Heroes in English Literature
Heroes in English literature constitute a majority of the middle Ages narratives. In epic plays, poems and narratives, heroes were defined as being selfless individuals who deliberately and courageously risked their lives for a justified cause.
They are said to overcome risky and dangerous obstacles for the benefit of others. In the middle Ages, there is a variety of literal text that depicts heroes. These include epic heroes like Beowulf, romantic or chivalric heroes like Lanval and Lord Gawain and the green Knights (Kline 27). This middle Ages narrative will form the basis of this paper in showing the comparison of these heroes.
Then what qualities were deemed to characterize these heroes in the middle ages? From the above mentioned epic heroes, we find that the aspect of heroism is differentiated mostly to suit the time in which they were written and also to meet the expectation of the audience and preference at the time.
In Beowulf, we find that heroism was depicted by being courageous and brave. This is demonstrated by Beowulf who travels far and wide to prove his strength. From the story, it is evident that the community which was the Danes of Denmark and the Geats who constituted Beowulf’s own people valued not only physical strength as an attribute, but also the aspect of being selfless for the greater good.
This is demonstrated when king Hrothgar of the Danes great hall called Heorot is attacked by a demon called Grendel and kills most of the king’s men. It is prudent to mention at this juncture that Beowulf being an epic poem starts at the Medias res. So we learn through narration of king Hrothgar to Beowulf that Grendel has been attacking the village and killing the people (Heaney 56).
Beowulf is depicted as a hero because of his ability to defeat Grendel without being armed. According to the story, Beowulf severs Grendel’s arm.
Being mortally wounded, Grendel retreats to his borrow to die, but this is not the end of king Hrothgar tribulations as Grandel’s mother avenges her son’s death by killing king Hrothgar close friend Aeschere, Beowulf swears to avenge Aeschere death and goes after Grendel mother in the swamps and kills her by her own sword, heroism in this case is depicted by the ability of the hero or heroin to defeat super natural demons, its a matter of mortal being verses supper natural beings.
According to some analysts, epic narratives were meant to depict a man as being in control of his fate and that his destiny was not predetermined by the supernatural beings.
At the end of the story we see Beowulf fighting a dragon that had ravaged his kingdom and, although this is fifty years after killing Grendel’s mother and himself being old, he still has to prove his ability. Thus, he goes after the dragon and although he managers to kill it, it is at his own demise because he shortly succumbs to death. In Beowulf’s case, a hero is the one who gives his life for other to live.
Although Beowulf forms what we may refer to as traditional form of epic poems, Marie de France in Lanval introduces us to a different aspects in terms of how epics were viewed traditionally. Normally, heroes were men who were supposed to save the women at all cost even to their own peril, but in Lanval, it is the direct opposite where it is the woman who saves the man.
The reason given for this drastic change from male centered epics that depicted males as being heroes and females being villains is the fact that Marie de France lived in the era of Eleanor of Aquitaine who herself loved plays that women played important roles. In Lanval, the story is about a knight called Lanval who sits at king Authors table and is overlooked by King Author and rest of the king’s official, feeling depressed for having nothing and most importantly land (Marie De France 1-2).
He rides of to the countryside to clear his head. Marie de France adopts the fairy mistress motif that is traditionally used in Celtic stories, where a beautiful lady comes from another world and falls in love with the man, but there is a catch, the man should never reveal their love. If the man breaks the pact, then he is punished by the fairy lady by withdrawing her love. Laval’s case is not so different, but heroism is depicted by the virtue of love rather than physical strength as was the case in Beowulf.
At the time of this writing, the society seemed to uphold the truth and no wander when Lanval stood accused at the court by Guinevere, king Author’s wife who wants to have an affair with Lanval, when Laval refuses to engage in such an act Guinevere accuses him of being a homosexual, but Laval sticks to his decision saying that he cannot betray king Arthur.
Lanval is forced to confess his love to the fairy lady. He is told to prove that he has a lover or else be banished knowing very well that he had broken his world to her fairy lady. He knows that she would not turn up and so prepares to be banished, but out of the blues, she appears in front of the court and confesses her love for Lanval. The story culminates in both Lanval and her fairy lady ridding towards the sunset.
Marie de France takes epic poems to the next level where heroes suffers for doing the right thing this is typical of Shakespearian tragedy where doing the right thing is the cause of a hero falling from grace to grass, but unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy that culminates in a sorrowful mood with the demise of the hero, Marie de France culminates Lanval on a happy ending, where justice is served. Heroism in this aspect is depicted by virtue of love, honesty and justice rather than battles and physical strength of an individual.
As mentioned earlier, Marie de France performed for Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England, by the virtue that they were royal the poems had to be tailored to show bravery in virtues and ideals rather than wars and battles, which at the time were viewed to be barbaric and not befitting nobility
In sir Gawain and the Green Knight, heroisms is also depicted as a virtues rather than physical strength. The main protagonist in the story, Sir Gawain who is the nephew of King Arthur and the youngest Knight accepts a challenge from the Green Knight who rides to Camelot on the New Year’s Day.
According to Weston, (50), the challenge is for anyone to strike the Green Knight with his own arks and that the green knight will return the blow one year and one day after. Sir Gawain doesn’t just strike the green knight, but severs his head on one strike, but the green knight picks up his head and reminds Gawain to meet him one year later at Green Chappell.
Heroism in sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is demonstrated by the fact that sir Gawain honors his word and a year later rides to green Chappell to receive his dues, also the aspect of faithfulness and luck of greed is depicted in the story as being acts of heroism, during the long journey and on the brink of starvation, Sir Gawain encounters a beautiful castle and is hosted by lord Bertilak de Hautdesert and his beautiful wife, sir Gawain informs them of the task at hand to meet the green knight, but Bertilak informs Gawain that the Green chapel is only a mile away and that he should be Lord Bertilak guest. In the meantime each time Lord Bertilak went hunting lady Bertilak would try to seduce Gawain this went on for days, but Gawain would not yield, eventually she hands Gawain a green girdle.
Gawain goes to meet the green knight at the chapel and finds him waiting, Gawain bends and waits for the Green Knight to strike him, but due to fear, he flinches and Green Knight only makes a mark on Gawain’s neck on the third strike and reveals himself as Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert (Weston 56). Gawain is a hero because of virtues and not his strength, the ability to stick to his word and be faithful to lord Bertilak de Hautdesert saves him and returns to Camelot as a hero.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: a new verse translation. Reprint, New York: Norton & Co., 2001. Print.
Kline, T. Daniel. The medieval British literature handbook: Literature and cultural handbook. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009. Print.
Marie, De France and Gallagher, Edward. The Lays of Marie de France. Upper Saddle River: Hackett Publishing, 2010. Print.
Weston, Jessie Laidlay. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Dover Books on Literature & Drama. New York: Courier Dover Publications, 2003. Print