The Heroic Ethos: Reality and Representation

Rebecca A. Tierney-Hynes

copyright 2000

The Heroic Ethos

The Heroic Ethos Traditionally Defined:

The heroic ethos is commonly defined as a set of values which prioritise and glorify the valour of an individual. Old English society, contends Clinton Albertson, necessarily honoured a ‘heroic code’, as "[s]ociety revolved around the strong, enterprising chieftain and his courageous band of followers. The essential cohesive elements were the personal loyalty of the retainers and the large-hearted liberality and bold strength of the leader"(2). The motivation of the hero is to garner fame and immortality in legend (Greenfield 80), resulting in feats of excellence and ultimately, of excess (O’Keeffe 123). This warrior elite and its code of ethics is the primary subject of ‘Germanic’ heroic poetry, and the ethic, if not the specific deeds, is also fundamental to Anglo-Saxon hagiography. Dorothy Whitelock emphasises the personal, rather than tribal loyalty that governed the relationship of the thane to his lord, and details the transactions involved in pledging such a loyalty. The lord, in return for the thane’s protection and a vow to revenge his lord’s death, gave him the heriot (a gift of armour and horses) and land. Whitelock argues for the symbolic significance of this gift, claiming that the heroic code was "no mere literary convention"(31), and citing several examples of thanes following their lords into exile in support of this claim. The story of Lilla, thane of Edwin of Northumbria, who interposed himself suicidally between his lord and the sword of an assassin, is an oft-related example of how the heroic ethos obtained in reality.

Kingship and the Heroic Ethos:

The purpose of Anglo-Saxon epic, particularly the Germanic heroic poetry, has been seen as modelling the role of the warrior-king for contemporary rulers. Edward Irving argues that the poetry is meant to effect "the continuity and transmission of heroic values"(370), while G.N. Garmonsway maintains more specifically that "those in authority might have seen pictured [therein] their obligations and responsibilities, and . . . could have gleaned political wisdom . . . and learned some useful lessons about current moral sanctions governing behaviour in general, and heroic conduct in particular"(139). The heroic ethos, then acted as more than an abstract reflection of Anglo-Saxon society’s sense of itself, helping to develop practical codes of conduct as well as glorifying the bravery of a few heroes. This pragmatic view of heroic poetry is supported by Norma Kroll in her analysis of Beowulf. Kroll sees Beowulf differentiated from the monsters that he destroys only in his commitment to human community. His heroism is specifically directed to maintaining civilisation, and his panegyrist "present[s] virtue as acts that sustain and vice as acts that disrupt human brotherhood"(117). Despite the appeals to Christian virtue as a component of the heroic code in the poetry, these critics maintain that it functions as a moral guide to human, rather than spiritual interaction.

The Christian Hero:

In his discussion of saints’ lives, Stanley Greenfield states that the "Christian epic hero has been viewed as garbed in the borrowed robes, or rather armour, of his Germanic counterpart, as a warrior venturing into battle against spiritual evil . . . even as the secular lord and his comitatus engaged the armed forces of predatory enemies"(102). Albertson suggests that the reason for this continuity rests with a massive influx of Anglo-Saxon nobles and warriors into monasteries after the political stabilisation of the nation. Other critics note the gradual metamorphosis of the warrior-code as Christian ethics begin to prevail at the end of the period of Anglo-Saxon dominance (the end of the ninth to the beginning of the eleventh century). Whitelock cites, for example, the change in the Church’s attitude toward vengeance. From initially embracing the practise, the Church comes to condemn it. Charles Donahue posits Anglo-Saxon epic as a stepping-stone between the values of a warrior culture and a Christian society, crediting the poets with showing "the esthetic value of right conduct in the heroic mode and, at the same time, provid[ing] a guide to those perplexed about the relation of heroic ancestors to Christian teaching"(40)., The adoption and modification of the heroic ethos in a Christian mode denotes the prevailing importance of such an ethic in a society undergoing dramatic change.

