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Comparing the Homeric narrative with the Arthurian legends, discuss the depiction of the heroic ethos by the

two narratives and whether this depiction is still relevant today.


Barnaby Suttle
A feature of a hero which both the tales see as absolutely necessary, which is still regarded today as being key part of what it means to be a hero, is bravery. Given their subject matter, both depicting warrior nobles with monsters and evil men to defeat, the fact that the two narratives focus particularly on bravery in battle is not surprising. Odysseus demonstrates such bravery when he takes off his beggar's rags, revealing who he really is to the hoard of suitors, before challenging them with the cry Look - your crucial test is finished, now, at last! But another target's left that no one's hit before we'll see if I can hit it Apollo give me glory!1 and attacking them. Odysseus is greatly outnumbered and only backed up his son Telemachus, yet he faces his enemies without fear and prevails. In Le Morte D'Arthur, when King Arthur is travelling in France on his way to Rome, he hears of a ferocious giant who is terrorising the locals. Arthur goes to slay this monster alone, to demonstrate true courage to his knights. On the way to the giant's lair a woman warns him that the giant hath vanquished fifteen kings; and made him a coat fill of precious stones embroided with their beards, but Arthur replies simply with Well, I will accomplish my message for all your fearful words.2 People taking on great odds and triumphing still resonates with us today, many feeling an affinity for the underdog and a sense of elation when he or she succeeds.

While the two narratives value power of the mind (bravery), power of the body is also trait they regard as befitting a hero. Odysseus and Arthur both have to undergo tests of their strength in order to prove themselves. Arthur originally took the legendary sword in stone without realising its significance; he tells Sir Ector how he came by it and is asked
1 The Odyssey, Book 22, lines 5-7 2 Le Morte D'Arthur, Book V, Chapter 5

to repeat the removal of the sword to show the truth of his words. Even then, Arthur does not become King until the barons of the land, on various occasions, attempt the feat themselves and are consistently bested by him, leaving them 'sore aggrieved... to be over-governed with a boy of no high blood born'.3 Towards the end of the Odyssey, Penelope promises herself to anyone who can string Odysseus's bow and fire an arrow through a line of axe-handle sockets. The suitors take it in turns to attempt the feat but all are too weak. Finally, 'with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow'4 and fires through all the axes. Being physically powerful, or at least having a set of strong bodyguards, was important in such times when many contrived to overthrow their leader and take power for themselves. Nowadays, with combat nearly always taking place at a distance, physical strength is not seen as a component of heroism on the battlefield. Feats of incredible strength still impress us, as evidenced by weightlifting competitions, but few would regard a weightlifter as being a hero.

Although both stories both place great importance on a heroic leader inspiring loyalty in his men, the repercussions of disobeying your orders are only fully realised in the Odyssey. Although Odysseus nearly always gets his men to follow his orders, such as when he sends off a scouting party to inspect the house of Circe despite their wariness, they sometimes go behind his back and do things which frequently lead to trouble. An example of this is when Odysseus falls asleep while at sea, the men become suspicious of the sack he received as a gift from Aeolus Hurry, let's see what loot is in the sack, how much gold and silver. Break it open- now!5 The bag really contained storm winds, which blew Odysseus' ship back to the island of Aeolus. Disloyalty to your superiors is not seen as being inherently wrong in the modern era, hence the popularity of 'maverick cop' characters who break the rules in order to get the job done.

3 Le Morte D'Arthur, Book I, Chapter 6 4 The Odyssey, Book 21, line 456 5 The Odyssey, Book 10, lines 49-50

A contrasting feature of Homer and Malory's depiction of heroism, is the role compassion towards one's enemies plays. King Arthur unequivocally tells his knights how to behave: 'by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore6 This chivalric code of honour prevented needless killing and could have served to recruit former opponents to the King's side, after seeing the justice of those that served him. In direct opposition to this Odysseus rarely shows mercy to enemies, for instance after Odysseus has slaughtered most of the suitors, one of them clings to his knees and begs I hug your knees, Odysseus mercy! Spare my life! Never, I swear, did I harass any woman in your house never a word, a gesture nothing, no, I tried to restrain the suitors, whoever did such things.7 Odysseus takes no pity on this man and lops off his head. It appears that showing mercy was not a required trait of heroes in ancient Greek culture, perhaps it was not until the strong intermingling of Christianity and Kingship that the idea of being compassionate to your enemies became popular. The question of if we should always treat our enemies mercifully is still hotly contested today, as the debate over whether the enhanced interrogation of suspected terrorists, by methods such as waterboarding (which many view as torture8), is justified shows.

One integral aspect of Odysseus' character is his great capacity for cunning, which he requires at many points in the story. After being captured by a Cyclops, Odysseus manages to blind him and tells the monster that his name is Nobody, so that when the Cyclops' friends ask it what the trouble is, the Cyclops replies Nobody's killing me now by fraud and not by force!9 and they lumber off. Odysseus then helps his comrades escape unobserved by tying them to undersides of the Cyclops' herd of sheep. Later in the tale, Odysseus concocts an elaborate false story of his origins to deceive the swineherd Eumaeus. Later still, Odysseus returns to his house in the guise of beggar so
6 Le Morte D'Arthur, Book III, Chapter 15 7 The Odyssey, Book 22, lines 327-330 8 http://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local-beat/Mancow-Takes-on-Waterboarding-and-Loses.html 9 The Odyssey, Book 9, lines 454-455

as to evade the suspicions of the suitors and to test whether Penelope has remained true to him. In Le Morte D'Arthur the knights of the Round Table never resort to such subterfuge, preferring to take their enemies on directly and without guile. This fits in with their code of chivalry, which calls for an honest and fair approach to combat. Cleverness and trickery are as appealing to modern audiences as they were to the Greeks, which can make the exploits of King Arthur seem quite staid in comparison.

An interesting feature to note is that neither Odysseus or King Arthur are portrayed as being absolutely flawless in all of their actions. Odysseus is enchanted by the witch Circe and spends a year feasting on her island and seems quite complacent to continue, until his men take him aside and say Captain, this is madness! High time you thought of your own home at last10 and Odysseus decides to leave. King Arthur fathers Mordred through incest with his half-sister Morgause, an unholy act. Merlin tells Arthur that the one who will destroy him will have been born on a May-day, so Arthur calls for all the sons of noblemen born at this time, including Mordred, and sends them to sea on a boat. The boat is destroyed and only Mordred survives and later plots 'toward the end of the Death of Arthur'.11 The frequent references to the ultimate destruction of Arthur by his son tells us that Arthur is going to be punished for committing a travesty against God. The idea of a flawed hero is popular still as it helps us to identify with the character in question, as nearly everyone believe themselves to have some kind of fault. In modern culture, however, the idea of the flawed hero has been taken even further with the creation of the antihero. An antihero could still have ultimately noble aims but is ready to sink to using horrific levels of violence, perhaps even torture, to achieve their aims. A reasonably well-known example of an antihero is the comic book character The Punisher12, a man obsessed with taking extreme vengeance on criminals. The modern popularity of antiheroes may point to a widespread desire to see the real grittiness of

10 The Odyssey, Book 10, lines 520-521 11 Le Morte D'Arthur, Book I, Chapter 27 12 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punisher

conflict or an attitude that the ends justify the means or maybe they are just more entertaining than straight-laced heroes.