Heroes II

Heroes, Loud and Silent:

Karrde, in an interesting post below, wonders about whether a hero is properly boastful or not. The confusion he expresses arises, I think, from the fact that the West contains two separate traditions on the subject -- the old Indo-European heroic tradition, and the Christian heroic tradition that has largely supplanted it.

Heroic boasting was a social institution that was used by Indo-European cultures to do more than advertise their past deeds. It was also a form of accruing additional glory: both for the poetic excellence of your description, and by allowing you to essentially make wagers with the future about what you would be able to do. But you must remember that many of the ones we have today are not recordings of actual boasts, but poetic interpretations of what the boasts of the greatest heroes of yore must have sounded like. (For a version of what the boasts of regular, living heroes sounded like, see the Saga of the Jomsvikings.)

The greatest version of the heroic boast for a living man was to inspire others to extoll his virtues instead of doing it himself. This was normally done through the heroic virtue of liberality. By giving great feasts and fine gifts, you would inspire others to speak very highly of you. Professional poets would sing your praises, and they were free to do so in terms that were even more boastful than you could use yourself.

The Beowulf poem stands at the end of a very long series of revisions, now lost to us (as Tolkien pointed out in "The Monsters and the Critics"). Swimming in chainmail (which really can be done, as the folks at Regia Anglorum have shown) while fighting off sea monsters, etc., this isn't the sort of boast the old warrior on whom Beowulf is based would have made. They are the sort of poetics that would have arisen about him among the professional skalds who benefitted at his court, and their children and grandchildren, who sang of him to entertain later kings with tales of their heroic progeny.

These stories -- some version of heroic stories are what Kim du Toit is wanting when he says that "we need heroes" -- serve a number of useful functions. They showcase what a hero looks like, and how one acts. They make people think of themselves as more than just individuals, but as part of a great people with a proud history that they should uphold. They reinforce common values, and inspire better behavior. They help to socialize the young, and they also serve to remind the old about what was great and good about their own lives.

The silent hero is a Christian form, and one that developed slowly. Christianity has a lot to say against boasting and pride, and after the West became formally Christian, the Church began a centuries-long task of trying to restrain the pride that was expressed by the aristocracies of all the European cultures.

In the early Anglo-Saxon church, we have the famous cleric Alcuin protesting, "What has Ingeld to do with Christ?" That lament arose in response to the fact that heroic poetry was being read among monks instead of the Bible or the writings of saints. Those monks often came from the same aristocratic classes that furnished the great kings and warriors, and they enjoyed the same poetry. Indeed, we have the Beowulf because the monks preserved it.

By the time of Sir Thomas Malory, however, the concept of pride as sinful had at least taken hold among the fighting class. Le Morte D'Arthur still has prideful, boastful warriors, but it also has the quest for the Grail with its repentence and silence; it has the conclusion wherein Lancelot abandons worldly pride for the life of a monk. There is a deep conflict between the heroic virtues, and the Christian ones.

In the Anglosphere, the increasing importance of the Protestant movement, I'd say, was the driving force in moving the balance point in that conflict. Boasting was something a good Catholic could still do, as long as he boasted of the right things and repented for other things. (As Chesterton wrote, "Any one might say, 'Neither swagger nor grovel'; and it would have been a limit. But to say, 'Here you can swagger and there you can grovel' -- that was an emancipation.") The good Protestant, especially a good Calvinist, should not swagger at all.

America especially has its cultural roots in Protestantism, and so we have a deeply embedded notion that it is wrong to boast. We like the hero (whether a soldier or a rider of bulls) who does great things, and then says it was nothing -- or simply says nothing at all. That is what we have long preferred.

There are strong advantages to this type, but also disadvantages. One of them is that you don't get the same degree of social benefit you got from the old heroic poems. Those came from having common heroes, whose stories were told and retold to all of us. A hero who refuses to be celebrated may be admirable for having the virtue of humility in spite of having done great deeds; but he also denies his culture the chance to use him as a rallying figure, to socialize the young and to help adults rededicate their lives to the better things.

In the last few decades, there has been a rise of another sort of claimant to heroism: I mean the swaggering criminal type. We've always had gangster movies, but even as late as the Godfather pictures, it was understood that the criminals were the bad guys.

That hasn't been the case lately: from "Smokey and the Bandit" to gangster rap, we've seen a resurgence of the boastful-heroic mode. It is a mode that is fundamentally better able to socialize the young than the humble mode of Protestantism. That is a problem, and it's another part of the problem Kim was discussing.

The old mode was sustainable as long as it didn't have to compete with an active heroic tradition in the counterculture. Children (especially boys) need bold, shining heroes to emulate, and if they can't get them elsewhere, they'll emulate the pimp.

There are two kinds of heroes we have to offer, and we need them both. The first are historic American heroes, so that we can celebrate our (cultural, rather than literal) ancestors in the way that Ingeld's descendants did. I think Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge did the groundwork here: their Hero Tales from American History serves as a great source for stories to celebrate.

We also need living, modern heroes. We are fortunate enough to have some. The DOD has begun a series called Heroes in the War on Terror.

The last thing we need are poets and movie makers to turn their craft to celebrating these heroes, historic and living. That, so far, is the one place where we fall short.

Anyone want to fund a movie company? I'll bet there would be a market for these films, if only someone made them.

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