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Anish Agrawal March 8, 2012 DWC 102 Dr.


Heroes as Embodiment of Ideal of Societies In legend and mythology, a hero is identified as a man bestowed with the god’s grace, time and again of divine ancestry, gifted with might and audacity, and capable of taking bold steps even if it requires risking or sacrificing his life. However, every time period has its own cultural values and social circumstances. Therefore, the qualities which are considered to be heroic depend on the requirement of the society during that time period which consequently serves as the heroic motivation. During the period of the classical Greek and Roman heroes (particularly the bronze age), the culture that existed was prominently a warrior culture. Thus, the society viewed warriors who executed extraordinary deeds as the heroes. After the Germanic clans superseded Roman governments, there was a development of warrior culture with a sense of feudalism. This was particularly because the Germanic tribes lacked a strong centralized government. Thus, might and audacity along with loyalty were the heroic traits which served as the heroic motivations during that period. During the middle ages, the society occupied the new Christian impression of the sacred due to the spread of Christianity. Thus, loyalty, obedience and following the knightly code of ethics became the heroic traits. The qualities of a hero is defined by the cultural values that exist in the society during his time period which, in turn becomes the motivation for him to emerge as a heroic figure that people can emulate.

A classical Greco/Roman hero had distinct characteristics. A classical Greek hero had to be of royal birth or a demigod and perform extraordinary deeds. The hero had to undergo some ordeal during his lifetime and the ordeal they were subjected to came with the risk of death. During the Greek Bronze Age, the society was occupied by the warrior culture and the aim of a warrior was the attainment of glory. The hero fought for honor; his deeds belonged to the community only after his death. Excellence in battle displayed heroism and the idea of arête (a Greek word meaning excellence of any kind) served as the heroic motivation . The most important characteristic of a Greco/Roman hero was to earn kleos (a Greek word for glory) through accomplishing great deeds, often resulting in their death. For instance, Achilles, a typical godlike Greek hero, was foretold his future; eternal glory for death in battle or forsake it for a long life. Achilles chose the former saying:

“My mother Thetis, a moving silver grace, Tells me two fates seep me on to my death. If I stay here and fight, I’ll never return home, But my glory will be undying forever. If I return home to my dear fatherland My glory is lost but my life will be long, And death that ends all will not catch me soon.” Iliad 9: 423-429 Achilles engages in the fight whilst knowing of his impending demise. This was partly to take revenge of his dearest friend Patroclus’ death but , primarily to bring glory to himself. Achilles was a warrior, swift-footed and lion-hearted, who was favored by the gods. He himself explains

his might and courage when he says, “I’ve raided twelve cities with our ships/And eleven on foot in the fertile Troad,/Looted them all, brought back heirlooms/By the ton, and handed it all over.” Iliad 9: 335-338. All these qualities portray Achilles as a great warrior. Whatever the society demanded, Achilles fulfilled those demands and thus, was considered to be a heroic figure.

Similarly, different societies have different identities and thus, different heroic values. Aeneas, the founder of Roman race, went on to establish his identity as a soldier of Troy and stepped up to the expectation of preserving Troy’s glory. He grew up in an environment where soldiers placed their lives at stake to earn kleos. Thus, to emerge as a hero, he needed to show his fortitude and might. The Trojans faced great difficulties during their journey out of Troy after their defeat in the Trojan War. But, even during these situations, Aeneas eased his men’s hearts: saying, “Trojans! This is not our first taste of Trouble./We are headed for Latium, where the Fates promise us/ A peaceful home, and where Troy will rise again./ Endure, and save yourselves for happier times.”(Aeneid Book 1: 234-244). Aeneas acquired the values needed for being a true warrior. ‘Logos’ (divine plan) was a popular idea in the society during the third century B.C. A heroic figure was also required to show acceptance to fate along with fortitude and devotion. Aeneas accepts his fate when he is commanded to leave Carthage , which he

immediately does telling Dido, “I sail for Italy not of my own free will.”Aeneid 4: 499. Aeneas emerges as a hero by confirming to the demands of his society.

The qualities which are appreciated as heroic, changes as the cultural values and society changes, as seen in the case of Aeneas. In a similar way, when the Germanic clans superseded Roman governments, there was a change in the society which consequently resulted in the change of heroic values. The Germanic values were also predominantly occupied by the warrior culture but an important aspect of the culture was the relationship between a warrior and his lord. The warrior (thane) was required to fight for his lord (ring-giver) and in return to his loyalty, he received prizes. During this period, loyalty was a prominent heroic quality in addition to courage and might. Beowulf was the ideal hero during this period who with all his might, proved to be loyal towards his lord, Beowulf was in return made king after the death of the Heglac. Before fighting Grendel, Beowulf proudly asserts: “When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel. So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield to mow him down, easily as I might. He has no idea of the arts of war, of shield or sword-play, although he does possess a wild strength. No weapons, therefore, For either this night: unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit.” Beowulf: 677-687

By asserting this, Beowulf tried to show his courage and might. It is also worth noticing the theological aspect shown by the writer at this particular instance (note that a Christian monk probably wrote Beowulf in the 9th century for the Christian audience). The faith on the Divine Lord is portrayed as ‘logos’, the acceptance to fate. Later on, Beowulf defeated Grendel without arms to prove his might, emerging as a heroic figure.

