Literature is one of the main means of passing down the elements ofculture from one generation to another. Among the many literarygenres that exist, folk tales have been the most representative ofprose in the tradition of various cultures, and has the capacity totransmit the traditions to younger generations and beliefs. Among thetraditions that have been passed to the younger generations arestories about heroes and heroines. The main structure and charactersof the heroes as presented in these tales changes over time. Thechanges are due to geographical, social and other cultural changesthat are affected over time. However, there are still certain traitsand experiences that are shared amongst these heroes, which do notchange. This paper makes a detailed analysis of heroes over time,their characteristics and attributes, the changing conception ofheroes and why the conception changes from the mediaeval, through the17th and finally to the 18th century.
Differentkinds of heroes seen
There are two main types of heroes that are identified from themediaeval to the 18th century, romantic and epic heroes.In these works, the hero is represented as a rebel in a creation ofromanticism (Riall 26). The mediaeval poems present the hero as abrooding individualist who plays down all the moral codes andinsistence in social order by rules and regulations. As timeprogresses into the 17th and 18th centuries,particular notions are raised to a higher status.
The epic literature is an earnest celebration of life in the heroicage. Early mediaeval epic literature presents the idea of an epichero as a savior to all mankind, for instance heroes like Beowulfin the Song of Roland. In the later mediaeval ages, the herono longer fights for the people, but for their own ideals. Theypossessed qualities of valor, honor and loyalty. The epic hero livesin a shame culture, where the name of a man is the most prizedpossession (Sitchin 14). On the other hand, John Milton’s “ParadiseLost”, a 1667 epic poem explicates the fall of mankind. The epicpoem depicts a characteristically heroic Satan and a contemporaryhero in Jesus Christ, although Satan acts more as an antihero i.e. aprimary character who lacks the elements of a true protagonist. Theepic poem presents an epitome of an epic hero and a modern hero.
In general, the two type of heroes described were similar warriors.The main difference was their characteristics. The epic hero wasruthlessly focused in armed combat, for example Beowulf (Boyden 121).On the other hand, the romantic hero was focused on matters of theheart and relationship. Throughout the 17th and 18thcenturies, these heroes played a big role in European literature.There are however certain heroes, who were at times in the mediaevalliterature epic heroes and in the renaissance romantic heroes, suchas King Arthur.
Theircharacteristics, attributes and actions
Into the 18th century, the epic hero turned into aromantic hero. One of the best examples of such was King Arthur, whohad been described as the leader of battles (Stobaugh 12). Byslaughtering a myriad of pagans, King Arthur was a hero and a king,and many Britons saw him as their savior. His legend was firstmentioned in the mediaeval times, where he was described as an extraordinary warrior. Into the renaissance times, he was put intoliterature on the French romances. He was used to describe courtlylove, which was established during the middle ages and emphasized inhis legend.
The romantic hero of the mediaeval times possessed an understandingof their inner self. They also understood the value of theirexperiences mainly through emotions, rather than logic. The audiencealso had to be connected to the hero to certain levels therefore,the mediaeval heroes had to transcend society, class and birth. Intothe 17th century, passions were outside individualcontrol. The hero was also perceived to be moody, isolated from thesociety and introspective (Williams 8). During the Romantic era, mostpeople progressed the conception that Satan was a Promethean hero,opposing against an unfair God. In fact, during the first two booksof “Paradise Lost” Satan appears as the heroic character in thebook as he conveys a gallant speech and tells other rebels that theycan make “a Heaven of Hell”(Milton 1, 255). However, in thesubsequent parts of the poem, the character of Satan regresses, andreaders see him as the enemy who goes against the fundamental laws ofGod. In fact, as the book progresses, the character of Satandegenerates, for example, in his dramatic monologue at book IV, Satanannounces, “Hell is wherever he himself is”, which reflects theconflicting nature of Satan’s character. In fact, Satan’scharacter changes dramatically throughout the book as reflected byhis motives i.e. initially he pursues to continue the fight forfreedom, then fights for splendor and renown, next, the inducement ofEve and Adam, and finally asserts that he has acted to gratify otherdemons in Hell. In addition, the physicality and shape of Satandegenerates throughout the book.
