Heroism is generally associated with qualities such as courage, determination, self-sacrifice and risks taking. Furthermore, a hero most of the time is seen as reflecting the ideas of the community or a country, and as a person who has performed things that other people have not achieved but they wish they had.
Mostly, heroes are known to be engaged in extraordinary and unique actions. Heroes become world known either when they are still alive or long after they have passed away. The way they conducted themselves is always perceived as a source of moral teachings or even institutional legends. Heroes and heroines come in different forms and shades depending on the situation; they act in an extraordinary manner and show powers and strength beyond normal human expectations.
Epic heroes or heroines usually show extraordinary courage, determination, leadership and self-sacrifice during wars to protect the society. On the other hand, romantic heroes or heroines show extraordinary love for the lovers and may go to a great length to show their love. Put in such situations, epic heroes or heroines do everything possible within their powers to rescue people in the society during the war.
On the other hand, romantic heroes or heroines are known to show extraordinary capabilities just to show their love or protect their love. However, it is recognized that heroism lies in the eyes of the beholder and takes many forms. Thus one person may view someone as a hero, yet in the eyes of another, that person may not be a hero.
In Oroonoko written by Aphra Behn, Prince Oroonko is both an epic and romantic hero. However, all his actions are driven out of love and thus he is more of a romantic hero than an epic one.
He marries Imoinda, the daughter of the king’s top general but the king takes away his wife because he too, is in love with Imoinda. With some help, Oroonko meets Imoinda but they are discovered and both are taken in as slaves by the king. However during the war, he is captured and taken as slaves together with Imoinda who he discovered, is still alive.
With his wife pregnant, Oroonoko unsuccessfully seeks for their freedom. Ignoring the consequences of his actions, he organizes a slave revolt but they are later captured and punished. His heroism leads to him killing governor Bryam and to protect Imoinda; then they plan to die together. Oroonoko kills her and later shows bravery while being dismembered publicly as a punishment (Behn, Gallagher and Stern 75 – 150).
Despite his slave origin, Oroonoko shows great courage and decides to marry the daughter of the king’s general. He even kills a governor just in the name of love. It takes the courage of a hero for a man to do such things. Moreover, unless you are a hero, it is not easy to decide to kill your lover just to protect her from being violated by others. Prince Oroonoko goes against the norms’ conventions of the society which do not allow slaves to marry such sons and daughters of important people in the society.
The epic poem, Paradise Lost, written by John Milton is based on the story of Adam and Eve, the first of God’s creation. Though put in the beautiful Garden of Eden with one clear instruction not to eat from fruit tree in the middle of the garden, Satan (Lucifer), the leader of the banished and rebel angels, endures a great deal of tribulations to finally convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.
When both eat the forbidden fruit, they feel a sense of guilt and shame for the first time but they are expelled from the beautiful Garden of Eden with the hope of redemption promised in the coming of a Messiah King.
However, heroism is depicted in Adam when he decides that it is only right for the two of them to be bound and die together since Eve came from his own ribs (Black 996 – 1063). Ordinary human beings would have let Eve carry her own cross alone; it calls for some extra qualities beyond just ordinary powers to agree to die together with a wife of husband.
Adam shows a character of self-sacrifice that is only seen in heroes or heroines. Despite the consequences stated by God for eating the fruit from the forbidden tree, he decides to take the fall with his wife like a hero would do. Adam is more of a romantic hero for he goes against the norms and conventions that normally the society would take.
Dr. Faustus after gaining the academic prowess becomes well known even though he is from a poor background. However, he stretches his luck and seeks power beyond the human capabilities.
He uses magical powers and even signs a contract with the Lucifer who gives him power to do anything he wishes. To help him, Lucifer enlists his messenger Mephistophilis to help Dr. Faustus. As part of the deal, Lucifer condemns Faustus to hell. After a while Faustus realizes that he is damned and that his soul cannot be saved and even tells other scholars of his predicament.
Inwardly Faustus yearns for salvation. He heroically wins the battle at the end of this play by Christopher Marlowe. With his soul deeply entrenched doing evil, Faustus finally wins the battle for salvation. Such courage and determination to face Lucifer and free one’s self from his bondages are only traced in heroes. Dr. Faustus engages in an epic war to free himself from the Lucifer, a war he fights against opponents with extraordinary powers but he later overcomes Lucifer.
Early English Literature is awash with various heroes both in novels, plays and poems. There are those characters that have stood for what they believe in, like Prince Oroonoko. Like Oroonoko, Lanval, a knight in King Arthur’s, was mistreated and even accused of treason by Queen Guinevere for turning down her sexual overtures.
However, he heroically stood his ground and was later rescued by the beautiful fairy mistress whom he loved (De France 40 – 76). Lanval’s heroism as depicted by Marie de France in her poem, Lais of Marie de France, can be paralleled to that Oroonoko.
Moreover, though Dr. Faustus, Adam and Eve brought much of their woes to themselves, the effort they put to redeem themselves are heroic. Their courage, determination and self-sacrifice can be compared to the character Beowulf, the Geats hero as depicted in the poem that goes by the same name.
The courage is only seen in heroes that made Adam to stand by his wife and support after eating the forbidden fruit. Moreover, the temptations, trials and eventual heroic triumph of the young Sir Gawain can be paralleled to that of Oroonoko or Dr. Faustus considering the enormous size of the enemy they were facing. Judith’s heroism in slaying Holofernes with bravery saves her people, the Bethulian and Israelites, (Smyth 164 – 200) it is similar to that of Oroonoko when he heroically slew the governor.
Though many people would contend the heroism in some deeds, it is important to note classification of a person’s deeds or character as either heroic or not. What one society may consider barbaric, another may find heroic, as such labels are determined by the society’s cultural believes. Thus, before considering actions to be heroic or not, it is important for us to understand the society in which people come from.
We should understand the criteria they use in labelling persons and deeds since heroism reflects the ideals of the community or country. In most cases the hero usually fights to protect the ideals of his or her society or against the societal limitations and parameters that may malign him or her. This is seen in the case of Prince Oroonoko who fights against the norms and conventions that aim at maligning slaves. Thus, heroism lies in the eyes of the beholder and takes many forms.
Behn, A., Gallagher, C., and Stern, S. Oroonoko, or, The royal slave. Bedford, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.
Black, J. Paradise Lost: The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2007. Print.
De France, Marie. Lays of Marie De France and Others. Trans. Eugene Mason. London: Everyman’s Library, 1966. Print.
Smyth, Mary. “The Numbers in the Manuscript of the Old English Judith”. Modern Language Notes, 20.7 (1905): 164–200. Print.