Monday, July 30, 2007

Heroes for the Future

I stumbled on a website today that made me think that my slight ill-ease with the current plethora of Beowulf movies might be well-founded.

One of my problems with Beowulf as it is so often encountered -- and I know we've all beaten Charles McGrath horse to death at this point -- is that it seems so flat. In fact, that's why, heretically, I liked the recent Beowulf and Grendel. Thinking about the film, I wrote:

Beowulf and Grendel is not the poem I, and perhaps some of you readers, study or have studied. Yet I wonder if it’s not a certain aspect of that poem, refracted through time, to show a side of it the Old English did not, or could not, fully articulate. As Tolkien once said, the characters of the Anglo Saxon epic go forth to fight “the battle that ends for all, even kings and champions, in darkness.” In this movie, night comes down on monsters and heroes alike – and the withered remnants of their lives, like the enshrined head of Grendel’s dad, serve as stories for those who remain. It’s making sense of it that we must struggle with – and in the end it can only make sense for us at our moment. Beowulf and Grendel is, then, that rendering – one more chance for us to make sense of story of long ago. One more chance to see the “Outsider” in his many forms – and perhaps, if for only a moment, to go Outside our own fortressed thoughts to meet him.

What I seemed to be grappling with then, and what I'm grappling with now, is the way in which we inherit heroes. The ways in which Beowulf stands as a venerated homage to the idea that heroism necessitates violent conflict -- that heroes need someone or something to destroy in order to truly be heroes.

Martin Firrell has begun a large-scale public art project with Nathan Fillion (of Firefly), called Hero. Currently there are three parts, which bring together Fillion's reflections and conversations (and footage of the interview as well as other images of him) with words, written both by Firrell and by people who sent them in via email and a blog for the project.

Based in Firrell's idea that words can be relevant, the "Hero" project is fascinating -- and I was surprised to feel its relevance not only to a world where violence has become so much a part of every-day life, but also to the literature that world is currently resurrecting in movie form, the literature I study.

The need for a new model of heroism is a necessity: and I think the part of Firrell's early project that I'm most interested to see develop (and which, if you're patient, you can hear parts of here in an interview for a show that seems to usually be about Firefly) is how Firrell will move beyond the masculine-centeredness of the project as it now stands. He seems committed to doing so - and for his project to succeed it seems that it will have to.

It reminds me of a beautiful Brian Andreas print that reads "Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That's what takes a real hero."

I'd be interested to hear opinions of this project -- and perhaps most of all, how it intersects our work as Anglo-Saxonists. I wonder what sorts of responsibility we have -- to the texts we study and to the students we give them to -- vis a vis this problem of what it means to be a hero, and what Beowulf, particularly in his politically aware incarnations perhaps, might be able to teach us...

and one of these days I'll get back to my orals reading notes -- I'm making progress, but nothing that seems to make it here...


highlyeccentric said...

interesting, very interesting...

I've always loved the GK Chesterton quote, Fairy tales are important, not because they tell us that dragons are real, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

but you're right... we do have a very struggle/conflict oriented worldview. I wonder what can be done about that? And what does one do about it, when their life is spent meddling with past societies who certainly didn't question that?

these are all questions clattering around in my head as i try to talk to other people about my instinctive attraction to medievalism. Hmmm...

meg said...

As a matter of fact, I have a real problem with the whole concept of the hero. I read the Chesterton quotation that highlyeccentric mentions as a rejection of heroism, and I'm completely down with that.

Moreover, I read *Beowulf* as a rejection of heroism too. Great violence can (and perhaps must) be done, but that does not raise the status of the perpetrator to some sort of demi-god.

Tolkien has a lot to answer for. He may have averred that the struggle ends in darkness, but he hand-crafted our expectations that the good guys will win, and win big.

Kate Marie said...


How do you read that Chesterton quote (or Beowulf) as a rejection of heroism?

Your reading of Tolkien seems to ignore some of the complexities of Tolkien's narrative. First, I would quibble with your notion that Tolkien "handcrafted our expectations" that the good guys will "win big." Expectations that the good guys will win seem to me to have existed long before Tolkien. Second, it might be a bit simplistic to suggest that the good guys "won big" in Tolkien; Tolkien's book seems almost as much an elegy for what has been lost in conflict as a paean to epic heroism (though it is certainly that).