The 18th century heroes came to realize thatself-knowledge was more valued than physical strength. Generally,into the 18th century, the characteristics of the heroeschanged in a major way, a contributing factor to the manner they wereperceived. One of their characteristics is that they sought meresurvival, and wanted to create a pool of light in the shadows. Theyalso developed a code of ethics and were never surprised by theunfolding events. Most literature in the modern times expressedadmiration for ethical heroism, which was the closest approximationto the classical virtues of a national hero, and was upheld by allemerging heroes after them.
Howand why the conception of a hero changes over time
There are certain things about the heroes that have remainedthroughout history. The first thing about the heroes is that they arehighly rational. These heroes have been perceived to have strongdecision making capabilities, which differentiated them from the restof the society. For this reason, since the mediaeval times, heroismemerged when a person was recognized for their individual decisionmaking abilities and perception of matters. Secondly, the heroes wereidentified by their public oracular sort of voice, as represented inall the literal works of the three eras in history. For example, theSatan represents this charisma in the “Paradise Lost” in thevarious speeches or soliloquies he engages.
Thedifferences in conception of the hero over time can best be explainedby changes of era. The heroic literature was based on the fight forsurvival and constant war footing. Secondly, the change in conceptionabout the romantic and epic hero is attributed to significant changein national character. For example, the “Paradise Lost” is aRomantic era epic poem, which reflects the change of characters asSatan portrays with his degenerating motives and physicality. Thismoved from national unity to feudalism. Other major differences inperception arose from a time when the leisure class wanted to beentertained, and the creator of the heroes in the literature had tochange to satisfy this class. The class demanded to be tuned intoniceties and dedication to values of a courtly life, hence the changein perception of the heroes.
Thereare certain qualities that make the hero be appreciated in specificcultures over time, and with the change of culture and traditions,the perception of the hero changes. If a hero did not satisfy theexpectations of the society at a given age, they would fall from theechelon of respect and loose the heroism accorded to them.Additionally, shifts in societal ideals facilitate the change ofperception of a hero in literature.
Thenotion of saint hood has also changed over time. In the mediaevaltimes, the concept of the sainthood was aligned to the Greek conceptof heroism (Jokinen 1). These times’ literature perceived a hero tobe superhuman, who was half god and half human. However, into themodern times, the notion of saint-hood decreased in the literature,hence changing the perception of the hero in the society.
Thingsthat remain the same about heroes
One of the things that did not change about the heroes from themediaeval times to the 18th century is that they wereprotagonists who were popular in the society. All through, the heroeswere perceived to be personalities who stood outside of the acceptedstructures of the society. The heroes were also not influenced by thesociety, and most of them led the society in a number of traditionalaspects. Also importantly, for epic heroes, the virtues of chivalryremained similar from the mediaeval to the 18th centuryliterature. These were valor, generosity, loyalty and honor (Jokinen1). Of these, loyalty was most intricate and significant. It wasidentified as the quality of the soul, and the heroes fought onlywhen the circumstances required.
Despite the differences in perception of the epic and romantic heroesin literature from the mediaeval to the 18th century sharesome common grounds. The first, and perhaps most significantperception, is that the heroes followed an honorable heroic code.They never fought against enemies who were weaker than them, and theyalways protected the society whenever need arose. The best examplewas that of Beowulf, who fought the beast that was terrorizing thepeople, and did so even in the dead of the night. Through to themodern times, the heroes’ characteristics were changed to fit theexpectations of the society, especially the rich class, whoinfluenced literature’s content. The circumstances that led to thechange in perception of the romantic hero and the epic hero were thesame. Finally, whereas the epic hero’s perception was shaped by thenation and the people’s need for security and politics, theromantic hero’s perception was influenced by personal feelings andromance.
Boyden, Julie. Beowulf-A Pagan Hero: A Modern Poetic Translation.New York, NY: Algora Publishing, 2006, Print.
Jokinen, Anniina. “Heroes in the Middle age”. Luminarium:Anthology of English Literature. Web. 8 August 2014.
Milton, John. Paradise lost. Pearson Education, 2007.
Riall, Lucy. Garibadi: Invention of a Hero. New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 2007. Print.
Sitchin, Zecharia. There were Giants upon the Earth: Gods,Demigods, and Human Ancestry: The Evidence of Alien DNA. Rochester,VT: Inner Traditions Publishers, 2001. Print.
Stobaugh, James P. British History Teacher. New LeafPublishing Group, 2012. Print.
Williams, Simon Wagner and the Romantic Hero.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.