Problematizing the Heroic Ethos

Contrasting the Code with Reality:

Graham Caie warns against the literalization of the heroic ethos in present analyses of Anglo-Saxon society. He points out that there are only five ‘heroic’ works extant, and that the "constant battle, acts of heroic bravery, [and] supernatural feats of individual strength"(79) can hardly be taken as an accurate representation of any society that necessarily includes women, children, farmers, tradespeople and all the paraphernalia of everyday life. Patrick Wormald is equally critical of the viewpoints of some earlier analyses, stating that the "aristocratic warband’s values were neither more nor less binding than those of a ‘gentleman’ in a later age: they lose reality as soon as they are precisely defined; they were certainly honoured in breach as much as observance; but they did express the behaviour that a socially dominant class thought proper"(11). Kerry Cathers examines the accuracy of the heroic model even on the battlefield, suggesting that the valorisation of the solitary hero has prevented our recognition of the existence of formal battle strategy and organisation (98). It is clearly impossible to determine what real impact the heroic ethos had on Anglo-Saxon society in its entirety, but its validity as an organising principle, even in its absence in practice, is undeniable.

Female Heroes and the Heroic Ethos:

The difficulty Anglo-Saxon poets had in defining heroic women within the bounds of a warrior-ethic is outlined principally by Jane Chance Nitzsche. She examines the definition of heroism as necessarily masculine and the resulting restrictions on the characterisation of heroic women, saying, "a few women are portrayed as politically active and heroic primarily because they shed all affinity with the female sex and sexuality by demonstrating singular chastity and spirituality"(142). These women are frequently depicted in masculine dress to emphasise their honorary masculinity and thus their official entrance into the ranks of heroes in accordance with the heroic ethos. Patricia Belanoff cites the elision of the role of Judith’s sexuality in her heroic act (seducing, then slaying Holofernes) by the Judith poet, suggesting that in order to view Judith as a hero, her chastity had to be established, and her link to femininity thus obliterated. In addition, a recent article by Robert Morey questions the applicability of the masculinist heroic ethos to Beowulf, making the case that many of Beowulf’s heroic acts are in fact cast in a typically Anglo-Saxon, feminine, peace-making mould.

For Further Reading

Social Histories:

Albertson, Clinton. Anglo-Saxon Saints and Heroes. [?]: Fordham UP, 1967.

Cathers, Kerry. "Hierarchy or Anarchy: An Examination of the Leadership Structures within the Anglo-Saxon Military." The Propagation of Power in the Medieval West. Ed. Martin Gosman et al. Groningen, Germany: Egbert Forsten, 1997. 97- 110.

Whitelock, Dorothy. The Beginnings of English Society. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1952.

Literary Criticism:

General Studies:

Caie, Graham D. "The Shorter Heroic Verse." Companion to Old English Poetry. Ed. Henk Aertsen and Rolf H. Bremmer. Amsterdam: VU UP, 1994. 79-94.

Greenfield, Stanley B. A Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York UP, 1965.

Wormald, Patrick. "Anglo-Saxon Society and its Literature." The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Studies Specifically Examining Heroism:

Garmonsway, G.N. "Anglo-Saxon Heroic Attitudes." Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honour of Francis Peabody Magoun. Ed. Jess B. Bessinger and Robert P. Creed. London: Allen and Unwin, 1965. 139-46.

Irving, Edward B. "Heroic Role-Models: Beowulf and Others." Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period: Studies in Honour of Jess B. Bessinger. Ed. Helen Damico and John Leyerle. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute, 1993. 347-71.

O’Keeffe, Katherine O’Brien. "Heroic Values and Christian Ethics." The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 107-25.

Heroism and Beowulf:

Berger, Harry and H. Marshall Leicester. "Social Structure as Doom: The Limits of Heroism in Beowulf." Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974. 37-79.

Donahue, Charles. "Potlatch and Charity: Notes on the Heroic in Beowulf." Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame Press, 175. 23-40.

Kroll, Norma. "Beowulf: The Hero as Keeper of Human Polity." Modern Philology 84 (1986): 117-29.

Studies on Gender and the Heroic Ethos:

Belanoff, Patricia A. "Judith: Sacred and Secular Heroine." Heroic Poetry in the Anglo- Saxon Period: Studies in Honour of Jess B. Bessinger. Ed. Helen Damico and John Leyerle. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute, 1993. 247-61.

Morey, Robert. "Beowulf’s Androgynous Heroism." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 95 (1996): 486-97.

Nitzsche, Jane Chance. "The Anglo-Saxon Woman as Hero: The Chaste Queen and the Masculine Woman Saint." Allegorica 5.2 (1980): 139-45.

Other Studies:

Thormann, Janet. "’Beowulf’ and the Enjoyment of Violence." Literature and Psychology 43 (1997): 65-77.