Heroism and Masculinities

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

27 Pages, Grade: 2



A Introduction

1. Masculinities and heroism
1.1 Outline of the term masculinities
1.2 Outline of the term heroism
1.3 The hero and his ambiguous relation to society
2. Carlyle’s considerations on heroism
3. Representations of masculinities and heroism in literature
3.1 The Wanderer
3.1.1 Context
3.1.2 Evaluation of The Wanderer
3.2 Coriolanus
3.2.1 Context
3.2.2 Evaluation of Coriolanus
3.3 The Man of Feeling
3.3.1 Context
3.3.2 Evaluation of The Man of Feeling
3.4 About a Boy
3.4.1 Context
3.4.2 Evaluation of About a Boy
4. Comparison of the representations of masculinities and heroism in literature

C Conclusion

A Introduction

Doubtless, the Greek epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, composed in the 8th century BC, are two of the most renowned epics of Western culture. Dealing with the Greek struggle against Troy, the works depict the deeds of legendary heroes like Hector, Achilles or Ulysses. Be it for the defence of their country or for the acquisition of fame, these men battle, always teeming with power, strength, courage and bravery. Later on, the influences of these primary epics range from Virgil to Milton or Fielding and Dryden, above all culminating in the Homeric impact on the heroic poetry of the Renaissance period. In Britain, the mythological Celtic work about The Legend of King Arthur and his Round Table from the 5th century BC upholds the tradition of the male warrior hero. The episodes concentrate on various heroic deeds, particularly on the conquest of the Holy Grail. Fascinated by the deeds of King Arthur and his knights, innumerable writers of various periods derive their own stories from this topic as for instance Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte Darthur or the Arthurian cycle of Tennyson. Lately, with Troy and King Arthur Hollywood screened two blockbusters, substantiating the motif of the male warrior hero. These top-sellers prove that men still goes in for the epic stories about heroes and their heroic actions.

Indeed, people always have been attracted and nearly obsessed by the stories about outstanding figures, be it the Indian Mahābhārata, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf or the German Nibelungenlied. Even if the actions are not always conclusive they often foster a basis for collective identification and influence the behaviour of the community. Either society idealize the deeds of the hero, projecting their desires on him, or, as often as not, this man is rejected and feared. Nevertheless, this person sets himself against the meaningless and accepts his vices and virtues, eventually rising above the average man, due to his heroic powers. Although social connections and personal motivation have been changing continually during the last centuries, the hero still embodies universal characteristics and men like Paris, Agamemnon, Galahad or Lancelot reappear in literature continually, nourishing the image of the heroic warrior. This is a man’s world where masculinity is defined in the epic realm of the hero.

However, the latest movie about King Arthur pays heed to the figure of Guinevere as a female warrior and the book The Mists of Avalon also stresses the female perspective on the heroic character King Arthur. These stories are keen on depicting women as the driving forces behind strong men and as a consequence question the connection between masculinity and heroism. Women wage war against their traditionally subscribed roles, eventually posing the question about the importance of femininity and heroism. In order to solve this problem it seems helpful to illustrate how heroism and masculinity are traditionally linked. Continually altering circumstances, as for instance individual, cultural or historical conditions, show an impact on the concepts of masculinity and heroism. Additionally, due to the binary opposition of the gender terms, also attributes associated with femininity play a vital role for the analysis.

Thus, interested in exploring the relationship of masculinities and heroism, I focus on representations of these concepts in literature. The first part of my paper will deal with a theoretical outline of the terms masculinities and heroism and continue with the theoretical literary work On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle. Subsequently, after having provided the necessary background information, I focus on the Old English poem The Wanderer, William Shakespeare’s Roman play Coriolanus from the Renaissance period, the Sentimental period and The Man of Feeling by Henry Mackenzie and eventually on the present-day work About a Boy by Nick Hornby. The centre of attention in this works will shift from the general context of the period to the depiction of masculinity and heroism in the literary work. This analysis is followed by the final part of the work, which expounds these different manifestations and also accounts for aspects of femininity. As far as I am concerned, the feminist view holds true that strong men are always inspired by women.


