Characteristics of a Hero: From Beowulf to Sir Gawain

January 16, 2021

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What are the characteristics of a hero and are they still relevant today?

My friend Stephen once again returns to the blog with a fascinating analysis of heroes in literature that might help us answer that question. All that follows (with the exception of the bad headings for which I accept full responsibility) is his work:

"Hero" is a strange word. From the sprawling hubbub of the DC and Marvel Universes and the ever growing diaspora of narrative based video games to "Super-Hero" workouts and various self help books expounding on ways to become the hero of your own story, modern culture is littered with this most singular of epithets.

It's become such a marketing gimmick one could argue the power and meaning of the term has been muddied into inanity—what weight can the term mean in a world where people are encouraged to feel heroic for turning down a donut, to say nothing of the hilarity that is Guitar Hero?—but the phenomenon hints of something far deeper, and far stranger.

Peeking from the edges of ancestral hearth fires and the shadows of Imagination's haunted forests is a story, rich with age and mystery, that flows through this little word and the reality it points to, so a deeper exploration calls. That exploration starts, as so many hero's quests begin, ironically enough, with a question.

What is a hero?

To answer this we'll turn to three stories of the European tradition—Beowulf, A Knight's Tale, and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight—so come along young squire, secrets and revelations await amidst the mists, and there be dragons afoot...

Epic hero characteristics in "Beowulf"

Beowulf is a heady stew, looming out of the fog drenched fjords of pre-Christian Scandinavia onto monastery parchment as part of a deep and singular quest to place this new upstart of a hero—one Iesu Christi—amidst the vast sprawl of indigenous heroes. (A rich topic in and of itself, but sadly I will have to forgo and stick to the topic at hand...)  

While there is much to explore I will have to confine myself to one part, so let us be off, dear reader, to that mist shadowed Danish fen and a cave beneath a dark, menacing sea to visit some monsters. In our search for answers I will direct attention to an intriguing series of events that, I argue, hold the first clues to shedding light on our question. Namely Beowulf's arrival and conduct in Hrothgar's flame lit hall, the tactics and strategies employed in besting the foul beastie and its monstrous mother, and the mysterious aid that arises out of the depths of time during the fight with the Sea Hag... 

Our young buck arrives amongst the terrorized Danes seeking to prove his own valor against the mysterious terror attacking their new mead hall, which is our first point.

Heroes tend to have an uncompromising, somewhat ridiculous conviction as to their own abilities in the face of strange, insurmountable odds.

While this can and in fact often does lead to downfall, just as often the old adage "Fortune Favors The Brave'' is proved very true indeed.

This tale is is no exception.

However, another factor arises, for Grendel proves to be supernaturally immune to steel and improvisation is called for. Beowulf solves the problem by ripping the monster's arm off, illustrating the next characteristic of a hero:

Heroes think on their feet, using both cunning and prowess to achieve their ends.

However, with the first monster put to rest another arises in its place, and Grendel's mommy dearest makes her sweet baby boy look rather tame so Beowulf is thrust into a bit of a pickle. Trapped down in the Sea Hag's lair the young Geat can't best her, for her skin is as immune to steel as her son's, and this singular state of affairs brings us to our final point. 

When confidence, brains, and brawn have brought our hero so far but not quite far enough, Something (to riff on the estimable Mr Gaiman, "They’ll call it chance, or luck, or call it Fate''— unexpected, mysterious and from beyond the pell) intervenes. In this case a sword, forged by and for giants in the long forgotten mists of time, that just happens to be hanging in the cave (for monsters are greedy souls and often hide altogether too much treasure in their domiciles) proves to be the miracle, and with the star blessed blade our hero slays this horrible Mother of Monsters.

So to tie up our third point, we can infer that confidence mixed with cunning and creativity will get a soul far but not quite far enough, at which point a profoundly mysterious force—"They’ll call it chance, or luck, or call it Fate"—is triggered and Fortune favors the brave with gifts beyond the kith and ken of mortals, which is comforting and very strange indeed...

Tragic hero characteristics  in "A Knight's Tale" by Geoffrey Chaucer

On to our next tale, dear old Geoffrey's "A Knight's Tale" to be precise, and here things get interesting for we have not one but two heroes, Palamon and Arcite, neither of whom appear particularly heroic at the offset despite their impressively epic backgrounds.

Our tale centers, as many tales do, around the love of a woman, in this case the Princess Emily, and both our protagonists are besotted to the point of lawlessness. Thus the Duke of Athens steps in, setting up a fight to the death for the fair lady's hand (hormones— heaven preserve us all...) and thereby setting larger events in motion.

Intriguingly the supernatural element is evident from the outset here, with the planetary deities Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn taking center stage as the cause and impetus of the drama at hand, all of which takes place against the backdrop of the ancient, supernaturally soaked epics of ancient Greece.

