A hero embodies the moral ideals of the community. While the rest of us muddle through, the hero comes as close to perfection as our shared humanity allows. Heroes are for this reason beacons, guides, exemplars: to the degree that we copy their actions, we inch toward the light.
Today we confuse heroes with those who perform heroic acts. The confusion is understandable. Those who live a heroic moment — the men of flight 93, for example — have revealed something rare and great within them. But the true hero lives a heroic life. He seeks out terrifying challenges, because his nature can only be manifested in struggle and triumph against extraordinary forces. Rarely will he be a happy husband, or a dutiful son.
The stage on which the hero performs depends entirely on the moral ideals of the community. The heroic quality can be aggressiveness, protectiveness, acquisitiveness, spirituality, abnegation, self-discipline. In the hero, the ideal overwhelms individuality. He is what we wish all people could be.
Even when the same quality is idealized, manifestations will differ in different times and places. The Anglo-Saxon warrior was quite another thing from the medieval knight. The latter was expected to be “gentle”: Christianity imposed on him the ideal of protecting the weak. Barbarian heroes would consider such a duty lowly and ignoble.
I have just seen the movie Beowulf, based on a poem that is a favorite of mine. I find the people of the Dark Ages to be dark indeed, in this sense: they are opaque to us. Read Beowulf; gaze on the Sutton Hoo helmet in the British Museum, above. A strange and mysterious quality emerges. Faces stare out of a great spiritual blankness, void of personality yet strong in will and power. They look ready to fight Grendels and dragons, and indifferent to human life, their own above all. Dark Age heroes embody ideals distant from our own.
The poem is an uneasy mix of Chritianity (to which the poet belongs) and Nordic culture (which the hero embodies). The movie, which I heartily enjoyed, departs from the original in its portrayal of the hero. Hollywood’s Beowulf has an inner life. He kills and lusts and drinks, but then feels guilt. He says, “Remember me as a flawed, fallible man, not as a hero.” The question of why anyone would care to remember a flawed person — of which we have, alas, an endless supply — is never asked, much less answered.
This wonderful piece by Stephen Asma ascribes the self-reflective character of the movie’s hero to his complete Christianization.
In Christianity, victory no longer comes when the hero is standing over the slain monsters. It comes in the next life, after one has lived humbly and proven oneself by enduring great suffering. Traditional heroes, like Beowulf, Hercules, or Odysseus must be acknowledged for their strength and achievements, but their prideful humanity — their attempts to personally bring justice into the world — is devalued in the new Christian paradigm. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we don’t need monster-killers when we trust in the Lord. After all, God, not man, punishes the wicked. Heroic faith replaces heroic action. [. . .] The writers of the new movie seem well aware of this transformation of values when they have Beowulf deliver lines like “The time of heroes is dead. The Christ God has killed them.” [. . .]
Many academics will probably appreciate the new emasculated Beowulf (thinking it more psychologically sophisticated and more appropriately critical of machismo), but I’m not convinced this new version transcends and nullifies the heroic original. I suspect we need both Beowulfs — the Tolkien version and the more Nietzschean version. As morality plays, the old and new versions deal with different aspects of conflict resolution. On the one hand, a diplomat, or an intellectual, or politician should try to better understand his enemy, sympathize with his gripe, and defuse his aggression. On the other hand, a soldier in the field, like the original Beowulf, does not find nuance in his enemy — he’s too busy fighting him.
I find it amusing that the movie-making industry, that hotbed of religious feeling, should have produced a far more Christian Beowulf than the original, which was penned by a monk. The “guilt trip” Asma refers to is pure Hollywood, but also lies at the core of Christianity. This raises interesting questions about the power (and blindness) of culture, and about the possibility (or impossibility) of a truly heroic life in our self-infatuated age.
But the world breeds monsters. This will always be true. So long as the community needs monster-slayers, the iron-willed hero will be admired and imitated.