1. Masculinities and heroism

1.1 Outline of the term masculinities

The conception of masculinity is developed out of the image of gender as “an achieved status which is a function of socialization and has social, cultural and psychological concepts.”[1] Gender identity is assessed by the interaction of the individual view or belief of belonging to a particular gender, called self-identification, and by social codes, considering a person to be masculine or feminine according to his or her behaviour, called others’ identification. Although the concept of masculinity is not inherent and prone to adjustments, “[m]asculinity has traditionally been seen as self-evident, natural, universal; above all as unitary and whole, not multiple or divided.”[2] Recent developments, on the contrary, indicate the rise of different forms of masculinities according to influences like the two World Wars, the Sexual Revolution in the 1960ies or the Hippy Movement in the 1970ies, which contribute to a revolution of femininity. Besides, certain verbal expressions or experiences of society seem to foster the idea that various actions can contribute to the development of a boy into a man, suggesting that male behaviour does not come without help. “Indeed, we simply can’t say whether any particular kind of quality or aptitude is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. There is no way of telling. Most, if not all, of our behaviour is learned.”[3] Doubtless, different men have different experiences as man what leads to a continual modification of gender. Thus, “gender concepts […] depend rather on current cultural, political, social and historical determinants,”[4] questioning the clear definition of a universal masculinity.

1.2 Outline of the term heroism

First of all a limitation of the term hero seems inevitable, as it frequently is applied in a relatively broad sense. On the one hand many a person, occupying the main part of a literary work, is often referred to as hero. However, allusions to “the main character in a narrative or dramatic work”[5] are of no importance in this investigation. In such cases “[t]he more neutral term protagonist is often preferable, to avoid confusion with the usual sense of heroism as admirable courage and nobility, since in many works the leading character may not be morally or otherwise superior.”[6] Thus, on the other hand the term hero also can receive a more restricted meaning, alluding to classical virtues and ethical nobility, which characterize a heroic person. In literature, this person is determined as a narrative social construct, emerging out of a crisis or appearing by incidence, as things happen to him. Able to change the current situation by combining action and reflection and battling for the benefits of the community, he rises to heroism. Despite his vices and virtues, with which the hero has to struggle, certain universal characteristics obviously have eternal validity. Consequently, he functions as an ideal, representing the controlling ideas of the time. As these ideas are dynamic, being influenced by historical, individual, cultural or sociological features, a more general definition of the term heroism seems problematic. The ideal of heroism undoubtedly is bound to various circumstances, like history or culture, and the average desirable expectations, projected upon the hero, are prone to change. Thus, it has to be renewed from epoch to epoch according to individual experiences or collective manifestations. These diverse representations of the hero and his heroism mainly originate in the acceptance of or the rejection by society.

1.3 The hero and his ambiguous relation to society

On the one hand the hero usually embodies a discourse of characteristics, which is highly estimated by a certain society at a certain time and which sets him apart from his fellows. Consequently, the examination of the hero-figure reveals the internal values of a society. “The hero is the traditional idol of man. He does the things we all wish we could do. He embodies the qualities that we wish we had.”[7] These characteristics seem to be true in a more general term, as the heroic archetype “revealed certain instinctive proclivities in the human being which transcended cultural differences.”[8] Being socially accepted, he functions as an ideal and gives advise how to react in certain situations.

By contrast, however, the hero can also be restricted by social sanctions. Afraid of the heroic powers of a formerly ordinary man, society aims to distance the hero. This power is traced back to the origin of the hero himself. “The literary hero was first a hero in myth and fable. There he was part man, part god or demon.”[9] Although the divine figure is transformed into a mortal being, the supernatural forces remain, creating an extraordinary man with demonic features. As often as not, he is seen as a rebel or outlaw, facing misunderstandings, hostility and hatred, which leads to a conflict. Shocked and afraid by his mettle, they establish new boundaries to distance him and protect themselves. Although risking his life for the benefits of the community, the hero is often rewarded with suffering and depression and “[w]hat the hero wins is never what society will call success in conventional terms.”[10] Nevertheless, his defeat is not seen as a fall from favour but rather as a triumph in the cycle of life, giving his story an eternal character.