The Canterbury Tales are written as small vignettes that intertwine and play off against each other in a larger, overarching tale so I'm hesitant to analyze this story further out of that context and such an exploration is beyond the scope of a short essay (a cogent discussion of medieval planetary philosophy and theology alone would make for a novella all unto itself, and that's just background...), so I'll wrap this up rather briefly.

In a Knight's Tale we have a fourth intriguing element added to our exploration of heroism. At the offset our heroes are love tossed on an ocean of divine agenda, and as a result of heavenly politics one of them is destined to die by the decree of cold, remorseless Saturn.

However Arcite redeems himself to a degree by his nobility, honor, and grace as he departs this Mortal Coil, acknowledging the best attributes of his fellow suitor and reflecting on his own place in the cosmic drama before giving up the ghost.

Thus heroes are both at the mercy of forces beyond themselves and responsible for how they conduct themselves within the confines of these harsh fates.

In contrast to Beowulf, who is more or less static in character and action throughout the saga, Palamon and Alcite both improve in character throughout their trial, displaying an agency of free will that, to the medieval mind, was an attribute of The Creator himself.

So, heroes are souls, born to die, thrust into patterns of cosmic unfoldings beyond themselves"They’ll call it chance, or luck, or call it Fate..."who rise to the occasion, becoming better through both a respect for the patterns in question and a graceful acceptance of their inevitable mortality.

Romantic hero characteristics in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

And finally, and possibly the most intriguing, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. To spare no punches, this is the strangest and most conceptually dense of our three stories, and thus lends itself to the broadest set of possible angles for analysis.

However, the stories of Arthur predate the Romans for it can be argued The King Under The Mountain is a form within the myths of Europe that goes back to at least the Neolithic. This lends them a particular je ne sais quoi and so, given our previous romps through the strange byways of ancient Daneland and Medieval-lensed Ancient Greece, I'll take the path of Faery. 

Our story opens with a dramatic intrusion of The Otherworldor to use the old term, 'Faery', a word used to describe both a supernatural realm interweaving with the physical, the myriad beings who inhabited it, and the effects contact with either has on humansinto King Arthur's court, for The Green Knight is Fae in the oldest and most terrifying sense of the word.

Far from the cute, winged pixies of Disney films and children's story books, the Faeries of old Europe were, by and large anyway, beings of terror, danger, and cruelty who stole children, killed livestock, ruined crops, and took great joy in wreaking havoc on the human world through trickery or sly bargains.

This intruder is no exception. The unarmored giant, all green with glowing red eyes, lavishly long hair and beard, and a huge axe in one hand and a spike of holly in the other claims to be merely in search of a Christmas game any of the knights of Camelot, a useless cowardly bunch to the man, may strike him once in the neck with the axe, on the condition that said knight meets the specter in a year's time so he can receive a blow in kind. 

There is an invisible subtext to The Green Knight's challenge, largely lost on modern readers, that would have been profoundly portentous and frightening to the original audience, for if a Faery came into a human dwelling to make a challenge refusal would incur dire consequences.

And so we have our first elucidation of Gawain's heroic character for he steps in, as all the other knights have demurred thereby proving the giants taunts richly deserved, to take up the challenge in place of Arthur, decapitating the giant and thereby saving the king from the consequences of a Faery pact. 

The Horseman, in typical Faery fashion, catapults our tale into further uncanniness by standing up, snatching his dripping head from the floor (putting to rest any foolishly lingering doubt as to his Fae nature, for headlessness is a deeply ingrained theme in tales of The Fae), and vaulting into the saddle to ride off into the night, roaring a reminder that he is owed a debt in a year's time.

And so Gawain becomes an emissary between the human and more than human worlds, and with his life on the line our hero to be sets out under the protection of three sets of virtues, all based around the number five. 

The Arthurian myth cycle stands at a crossroads between the ordered, theocratic structure of post-Roman and Medieval Christendom and an older, stranger social order echoing with hints of a wildly haunted world, giving us an eye into a profound era of social and religious change, and this dynamic becomes glaringly apparent at this point in our tale.

Within medieval theology the five wounds of Christ hold the reality shattering power of redemption and grace, for with them The God-Man redeemed the world through profoundly selfless sacrifice. The five joys of Mary are the direct result of The Virgin's 'Fiat', the original 'yes' that allowed the incarnation of Christ into the world of force and form, thereby serving as the template for all believers who echo that 'yes' and incarnate the power of Christ through conversion.

Finally, the five chivalric virtues of friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety are the means by which the charism of Christianity are embodied in the physical world, all of which bring us to our first point.

Heroes are betwixt and betweenbetween disaster and safety, good and evil, past and present, hope and despair, the living and the dead, the possible and the impossible, and in this case Faery and Christendomworking to bring the worlds they stand between into some sort of balance through cleverness and courage.

