What Defines a Hero Term Paper

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Heroism in Literature

The word "hero" today entails a variety of meanings, depending upon the situation, the person referred to, and the mindset of the person speaking. Generally, the connotation of the word refers to somebody who performs a brave action regardless of the danger to him or herself. When examining the ancient literature from different cultures, the meaning of the word "hero" can be estimated and compared with others of its time, and also more modern meanings attached to the word. To this end, five works of ancient literature are examined in order to determine the meaning of the hero concept as advocated by their authors. One emerging idea appears to be that, regardless of the time and location, a hero in any given society is a human being, sometimes with supernatural characteristics, that personifies the highest ideals of humanity at the particular time in society. This applies to the heroes in the works to be discussed, including Beowulf,

The Iliad, Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and Tale of the Heike.


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Beowulf is an epic poem from the Anglo-Saxon culture. While he did not incorporate any supernatural or godly characteristics, he was nonetheless a superior human being in terms of the criteria during the time of the poem's creation. In this society, the best qualities that a hero could incorporate was his capacity as warrior. The warrior-hero was to be strong, intelligent and courageous (Garcia). These are qualities that Beowulf has plenty of. In addition, the warrior was to be humble, despite his obvious physical prowess and talents. The poem shows that the person of Beowulf incorporates all these essential characteristics. Beowulf is not only described as having the strength of "thirty men" in just one of his arms; he also refuses the kingship when it is offered to him by the Danes. He understands that being king, even though prestigious and highly deserved, is not the position that he is to fulfill in society. Instead he returns to Hygelac and honors his loyalty to his native king.

Term Paper on What Defines a Hero Assignment

Both Beowulf's actions and physical appearance demonstrate him as the essential embodiment of heroism in his culture. In fighting Grendel and his mother, as well as sea monsters and the fire-breathing dragon, Beowulf's heroic courage is also indicative of his status as hero. In his fight with Grendel, he shows both courage and honor by battling Grendel without his sword. In terms of courage therefore, Beowulf disregards his own safety for the sake of those he appoints himself to protect. He combines this with an unparalleled faith not only in his own strength, but also in the "fate" that is to protect him because of his courage. On the other hand, he also accepts that, if he is appointed to die, there is nothing he can do to stop this, and is willing to accept it in whatever form death presents itself. His words to Unferth is a demonstration of this: "Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good."

In the Anglo-Saxon culture, therefore, heroism entails a number of characteristics in combination. In addition to being a warrior, the hero must have great strength and courage, as well as honor and humility.

The Iliad

Homer's Iliad incorporates the same central idea of the hero as representative of what is best in the humanity of the time. In this case, Achilles is representative of heroism in the Greco-Roman world. In this world, the "hero" concept entails more than excessive human strength and courage. These qualities are included, but the hero is also partly supernatural. Achilles is the son of a sea goddess, and this provides him not only with the strength and physical attractiveness becoming of a hero at the time, but also with the divine nature that was part of heroism during the time.

Homer's epic heroes are not only furnished with an almost supernatural strength and beauty, but also with a tragic quality. The contrast between his perfection and his vulnerability makes Achilles very appealing to the reader. Indeed, the many conflicting emotions within Achilles show both his divinity and humanity. These are more often than not in conflict with his duties to the king and his Greek army, just like the dichotomy between his drive to be remembered as a hero and the wish to remain with the woman he loves. In this, Achilles' dual nature as god and man is symbolic of the emotional conflicts he suffers as a result of his position in the army.

According to Brandon Oto, Achilles is hailed as the finest warrior in the Greek Army. Yet Oto also points out that many of the other warriors exceed him in certain respects. It is important to consider this if Achilles and not Aias, Diomedes or Hector is to be considered the archetype of the hero in the work. What sets Achilles apart from the more powerful or more noble than himself, is the fact of his emotional depth, and the way in which he handles the conflict both within and outside of himself. In this, an evolution can be seen of the hero concept from the Anglo-Saxon paradigm to the Greco-Roman one. Furthermore, despite the fact that he does not feature very prominently in battle, Achilles is perceived as the best by his society and is therefore hailed as such. Oto refers to this as his "public relations" image.


Gilgamesh, although emerging from an Eastern European background, but displays many of the heroic qualities already mentioned above. Like Achilles, he is royal by birth. He is the king of the First Dynasty of Uruk. Truly a hero, he is also the strongest and most powerful in the region. However, like Achilles, Gilgamesh also has a number of fundamental flaws that, according to Oto, strengthen rather than weaken his status as classic hero.

For Gilgamesh, as well as both Achilles and Beowulf discussed above, physical strength appears to be a common defining factor of heroism in all three works. Oto relates strength to the ability to bring about change. Whereas Beowulf changes his world by ridding the Danes of the fatal danger posed by the monster Grendel and his mother, Achilles brings about change in terms of battle. At the opening of the Gilgamesh work, the main character is demonstrated as almost supernaturally strong, which provides him with the potential of later bringing about change. Gilgamesh's powers include unrivaled speed, and he once even outruns the sun. Speed is also an agent of change brought about by the hero. The way in which both Gilgamesh and Achilles speed through their adventures and journeys contribute to their image as heroes.

Another common element in the heroic natures of Achilles and Gilgamesh is not only their divine nature, but also the direct involvement of the gods in creating the hero. This is an element that is not present in Beowulf. Indeed, Beowulf relies on his own inner qualities in order to perform his heroic actions. The most prominent allusion to the supernatural is "fate," an impersonal force that could be seen as equivalent to luck.

Beowulf's trust in "Fate" can be seen as his interaction with the god concept of the time. In the same way, both Gilgamesh and Achilles interact with their gods in ways that are seen as realistic in the literature of the time. Gilgamesh interacts with his gods through dreams, while Achilles does so directly. Change is facilitated by the gods: Beowulf is protected, Achilles receives help in battle, and the course of Gilgamesh's journey is determined by the gods.

The most important characteristics of the latter two heroes discussed above is their flawed nature. This helps the reader to identify with them, and makes the tragedy in their lives all the more poignant.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey, also attributed to Homer like the Iliad, revolves around the journey of Odysseus, the central character. Like Achilles, Odysseus interacted directly with the gods. He however displays a somewhat foolish pride towards the gods that he might have viewed as courage. Because he would not obey the gods, he was punished by a 20-year long journey before being allowed to return home. As a hero, Odysseus is more human than Achilles, and therefore perhaps easier to identify with. His continuous desire to return home drives his actions throughout the journey.

In contrast to the other heroes discussed, Odysseus begins at a personal anti-climax, from which he evolves to become much truer to the Greco-Roman ideal of the courageous, fearless, infinitely powerful hero. Furthermore, whereas the heroes discussed above are general alone on their journeys, Odysseus acts as a leader. In this also he evolves from the human to the superhuman. In this he therefore evolves in the opposite direction from Gilgamesh and Achilles. The latter's flaws become apparent after their heroic actions, whereas Achilles' flaws are apparent from the start. In this, elements such as his anger, his love for his wife and his longing for her make him the easiest… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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