2. Carlyle’s considerations on heroism

“History refuses to be a series of costume-changes worn by the same hero and, to his credit, Carlyle does not attempt to persist in such a simplification for long. The hero himself changes in fundamental ways as the time changes.”[11]

Already during the Victorian Age Thomas Carlyle, on of the most influential writers on critical matters of his time, accounts for the constant modification of the concept of the hero. In his literary work On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History Carlyle determines the development and attributes of a hero. There he states that the hero is “a flowing light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic nobleness”[12] and that “genuine sincerity is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic.”[13] As history is seen as a repetitive concept, which can fall into thesis, antithesis and synthesis, the reconstruction of the historical process enables men to learn form the recurring pattern of the past. Although aware that different epochs, conditions and nations can change the manifestations of the hero, he adheres to the enduring nature of hero-worship, due to this continuity and permanence of history. Social dissatisfaction, for instance represented in riots, reflects the need of the community for a hero. Only by hero-worship can they escape from their despair and isolation. As a consequence, the hero reacts to the signs of time and rises from obscurity to heroism. Subsequently, he fights with his tragic fate, aiming to improve the current world order. Finally he is responsible for a change of history and Carlyle claims “all that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world.”[14]

3. Representations of masculinities and heroism in literature

3.1 The Wanderer

3.1.1 Context

Old English feudalism is characterized by virtues of tribal community, ties of loyalty between lord and liegeman, the significance of individual heroism and the power of fate. In this system the lord provides his men with entertainment, protection, nourishment and a place in the accepted hierarchy for which he receives their service. This masculine hierarchy of mutually accepted duties regards the loss of a patronage as the worst social misfortune. During this period poetry is seen as public and communal art, designed for public reception, repetition and reiteration at royal, monastic or lordly gatherings. Themes are taken from this social environment, nourishing the image of the heroic warrior.

The epic poem Beowulf is described as the “archetypal history of masculine heroism.”[15] The achievement of the hero, battling against barbaric forces in order to protect civilization, is displayed in narrative verse. The male protagonist embodies certain noble virtues of the heroic code like fortitude, sapience, humility and charity and becomes a warrior due to self-identification and others’ identification. On the one hand, arming produces masculinity and protects men from being violated but, on the other hand, this armour also excludes them from the rest of society and its binary oppositions like nature, emotions and women. The masculine ideal is described but also limited by the boundaries it establishes. Afraid that this concept may fail, arming is increasingly necessary in order to protect and not to construct masculinity. Consequently, society is constructed around an inverted logic. Whereas the community can not function without a male warrior ethic, men, on the contrary, can not survive as warriors.

In fact, all ideas expressed in Old English poetry are bound by a similar heroic tradition because the Anglo-Saxon tribe was organized for war. Also the anonymously published epic poem The Wanderer adheres to this principle. This poem can be dated back to the 10th century and is part of the Exeter Book, one of the great anthologies of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Structural similarities and common themes like banishment, displacement and social disgrace link it to other poems of the manuscript like The Seafarer or Beowulf. Greenfield defines the general concept of this poem by regarding this “old English elegy as a relatively short reflective or dramatic poem embodying a contrasting pattern of loss and consolation, ostensibly based upon a specific personal experience or observation, and expressing an attitude towards that experience.”[16]

