History and literature are two subjects that are intertwined to one another through links that are tighter than steel. I’ve said in the past that history is in its essence one massive novel with a slew of characters from all over the world. One could argue that the very idea of creating stories arose from a desire to know one’s history, and this has been the case with nearly every civilization in earth. The ancients understood this better than anyone else, and the epic poem, the first brand of fiction to have crossed history, is an example of how the creation of stories is used to define the morals of a society. And what better place to see this in action than in the enigmatic figure of the hero.
To watch the transition of what people have considered to be a hero over the course of
thousands of years is to watch the transition of human thought, morality, emotion, and problems as our civilizations advanced. The hero is not a figure that is set in stone, but rather one that molds itself according to the needs of humanity.
The characteristics of a hero might entail the characteristics that we wish to see in other individuals. We inject their personas with ideals and desires that we would wish to see fulfilled on the temporal span of our existence. And there’s a very recent (in historical terms) trend that has altered the concept of what we consider to be the traditional hero. And much of this is due to the industrialization of humanity, which is why I’d like to tackle this article from two different perspectives. The Agrarian Hero and the Post-Industrial Hero.
Industrialization, as irrelevant as it might seem, really changed the dynamic of what we consider to be heroic, a role model, and strength. But I do you no favors by continuing with this introduction, so allow me to dive deep into one of these heroes today.
The Agrarian Hero:
“The ancient Greeks had their children learn the Homeric epics in order to teach them virtue. In modern times, we read these classics to understand the human condition. What is worth dying for? What is worth killing for? What is the use of altruism? What is the importance of moderation? How do we deal with imperfect knowledge and the ambiguities of life? In reading these classics we avail ourselves at the opportunity to see how people, humans just like us, dealt with such problems, and we can learn both their solutions and their mistakes.”
– Stephanie Lynn Budin, PhD, Introduction to the Iliad and Odyssey
For much of human history, we lived off the very soil that we walk upon. We led simple lives which consisted of toiling in the fields, dealing with cattle, preparing for harvest, and spending time with our families when we could. It was a harsh life by our standards, but by the standards of the ancients it was just a day like any other. And in many respects, it was also a simple way of living.
It was not as today, in which we have a global culture that only keeps expanding its horizons. People were regional and the ties that were brought with blood were sacred, and one had a sense of belonging.
The routine of every day was one that was labor-intensive. And it was not a mere matter of only doing the things that you wished to do, as such labor was necessary to eek out your existence. The wheat that you grew was the same bread that you fed to the children at your table, the cows you milked were the same cows you sought to drink from, and so on and so forth. And when individuals are busy enough in the process of just keeping themselves alive, there is little room for abstract thinking.
What use is the study of philosophy if it cannot pay taxes to your sovereign? What good is knowing the difference between right and wrong when your children starve in the face of famine? What good is there in examining a life that consists of the same routine over and over and over again?
When you have these concepts that need so much mental rigor in pondering, the common ancient farmer would walk away at even the pretense of holding a debate. And who could blame him? Every moment of one’s day was dedicated to putting food on the plate for tomorrow, and wasting mental energy on such trivialities was only time that you could spend on raising your crop. So you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone whom discussed these important issues–much less someone whom understood them!
But the fact remains, that somehow, humanity started to find these issues to be relevant to their experience. There was no sudden increase in debates among the common folk, nor was there an influx of literacy either. But there was one thing that was more effective in communicating these morals than simple conversation, and that was the story.
The Noble Lie is a concept from Plato in which he wishes to posit a way in which people could accept living in a stratified society. Without getting too deep into the example that he uses, as it can be found in the link I sent, Plato uses a story to convey the moral that he wishes to assert. He argues that getting people to believe in the truth of a story is infinitely easier than getting them to understand the concepts portrayed in the tale without embellishments. And this is the trend that started the art of storytelling in general.
But it would do us better if we zoned in on one character and did a brief deconstruction to see how this concept of a noble lie worked out:
“There was no one else like him alive.
In his day, he was the mightiest man on earth,
highborn and powerful.”
– Beowulf (line 196-198)
Right here, this bit of description already tells us the kind of motif that they were going for with Beowulf. Beowulf was circulated at a tumultuous time during medieval history, were all kind of seafarers came plundering to the British Isles in search of gold, land, and a desire to found kingdoms. During such dangerous times, people valued strength and courage above all things, as those were the traits necessary for one to remain alive. In this quote, we see that Beowulf is already set up as a role model to follow. When they tell you he is the mightiest man on earth, it is the equivalent of telling you that you ought to strive to be like him. And don’t forget the last line, which intertwines the concept of nobility with that of power, a characteristic of medieval society as a whole.
But there’s more to be learned from this iconic hero:
“I was Hygelac’s kinsman,
one of his hall-troop. When I was younger,
I had great triumphs…
[My Kinsmen] seen me boltered in the blood of enemies
When I battled and bound five beasts,
raided a troll nest and in the night-sea
slaughtered sea-brutes. I have suffered extremes
and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it upon themselves: I devastated them).
Now I mean to be a match for Grendel.” lines (407-409)
Here you see this glorification of Beowulf’s deeds, as we can see, he’s very fond of bragging about the things he’s killed. In modern society, if we did that, we’d be put on an FBI watchlist. But we need to remember that context matters, and we need to see this in the eyes of the olden ones.
Much of the enemies that Beowulf has slain are monsters from the look of his description and this can be a key symbol within the tale. Monsters carry a connotation of being feral creatures whose motives are both vile and incomprehensible to a certain extent. And in each battle he has worked not for his own sake, but for the sake of his lord and his people, the Geats. And we can liken this to the situation that the peoples in the British Isles faced at the time.
Invaders from across the sea whom have come to pillage and destroy can be seen as the monsters of the story. From the perspective of the invaded peoples, the pillagers might not have even been seen as human beings themselves. In every sense they are alien, foreign, and you could almost say…incomprehensible. Just like the usual monster, we don’t why they’re here and we don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing. All we know is that we need to rise up against them.
When Beowulf brings up his list of killings as a way to show how worthy he is, it is in extension giving a message to the listener that they too should strive to protect their homeland in the face of invaders. The act of defending one’s home was seen as virtuous, and at a time in which life was so dangerous, these heroes often resembled ideals more than they resembled actual characters. In modern standards, this would be considered poor writing, but in the eyes of people in the Early Middle Ages, there could not have been a more ingenious use of literature.
In times of danger, the willingness to fight for something other than yourself was something that would take a great deal of convincing other people to do on its own. But when you tell people that a past hero whom did the same thing is a worthy role model, and you have a good story to boot, people will begin to adopt the ideas for better or worse.
In the end, Beowulf dies at the hand of a Dragon he sought to slay. yet he still did it in the name of his people, the Geats. Ultimately telling the listener, that there was no greater honor than to die for the sake of one’s kind, of one’s home, and for one’s society.
Examination of the heroes of the past might seem archaic, as these characters would be classified as Mary Sues in today’s day and age, but back then, the philosophy behind writing was different. A character was often overshadowed by those lofty ideals that he represented, as that character was not only meant to relate to one strand of the tribe, but rather, the entirety of it. And seeing how the ancients composed their stories can invariably help us in composing our own.
If you enjoyed this analysis, please feel free to like and comment. I had a lot of fun typing this down, and I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.