Heroes appeared in Ancient Times. They are significant for every culture, as they reflect the whole society with its ideals, demands, and achievements. In Greek myths, heroes had characteristics that distinguished them from the rest of human beings. A hero was a superhuman athlete, whose individual power helped all humanity or a favored part of it. He was often characterized by royal heritage, being partially human and partially god, and, certainly, being noble. Furthermore, heroes had capabilities to perform inhuman feats, while they fought for honor.
In Greek literature, classical heroic feats become recognized after the death of the hero. In other words, men choose to put their lives on the line in order to become famous posthumously. Consequently, heroes often suffered physically, emotionally, and mentally because of their goals.
In Iliad, Homer portrays Achilles as a man capable of jeopardizing his destiny by being emotional. Achilles owns all qualities of the ancient classical Greek hero. Homer describes his anger as the capability of making obligate valiant acts. Achilles is also a proud and emotional personality, who is portrayed as a hero who would rather die than fail to achieve fame: “Gut the arrow out of my thigh, wash away the dark blood with warm water, and sprinkle over it kindly drugs, Good ones, which they say you have learned from Achilles” (Homer 228).
In ancient times, people learned their fate before starting a quest, which gave a choice of living a long and uneventful live or dying young and heroic. Achilles made a choice to change his fate and live a long life rather than become heroic and die young, but long and uneventful life seemed less attractive than being adored after heroic demise.
Similar to the heroes of his generation, he is a prominent warrior admired by his troops and the Greek society. The half-god nature of Achilles contributes to his incredible abilities on the battlefield. However, such qualities were accepted standards for classical Greek heroes.
Homer depicts Achilles as a perfect warrior, who fights like a beast. This means that he is merciless to his enemies in the battlefield. Achilles knows that his only road to glory is through killing as many enemies as he could find. This concept of heroism differs from today’s perception, though it is the ideal traditional hero-warrior of the epoch. The contradictory and narrow heroic code is a perfect illustration of Achilles’ complexity of character.
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There is an intense confrontation between Achilles and Hector, the most salient warrior in the Trojan Army. He represents the new, city-state warrior, who also is a tender, family-orientated man with sincere love for his children and wife. Despite his brother’s lack of spirit and preference for love over military duty, Hector treats him with indulgence and forgiveness and never turns violent with Paris. Even though Hector loves and takes care about his family, he never forgets about the sense of responsibility for the destiny of Troy. Before Achilles’ return to the war, Hector has been one of the most devoted followers of the heroic code, but he stands as an orthodox warrior leader: “So now I meet my fate. Even so, let me not die ingloriously without a fight, but in some great deal action, which those men yet to come will hear about it” (Homer 297).
Despite his personal feelings, the heroic code does not permit Hector to avoid the battle. In his doubts, Hector comes very close to recognizing the sense of human life. In contrast with brutal success, invincible confidence, and terrifying spiritual isolation of Achilles, Hector’s emotional uncertainties of his final battle and momentary loss of faith are apprehended as possible human actions.
The epic hero possesses the virtues of military prowess, valor, honor, generosity, and loyalty. His society is hierarchical and governed by military aristocracy. Thus, the warrior’s code and honorable name are the most prized things.
The idea of the hero as the defender of his society prevails in the early medieval epics. In the late romances of the Middle Ages, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the hero fights for his own ideas rather than for people. The study of nature caused this change.
The qualities of the chivalric hero such as generosity, honor, valor, skill in battle, and loyalty are similar to those of the epic idol. Though, loyalty is more significant in this period than in ancient times. It became the quality of the soul. The chivalric knight is verified through achievements of weapons, too, but he seeks an adventure or a test by himself and not only when circumstances require it. Thus, the chivalric knight often fights to protect ideal. His world is an imaginative idealization or a dream reality with unnatural enemies. A knight can survive after beheading or a castle can appear just in reply to a prayer. The romance literature is rather the product of the sophisticated group of people than the whole culture, while the epic one describes people from the whole nation.
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Lanval, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and different Celtic legends about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table depict the social order of their time. Lanval presents the importance of morality and integrity in the story of pure love, deep admiration, and respect. The poem shows that real feelings have considerable influence on person’s behavior and can even change person’s understanding of what is right and what is wrong (De France & Lods 98). It is an excellent example of love that can change human morality, as well as devotion and honesty of people. It teaches us that truthfulness, honesty, and devotion are essential and even crucial aspects of human relations.
Arthur is a legendary king of the Knights of the Round Table. His victories over the Saxons form a basis of his personal achievements. He is valiant and risky at war. This approximates to the image of Christ dying for humanity. Arthur stands for Christ and Christianity and comes out as the hero who inspires his men to fight with religious enthusiasm. He is a symbol of an exemplary king who should never bring harm to his subordinates. The central theme in the romances about King Arthur is trust and deception. Christian symbolism suggests that Arthur was made a King by Jesus’ election. Hence, the sword is a symbol of justice of God, and justice is the primary duty of every king.
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Sir Gawain also plays a central role in all works about King Arthur. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portrays the romantic nature of the Christian knight with the three elements of romance: bravery, chivalry, and quest. During Sir Gawain’s quest, he always remains brave, courageous, and also possesses other merits: “And the knights in that castle shouted with pleasure, / Proud to stand in his presence – Gawain, / Eternally praised, bearer of excellence, / Most able, most knightly, best on earth,/ Most famous, most honored of men” (Tolkien, Gordon & Davis 76). Gawain accepts the challenge that no other knight dares to, and he also refuses to let the King give up his life. His chivalry is also tested, and it comes from the Christian concept of morality.
Later, Sir Gawain regains his morality and confesses to the King. Thus, censure of immorality comes out clearly from the story. Honesty is also demonstrated when Gawain makes a three-day agreement with the Lord. He is honest for the first two days and shares what he got. When the Lord is hunting on the third day, his wife gives him a magic girdle, which should save him from the Green Knight. All this is done in order to test his honesty.
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The epic hero is tested in different physical battles with warriors or monsters, while the task of the chivalric hero is more spiritual than physical. For instance, Sir Gawain should pass all the trials of a perfect chivalric knight in order to succeed. His failure is seen as a lack of loyalty, but in point of fact it was the failure of the whole social order.
The differences in the concepts of chivalric and epic heroism emerged because of the era’s change. Ancient Age heroes represent the time of constant wars and fights for survival. The difference in spirit between epic and romance literature signifies a noteworthy change in the national character caused by a move from national warfare to civil conflicts and fantastic struggles, from national unity to feudalism. The new class structure demanded a new hero with the personified values of the epoch. The courtly knight replaced the brutal warrior.
In spite of all transformations, the epic and chivalric heroes have common features. The first similarity is the honorable heroic code as heroes never fight with a weaker foe. The second common feature is the rite of passage. The most outstanding connection is the role of fate and the failure of the heroes to some gradation. All represented heroes possess the ability of overcoming obstacles with heroic courage.
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