3.1.2 Evaluation of The Wanderer

The poem describes the coherent theme of Christian transience from worldly aristocracy to divine Christianity, expressed in the reflections of a Christian Anglo-Saxon nobleman. Accordingly, the theme of the epic, introduced at the beginning, deals with the experiences of a solitary person in an alienating world. Confronted with the loss of his patron, this man has to go into exile. It could have been expected that the introducing lines might as well allude to a female protagonist but already the 6th line of the epic poem reveals unmistakably that it deals with the life of a male protagonist. Continually allusions to male characters like wanderer, warrior, hero or sage are made. He is clearly described as a nobleman, who has internalised the appropriate behaviour of his society and is acquainted with the system of feudalism, which defines masculinity in this period. Women are completely unimportant and not mentioned explicitly throughout the poem, homo-social bonding plays a vital role for the protagonist, the thwarted relationship to his noble kin, friends or kinsmen and, above all, to his patron constitute the crucial conflict of the poem. As a consequence, the ideal proposed by the feudal system, which offers him liberty, food and a more or less platonic relation to his patron, is substituted by the disadvantages of a lonesome life. Additionally this problem is increased by the fact that he is not able to utter his private feelings in public, as he would not conform to the cultural expectations of an ideal man. He knows “it for a truth”[17], being a man and having noble virtue signifies “to mourn alone”[18] and to hide his private feelings. Therefore, various descriptions of natural phenomena, for instance animals or the seasons, function as substitute for the communication of his feelings. Solitude, which confronts and burdens the wanderer, is described by metaphors and adjectives as “ice-cold sea”[19] or “winter over icy waves.”[20] The weary mood of the speaker, caused by the failure of human relationship, is also indicated by “snow and hail and frost fall all together”[21] or “weary spirit over icy waves.”[22] Now he can only dream of this past joys like entertainment, feasts, treasures or the care of his lord, when he “kisses his liege lord, and on his knee/ Lays hand and head, as when he formerly/ Received.”[23]

Nonetheless, a turn in the development of his argumentation occurs. While examining aristocratic life, the wanderer progresses from sorrow to wisdom and humility. In a reflective tone he changes his self-centred attitude of a pagan Germanic hero with the awe-inspiring wisdom of Christianity. Aware of the limitations of his human condition, he unmasks the instability of the worldly feudal system, claiming that “the armoured warrior,/ The glory of the prince. That time is over,/ Passed into night as it had never been.”[24] Whereas at the beginning the narrator was complaining about his inability to utter his private feelings due to cultural conventions of the feudal system, he finally can communicate his inner thoughts as he has found a cure to his formerly despicable state. Christianity is considered as the new heroic standard, providing him with care and protection. “Well shall it be for him who looks for grace/ And comfort from our father in the heavens,/ Where is ordained all our security.”[25] As a consequence, new norms marking masculinity are established, too. Not only does he have to display a balanced behaviour as a fighter, and above all show his patience, he also has to posses Christian insight into the divine providence.


[1] Franklin, Clyde W, The Changing Definition of Masculinity (New York and London: Plenum Press, 1984) 2.

[2] Buchbinder, David, Masculinities and Identities, (Carlton: Melbourne University Press1994) 1.

[3] Groombridge, Joy, His and Hers: An Examination of Masculinity and Femininity (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971) 56.

[4] Buchbinder 3.

[5] Baldick, Chris, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1990) 98.

[6] Baldick 98.

[7] Benson, Lou, Images, Heroes, and Self-Perception: The Struggle for Identity - from Mask-Wearing to Authenticity (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1974) 7.

[8] Benson 8.

[9] Stanford, Raney Baynes, The Tradition of Heroism and the Modern Novel (Columbia University, 1965) 20.

[10] Stanford 12.

[11] Ousby, Ian, „Carlyle, Thackeray and Victorian Heroism“, The Yearbook of English Studies: Heroes and the Heroic (Leeds: W.S.Maney and Son Ltd., 1982) 158.

[12] Carlyle, Thomas, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, eds. Norman and Charlotte Strouse (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993) 4.

[13] Carlyle (1993:5).

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Rosen, David, The Changing Fiction of Masculinity (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993) 1.

[16] Dunning, T. P. and Bliss A. J., eds, The Wanderer (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1969) 103.

[17] Hamer Richard, ed. and trans, A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse (London and Boston: Faber&Faber, 1970) 175.

[18] Hamer, (1969: 175).

[19] Ibid., 175.

[20] Ibid., 175.

[21] Hamer (1969: 177).

[22] Ibid., 177.

[23] Ibid., 177.

[24] Ibid., 181.

[25] Ibid., 183.

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Heroism and Masculinities
University of Regensburg  (Institut für Anglistik)
Literary Masculinities
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ISBN (eBook)
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Heroism, Masculinities, Literary, Masculinities
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Stephanie Wenzl (Author), 2004, Heroism and Masculinities, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/40391


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