As such and under the aegis of the five fold virtues, Gawain sets out a few weeks before Advent (echoing the holy couple's journey to Bethlehem, just to spiral the symbolism a bit deeper), comes to a strange house where he is seemingly welcomed by its liege Lord Bertaliak, and a cat and mouse game of wits begins that shows a more sinister ploy is at work.

Several times over the lady of the house attempts to seduce the young knight, which superficially appears as an attack on his virtue but quickly shows itself to be an attempt to undermine the entire quest, for she offers a girdle of protection in exchange for the young knight's acquiescence to her advances.

He succumbs to temptation, albeit while still ostensibly maintaining his virtue for he never stoops fully to her avarice, by taking the girdle in hopes it will protect him in the eventual confrontation with The Green Knight. When the day finally arrives, Gawain wraps the girdle around his waist and goes to The Green Chapel to confront its fearsome denizen, and thus we come to the next facet of our answer, the next characteristic of a hero.

Heroes fail. Gawain has cheated by coming to fulfill his bargain under unfair protection, and in his heart of hearts he knows it.

However, The Headless Horseman does not return blow for blow and leaves only a small nick on our hero's neck, a deeply symbolic wound to the medieval mind for the neck was the connection between the fallible reason of the head and the infallible virtues of the heart. Such a wound is an exceedingly unsubtle jab at the way Gawain has let fear get the better of him, thereby divorcing his reason from the service of virtue, in trying to cheat death through wearing the girdle.

The Faery then reveals that he and Lord Bertilak are one in the same and the entire quest has been part of a ploy to bring down Arthur's courtand by extension the entirety of Christendom in Britainby the King's evil sister Morgana le Fey.

The plot has been successfully foiled by our young hero's appearance at The Green Chapel, but despite The Green Knight's commendation of his courage Gawain is disgusted with himself, returning to Camelot disgraced in his own mind, apologizing profusely for his cowardice and loss of virtue in taking the girdle instead of completing his quest on fair and open terms as promised.

Nonetheless Arthur is relieved that Morgana's plot has been exposed, points out that he himself is fallible, and commends his nephew for having taken the challenge in the first place. In agreement the Knights of The Round Table pledge to wear green sashes from that day forward as a commemoration of Gawain's success and a reminder of their commitment to virtue, which brings us to our final point.

Even in failure, heroes become examples, bringing out humility in noble companions and setting traditions in place to remind others of the importance of virtue...

Conclusion

So, after this meander through three stories of heroic virtue, where does this leave us? What are we to make of these tales of arm ripping, cantankerous planets, and a green blooded Headless Horseman?

I have no idea, truth to tell, for I'm less than sure that's the point.

Yes, we can analyze the bits and gobbets of hero stories, picking out all of the above themes of: 

  • potentially foolish confidence;
  • creative problem solving;
  • intervention of preternatural forces in response to confidence and creativity;
  • courage in the face of mortality and forces beyond individual control;
  • becoming more powerful Souls by facing the inevitable with nobility;
  • bringing balance between one's own kind and "The Other" in whatever form it may take;
  • failure; and
  • becoming an example, often in equal measure, of both profound strength and crippling weakness.


But is that the point?

One is hard pressed to think of a single hero arc that doesn't contain all the above elements, and from Moses to Maximus, from Neo to Jason Bourne and Frodo Baggins, and from Yeshua to Jax Teller, all beloved heroes follow this arc in their own uniquely individual ways leaving us in tears or exultation, and often a heady mix of both. This is perhaps the crucial point, and with that observation I'll leave you, my long suffering reader, with what may be the most salient feature of the hero.

They move us, changing us as we follow them through their trials and triumphs, and ultimately call us further up and further into the mystery, danger, and adventure of this strange drama we call Life.

And, to make an already strange thing even stranger still, after we've walked with them in their sorrows, victories, weaknesses, failures, and brilliance we come back to earth with a warm glow that makes life taste better at very least, and at best empowers us to step out into a world of purpose and meaning we had missed before our shared journey.

What are the characteristics of a hero. Or, to ask a better question: "What is a Hero?"

They, for heroes abound as a formidably vast host of souls, are people both "real" and "fictitious" ("real" and "fictitious" are odiously slippery terms at the best of times and if these were the best of times we would have no need for heroes, so it's best we leave such nonsense in the prison of quotation marks...), whom we join in an adventure, only to come out the other side changed and more able to face the challenges before us for we are now part of our own grander narrative oh so rich with meaning and purpose.

And so we will live deeper and better lives, and "They’ll call it chance, or luck, or call it Fate" with self satisfied nods or perplexed frowns, but we who have walked the Hero's path through The Forest of Story will know better...

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About the author

Stephen is a savagely eccentric weirdo, excessive thinker, and connaisseur of fine Chinese tea who refuses to wear shoes.

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