This fall I’ve been teaching a course on Medieval Epic Poetry, a continuation of the Ancient Epic course I taught last spring, in which we read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, poems that are all deeply grounded in a pagan worldview but nonetheless examine human nature, and particularly human excellence, in such an authentic way that they continue to speak profoundly to readers in our own day.
Still, the pagan world that produced those works valued things that sometimes run counter to Christian values, so their heroes may seem strange and not entirely admirable to a modern Christian.
Nonetheless, all the poems we read in the Medieval Epic course are written by Christian poets who have, to one extent or another, appropriated the epic tradition and made it their own.
What does it mean to be a hero?
This shows, on the one hand, the powerful appeal of the epic form and, on the other hand, the way Christians have always been able to “baptize” the best of pagan culture. One of the key, defining features of the ancient epic is the hero upon whom the poem is focused. For ancient Greeks and Romans, to be a hero meant to be, in some way, godlike. If you know anything about the gods of Graeco-Roman mythology, however, you’ll realize that being “godlike” did not necessarily mean being “virtuous” in the ethical or moral sense; it simply meant being super-humanly good at something, and being able to get away with things that would never be tolerated in mere mortals. Achilles, for instance, was noted for his godlike rage, which made him a most excellent warrior, but the Iliad makes no bones about the fact that he turns his godlike rage against his own friends and allies, and even prays (successfully) to Zeus that they will suffer mightily for having offended him. So the Christian poet who chose to wrote an epic tale had to wrestle with the problem of the hero – what should he be like, if not like Achilles or Odysseus?
Beowulf: A Christian gloss on pagan heroism
One way to deal with the problem is illustrated in the first work we read is in the Medieval Epic course. Beowulf, a Norse hero tale reworked by a Christian monk for a Christian audience, presents
a vibrant depiction of a pagan hero which is also a Christian commentary on the inadequacy of pagan values. For the Christian, the greatest hero is always Christ Himself, who was not merely godlike but actually God Made Man, who won the greatest possible victory – over sin and death – not through his power and might but through his deliberate weakness and willing defeat (see my earlier post on the Heliand for more on this). So for the Christian epic poet, every true hero must be, in some important way, Christ-like (“godlike” in the sense of being like the God Made Man). Often this means that he will be self-sacrificing (as Beowulf is, saving his people from a dragon, but dying as a result of his wounds): many times, we will see the hero “harrowing Hell,” literally or figuratively redeeming the souls of the dead, as we find Aragorn doing in Tolkien’s The Return of the King (there is an analogous scene in Beowulf); like Christ, the hero may win a great victory by virtue of his humility rather than his might, as Frodo does, another Tolkien character. (Tolkien was, like the Beowulf poet, inspired both by Norse myth and by his Christian faith.)
In this final regard, however, Beowulf falls short – he is not a Christian, after all, and his insistence that he fight the dragon on his own is a not humble self-sacrifice, but a magnificently heroic gesture of vainglory. Although he defeats his foe, he gets himself killed in the process, thus leaving his people undefended. Left without a king, they are doomed to be destroyed by hostile neighbors, who have nothing to fear in the absence of a powerful king. The Beowulf poet reminds his reader of this sad consequence at the end of the poem and thereby manages to pay homage to a great Danish hero only to expose the weakness of a culture that exalts vainglory over truly selfless heroism – such a culture, the poem suggests, bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
Sir Gawain: Moral courage and Christian humility
This is a message that also haunts the Arthurian literary tradition, as we saw in the second work we read this semester, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem was written by a Christian poet, for a Christian audience, and its hero is himself a Christian, Gawain the nephew of King Arthur. Many elements of pagan mythology – in this case, Celtic – are also to be found in this poem, but they are found in the antagonist, not the protagonist, and Sir Gawain manages to come out of the conflict a victor, albeit a flawed one. Yet here the hero acknowledges his flaw, is humbled by it, and willingly returns to King Arthur’s court penitentially wearing a badge of shame, which will always remind him of his ignoble behavior.
However, the noble lords and ladies of Arthur’s court do not recognize the penitential reminder of the green sash that marks Gawain’s shame; instead, they admire it as a trophy of victory and even decide to wear a similar sash, much as football fans may sport “fan gear” bearing the number of their favorite linebacker. In the discrepancy between Gawain’s shame and humility and the admiration of Arthur’s court, the poet indicates the vainglory of the court and signals the difference between nobility of birth and nobility of character, and foreshadows the ultimate downfall of Arthur’s realm, which is narrated in other Arthurian romances.
Is heroism dead?
In many ways, our contemporary culture has much more in common with the ancient pagan worldview than the medieval Christian one; modern folk are more likely to admire the battle rage of Achilles or the self-serving cleverness of Odysseus than the humility of Gawain. Yet it is remarkable that, if you were to ask ordinary people to name a defining characteristic of the hero, most would say that a hero must be self-sacrificing. They might cite a firefighter who risks his life returning to a burning building to rescue a cat, or a bystander who tries to save a woman from a mugger. To this extent then, the Christian concept of the hero as one who risks his own life to save the weak and the innocent has made a lasting impression on the modern imagination.
Unfortunately, too many popular “heroes” resemble degraded versions of Achilles or Odysseus, excelling at one (perhaps inconsequential) thing, while presenting poor examples as human beings – professional athletes who break records in their sports, but live lives of disgusting excess and moral depravity, celebrities who shamelessly parade their vile lifestyles before the public eye, wealthy executives who make millions even when they destroy the businesses they run, and so on. These decadent “heroes” risk nothing but expect to have everything, and they infect the popular imagination like a virulent social disease.
Perhaps it is no wonder that the study of the epic tradition continues to thrive in Christian environments – “classical” Christian academies, homeschool curricula, Catholic liberal arts colleges, etc. What was, for thousands of years, mainstream culture has been abandoned by the modern world, leaving a great impoverishment of the modern moral imagination.
But this continues to thrive in what is now the Christian counter-culture, among those who still aspire, themselves and their children, to live lives that transcend the degraded mundane existence that is the “new normal.” Anyone depressed or disgusted by our toxic contemporary culture, anyone who aspires to be a member of the new moral counter-culture, could do much worse than to pick up one of the great works of the epic literary tradition and catch a glimpse of true heroism.