Comparison of heroes in early English literature

The Norman Conquest ushered in a different era not only in the literary but also in the political history of Britain. Anglo-Saxon authors changed their status to become Anglo-Saxon kings.

The literature that followed was, thus, entirely to needs of English rulers. It reflected the altered attitudes of the leaders of the people (Greenblatt and Abrahams 242). It unearths a considerable measure of a new national disposition alongside betraying crucial conditions influencing its growth. Nevertheless, the vehicle employed brought in the most noticeable change, in literature.

For a long time, the clergy in Britain had used Latin. The Conquest, however, led to the rejuvenation of the monasteries and the tightening of ties with Rome (Norton & Company 1). This affected its use. The scope of this essay is not entrenched in the history of early English literature. Its gist is limited to an analysis of heroes in this medieval era. The heroes in early English literature had similar characteristics and their representation was related to the culture that produced it.

The English language has undergone virtually a complete metamorphosis since its entry in Britain about mid 400 A.D. Little is known about the languages spoken in Britain before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the island. However, Celts are believed to be the first people to live in Britain whose language is known.

Nevertheless, they did not have much influence on the English language safe for a handful of place names whose origin can be traced to a Celtic foundation. The reason why Celts did not have any significant influence on the English language is that they were not civilized. Much of the influence of early English came from Latin. This old English is to be found today only in manuscripts and ruins in the form of a number of dialects like Northumbrian, Kentish, West Saxon and Mercian (Greenblatt and Abrahams 250).

Early English is very distinct from Modern English. One of the basic differences is in vocabulary. Early English is fundamentally unilingual. Instead of borrowing from other languages, it created new words out of its own native resources. In addition, it makes us of self-expressing compounds. Further, it is inflectional, making use of verbs with person, number and tense. An inflectional can be either synthetic or analytic. Like Latin, Early English is synthetic.

It indicates the relation of words in sentences mostly by use of inflections. Early English is, thus, distinct from the Modern English in several basic ways. These include inclusion of a complex gender system having no relationship to sex, and inflections of nouns, pronouns and adjectives. In addition, verbs are classified into seven categories of strong verbs and three others of weak verbs. In addition, pronunciation entailed the use of harsh, guttural sounds, which were stopped by Modern English (Norton and Company 2).

One of the underlying characteristics of Early English Literature authors was the incorporation of heroes in their works. As Morton holds, heroes are derived from the mists of time and myth. He goes further to assert that heroes in early literature were likely to be grounded on a king who died for his people, or even a warrior who conquered the tribe’s foes. Such were the personalities who were praised in songs and stories. They were presented repeatedly to people in order for the latter to take part in their magic (Greenblatt and Abrahams 275).

As a recap, to the thesis of this essay, the representation of a hero in early literature was closely linked to the culture that produced it. For instance, in Indo-European culture, the idea of heroes invokes the qualities of a protector or helper. In Greek, the concept refers to a superhuman or demigod with special capabilities who is put forth to save or aid all humankind or a chosen portion of it.

The perception of a hero as a people’s savior was dominant in the early medieval epics such as Beowulf and Judith. However, as Fishwick notes, the concept of hero changes just like everything else. This is because in the later medieval romances like Gawain and Lanval, a hero is no longer viewed as a people’s savior, but one who fights for his ideals.

In spite of all the evident disparities on what constituted a hero, it can be put clearly that a hero in early English literature performed outrageous and occasionally superhuman acts. He or she was a person of high social caliber, and who people attached a great historical or legendary significance (Greenblatt and Abrahams 125).

The above portrayal of a hero is slightly distinct from that of a hero in epic literature. Morton notes that epic literature celebrates national life in the heroic age somberly. Its heroes are ordinary people engaged in normal activities of ordinary life. They are leaders, not through class position, prosperity or birth. Instead, their leadership stems from the perfections of their heart, mind and hands (Norton and Company 3).

In addition, their aims are linked to the practical essentials of life. An epic hero like Beowulf or Judith has traits of bravery, military competence, faithfulness, bigheartedness and respect. The hero in the two works fights because he or she ought to, in order for their people to survive. This is despite the fact that the hero is conscious of the eminent death. The hero does not escape from threats or danger. His or her duty is to protect his life by bravery. This is because it is via the battle that courage of an epic hero is determined.

A number of criticisms have been put forth to whether or not the actions of Judith can be categorized as heroic. This is because in contrast to male warriors in heroic poetry who fight against a brutal enemy. In the case of Judith, the battle takes place on a bed and is against an unconscious man.

The truth of the matter is that Judith was in a threatening situation, as she feared that Holofernes could gain conscience any time. Nevertheless, Judith, through her courage, manages to murder him in cold-blood. Judith’s heroism is also somehow distinct from that of Judith because her actions are very private (Greenblatt and Abrahams 1025). This portrayal of Judith’s secretive murder of Holofornes opposes the conventional perception of a hero in epic literature. In the case of Beowulf, his men watch as he fights the dragon.

In addition, despite the fact that his soldiers do not accompany him in fighting Grendel’s mother underwater, they wait him above the water as they watch. Although Judith’s deeds may have been private, her words are public given that she delivers a speech upon returning to her people in order to arouse the temper of the Hebrew warriors (Norton and Company 2).

The characteristics of a chivalric hero are the same as those of an epic hero. These include bravery, military competence, loyalty, bigheartedness and respect. Nevertheless, the concept of loyalty is given prominence. It is a trait of the soul. In addition to these traits, a chivalric hero ought to exhibit self-control, courtesy and respect for women.

Winning a battle is not enough. Just as the case of an epic hero, a chivalric hero is tested through battle. Nevertheless, an epic hero fights when conditions dictate so. In the case of a chivalric hero, he or she fights in order to prove him/herself. The chivalric scarcely fights to protect his or her people. He or she does so in order to preserve a principle or notion.

The world of operation of a chivalric hero is a creative idealization. Although the world is referred to in the light of existing things like clothes, occasions, little is done to make the story genuine in the spheres of politics, geography or economy. While an epic is specific to a particular nation and its people, the romance is out of the ordinary.

It is a product of special-complex group instead of an entire culture. Even though, the world of romanticism was adapted form feudalism, the feudal culture did not have any political function. It had no pragmatic reality. As such, the world in which the chivalric hero operated is a delusion reality (Greenblatt and Abrahams 1037).

The conditions that make a chivalric hero like Sir Gawain and Lanval are very distinct from those of the epic hero. The epic hero undergoes physical battles against an enemy. In the case of Sir Gawain, the role of the hero is more spiritual than physical. The hero has to succeed in all the elements of a typical chivalric hero so that he may be exalted. Although Gawain fails because he is devoid of loyalty, he is, in a sense, dignified.

Lanval also portrays the basic characteristics of a hero by chivalric codes. He is generous because he gives gifts to other knights. In addition, he is loyal to the king and is trustworthy. These characteristics make Lanval be singled out from the rest of the knights. Gawain and Lanval had their flaws. The former did not respect women while the latter can be accused of homosexuality. This demystifies the idea that a hero is above reproach (Norton and Company 2).

In conclusion, although the epic and chivalric hero may be different, they have some similarities. For instance, they possess a principled heroic code. The heroes do not fight against a weak enemy. Another similarity is that both heroes undergo a rite of passage. The passage of their souls through challenges is continually observable. Finally, in both cases, the heroes accept their fate in the form of failure or success. They all withstand insuperable odds through their heroic courage.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen and Abrahams, Howard. The Norton Anthology of English literature. London: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Norton and Company. “The middle Ages.” 2010. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Web. 12 October 2011.