Perhaps I'm a bit confused here because I'm unsure what kind of definition of heroism you're all working with. I'm not a medievalist, so maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that very few works of literature would construct or define heroism solely as the ability to inflict great violence.
Wouldn't Grendel be a hero by that definition? Isn't heroism (or one kind of heroism) more like the willingness to risk one's own life in courageous physical conflict with an external enemy who unjustly threatens one's family, community, tribe, nation?

Certainly it's interesting to "interrogate" notions of heroism and how they get "constructed" in certain texts (medieval or otherwise) but does that necessitate a rejection of heroism altogether?

The above applies more to Meg's comment than to the post itself, but the question I would ask about the post is what do you think the *current* model of heroism is that needs to be changed? Is it as monolithic as you seem to suggest?

Finally, that quote from the Brian Andreas print is very nice, in that it suggests a moral heroism that goes beyond physical prowess, but it seems wrong to me in one important sense. Just *anyone* cannot slay a dragon. In fact, it seems to me the other way around. Everyone in merry England can wake up and love the world the morning after St. George slays the dragon, but very few have the moral and physical courage to slay the dragon in the first place. And I don't think a "politically aware" reexamination of the model of heroism need entail either a rejection or a *wholesale* reinterpretation of Beowulf, or St. George, or Aragorn, . . . or, for that matter, the real heroes of war and battle.

P.S. Perhaps instead of thinking of heroism necessarily involving violence (which is the way it tends to get represented in most epic literature, I suppose), we could think of it as necessarily involving struggle (physical, moral, or otherwise)?

Brandon H. said...

I love this idea of trying to figure out what a contemporary hero should be. I'm looking forward to seeing what people say and where Firrell's project goes.

Trying to find a common thread of heroism that spans time and yet defies the concept of violence, I kept feeling myself wondering about loyalty. Having taken a class called loyalty (politics-based, but discussing the many, varied facets of loyalty), I find this a fascinating theme in literature. Obviously loyalty is a central thread in Beowulf, as it is in our literature of contemporary heroes (I think of Harry Potter's loyalty as central to his character). There are--obviously--man examples, and they don't need to be hashed out here for my point to be worthwhile. I think, in the way that there are so many examples (from The Wanderer to contemporary loyalties), we find a very plausible intersection for medievalists and general thinkers.

After watching the videos on Hero and contemplating a contemporary push for true heroism, I believe loyalty is a pivotal aspect. This concept may manifest in myriad ways: loyalty to family, friends, country, faith, virtues, etc. Further, this aspect of loyalty does not need to be based on a conflict-oriented type of relationship. Loyalty can mean, simply, standing (in many ways, without hostility--i.e. Martin Luther, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.) against someone or something based on conviction. Loyalty, then, may be even committed on a non-individual level (though based on experiences with individuals, to be sure), as expressed as loyalty to humanity (in desiring to make it better, and to make the world the best place for such a humanity).

Perhaps the ideal of loyalty is just that--too ideal--but it is a start,I believe. At the same time, such loyalty on an individual level must be tempered with tolerance (or coexistence--see the latest on religion over at In the Middle for such thoughts). In seeking a defined picture of heroism for our age, there cannot be just one virtue to which to strive, but many. But loyalty is one that stands central, I believe. These are just my primary thoughts, and I would like to flesh them out some more.

meg said...

Kate Marie: I don't want to hijack Mary Kate's comments, and I've been meaning to rant,er, expand on my opposition to the notion of the hero, so I'll pick this up at my own blog, if you want to continue the conversation.

Kate Marie said...

Thanks, Meg! I'll be checking in. I think it's an interesting discussion. As I've already suggested, I am decidedly in favor of the concept of the hero (though not against examining and redefining that concept), and I find it difficult to imagine how any society/culture can reject the notion altogether. I'll be looking forward to reading what you have to say.

Anonymous said...

"Martin Firrell has begun a large-scale public art project with Nathan Fillion (of Firefly), called Hero. Currently there are three parts, which bring together Fillion's reflections and conversations (and footage of the interview as well as other images of him) with words, written both by Firrell and by people who sent them in via email and a blog for the project."
This is screening in London before all films at the five Curzon cinemas. Info here.

Simon @