a reference to the classic Greek myth of Icarus.

Icarus and Daedalus
Icarus and Daedalus

You all know the story, I’m sure: Daedalus and his son Icarus were trying to escape from an island:* They gathered up the fallen feathers from seabirds and used wax to make themselves wings. Then off they flew! Except that Icarus didn’t listen to his daddy, flew too close to the sun, and thus caused the wax on his wings to melt. Icarus’s journey went very quickly from aerial to nautical.

I liked the allusion, so I chimed in:

I like your implied analogy between Hughes and Icarus. It’s worth pointing out that whereas Icarus’ death from flying close to the sun is seen as the result of a fault on his part, for Hughes it’s the result of his virtues and selflessness that lead to his demise. Arguably the survivors in the story are those who were good but also had room grow: those who died were the bad guys and the one man so good he had little room left to get better.

(Cue “Only the Good Die Young”…) Keiko graciously responded:

That’s true. I took it more as, both – one knowingly, the other unknowingly – went too close to danger for their own good. But what you said is also true. For Hughes, his own personality was his doom.
That’s so true. It’s a perfect summation really.

Keiko’s comment suddenly made me realize that Hughes is not just a tragic figure because he was a good guy who left behind a young wife and lovely daughter. He’s tragic in the literal, original sense of the word.

In Greek theater, a “tragedy” was a story in which the main character brings about his own downfall by using his own strengths. It’s built on the irony that what you count on, quite reasonably, to lift you up instead brings you down. The Greek tragedy par excellence is Oedipus Rex: Oedipus knows that his own intelligence and insight have brought him success, including the kingship of Thebes. But through over-reliance on that same skill, he goes in a single day from being king to becoming a blind, lonely exile who drove his wife to suicide.

Oedipus and the Sphinx
Oedipus talking to a woman-headed, winged, lion-bodied serial murderer. Guess the Greeks weren’t big on stranger danger.

Hughes, likewise, is a man of intelligence and insight, beloved by those around him. And as Keiko notes, he’s too intelligent, and ends up… well, if you’ve read this far, odds are you know how he ends up.

This skill—this double-edged sword—is what the Greeks called a hamartia. Countless English-speaking students of literature have encountered this concept translated as “fatal flaw”, but that doesn’t indicate the whole picture: It leaves out that the ‘flaw’ is really a strength!

So let us lift a parting glass to Mae Hughes, a tragic figure in every sense of the word.



  • “trying to escape from an island”: after building the Labyrinth, which Daedalus had created at the command of King Minos, to hide the Minotaur, because the king was upset that the beast was the son of his wife after she had sex with a bull who was really a god. Those Greeks really had a, ahem, fertile imagination. Anyway, what was Daedalus doing on the island in the first place? The king stuck him there so that he couldn’t tell anyone else how to solve the Labyrinth. For Daedalus, too, his intelligence proved his downfall—and quite literally his son’s downfall.

5 thoughts on “Tragedy, Hamartia, and Hughes”

  1. Loved the connections you made. He never seemed like the character that could die since his outside personality seemed so quirky. But when you find out too much too fast you are a goner.

  2. Can I just say, I love this post? 😍 I love how you picked up my reference to start off with and then created such an amazing post! Hughes has always been a tragic hero for me and I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. Really wonderful post!! 😊

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