In addition to this heroic quality, Beowulf also showed his loyalty and, maintained the relationship between a thane and the ring-giver stupendously. When he comes back with the treasure he had won from Hothgar, he tells his lord Hygelac, “These, king Hygelac, I am happy to present/to you as gifts. It is still upon your grace/that all favor depends. I have few kinsmen/who are close, my king, except for your kind self.” Beowulf: 2148-51. This shows his loyalty towards his lord, a sheer excellence on his part of being a hero. Beowulf ruled the nation for fifty years and no neighboring clan dared to challenge him. He never fomented quarrels and swore to a lie. Interestingly, Beowulf sustained the heroic quality which Achilles had, a desire for earning kleos. This quality is best illustrated when instead of sending his army and warriors, he goes by himself to kill the dragon. He could have chosen to stay back but, he chose to fight. He fought even when he knew that if he died in the battle, the nation would face the threat of neighboring clans as there would not be anyone to protect the nation. This was only because he wanted glory. He had the heroic qualities which people admire and

attempt to emulate. When he died, the Geat people, his hearth-companions, sorrowed for their lord and said, “Of all the kings upon earth he was the man most gracious and fairminded,/kindest to his people and keenest to win fame .” Beowulf: 3180-82. A true hero of the society died but also recorded his names in the hearts of his people who praised his glory for long.

In the Middle Ages, flourishing medieval Christianity established a conception of the hero different from classical Greek and Roman heroes. After the fall of Roman Empire, the Frankish clans controlled the vast territories and Charlemagne (Charles the Great) , ruled over most of Europe. During this period, Charlemagne emerged as a heroic figure because he established what the society required. Since, there was no central government, a number of clans fought for dominance. Charlemagne established the feudal system which helped to solve the problem. In feudalism, the king owned all the land and granted portions of lands to nobles for their loyalty and service. Charlemagne showed himself to be great in extending his empire and subduing foreign nations. He was constantly busy in doing that those said tasks and undertook many works calculated to adorn and benefit his kingdom . Charlemagne brought several of these tasks to completion. Great devotion to the religion was an important trait for a hero as the society was greatly influenced by the Christianity. Charlemagne practiced Christianity with great piety and devotion. For this reason, he constructed a church of great

beauty at Aachen and adorned it with silver and gold and lamps with railings and portals made of solid bronze. He was enthusiastic in supporting the poor. Charlemagne in spontaneous generosity which the Greek call alms, made a point of not only giving in his own country and his own kingdom, but even oversea. When he discovered that there were Christians living in poverty in Syria, Egypt and Africa; and at Jerusalem, Alexandria and Carthage, he had compassion and gave them money. This act of heroism was completely different from the Greco/Roman heroism.

Moreover, Charlemagne believed that his children should be brought up so that both sons and daughters were first educated in the liberal arts, which he himself had studied. He cultivated the liberal arts most studiously and, granted those who taught them with great honors. He was rich in eloquence and was able to express most clearly whatever he wished to say. He was not simply content with his native tongue and therefore, spent time learning foreign languages. These attributes of a hero were entirely unlike from the Greco/Roman heroic attributes, which focused mostly on might and war. The changes in the society brought changes in the heroic qualities. The quest for glory in the actions of the classical heroes was converted into the pursuit for future glory in the realm of God.

In addition, the Greco/Roman hero was succeeded by a knight. The knight was a postbiblical character, who created a conception of the hero different from classical Greek and Roman heroes by functioning with changed set of virtues. During this period, even a commoner could become a hero if he followed the knightly codes. This differs from the classical hero who needed to be of a royal birth. A heroic figure was required to exhibit obedience to his lord and follow the rules of chivalry, dress, courtesy, and codes of conduct. A hero also needed to perform his feudal duties scrupulously as feudalism was an integral part of the society during this period. The society was greatly influenced by the flourishing medieval Christianity. As a result, the people considered that a hero had to perform his feudal duties in order to not be contrary to the laws of God. A hero was also required to remain faithful and not tell lie. Tristan, a noble knight with all the necessary skills of hunting, jousting, dancing, and harp playing, was an ideal heroic figure during this period.

In Gottfried’s Tristan, Tristan is similar to a vassal who had military obligation to his lord Mark. Mark was both Tristan’s uncle and king. Therefore, Tristan had to follow his feudal duties with complete obedience. Tristan was a warrior who always thought for his honor and completed his duties with full perseverance and respect for his lord . However, his loyalty and honor was challenged when he fell in love with Isolde; a consequence of drinking the love-drink which was designated for Mark and Isolde to make them fall in love . It can be argued that by

confessing his love to Isolde and hiding his love in front of others , he breached the virtues of the knightly codes. Therefore, he could not be seen as an honorable character in the system of feudalism between him and his lord. However, the confession was not because it was his desire, it was entirely because of the love-drink only. He remembered his loyalty and honor, and strove to turn away even after falling in love. He reminded himself, “‘No leave it, Tristan, pull yourself together, do not take any notice of it.’” (Tristan: Love/potion). He strived against his own wishes. He was drawn in conflicting directions. He tried all that he knew in the snare, over and over again, and long maintained his efforts. He tried to maintain, with all his might, his loyalty and honor. But, when a person is exposed to something unexpected for which no one has control over, there is no solution to the problem. This is exactly what happened to Tristan, but even in this drastic situation, he tried to maintain his loyalty. He eventually had to yield because it was impossible for him to overcome a situation over which he had no control. Although Tristan fights for his loyalty against his own will, his decisions are still questioned. Nevertheless, Tristan displayed all the characteristics of an ideal knight as the society demanded although his virtues changed because of unexpected situations.

Every society in the historical time period had challenges. Conclusively, it was these challenges that shaped the cultural values of each society which in turn, shaped the heroic

figures according to the need. Achilles, Aeneas, Beowulf, Charlemagne and Tristan are the heroic figures of their respective societies because they are the embodiment of the ideal of their societies. All heroes encounter obstacles but emerge as figures people can imitate and learn from them in the end. The heroes display the society’s virtues in the best possible way which earns them admiration as the probable author of Beowulf, the Christian monk, elucidates: “Behavior that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere .” (Beowulf: 24-25)