Tales of heroic deeds of ancient lore usually speak of legendary feats of strength and arms. The old epic narrative contains stories of heroes defeating beasts and men alike through sheer brute force in no less than fantastic circumstances. The heroic narrative likewise extols the virtue of raw power and courage to take on impossible challenges in order to eventually prevail thereafter. Heroes earn grave respect and admiration of their peers for each adventure won against all odds—that only their brawns have helped saved the day.
Thus, songs are sung in their honour to commemorate their feats. Perhaps this is to inspire the people to be always brave in the face danger and meet death with honor and headstrong determination. Yet there is another kind of monster that tests not only a hero’s physical mettle. It is even of the worst kind compared to slaying gigantic fiends or fighting a horde of barbaric invaders. That monster is a spectre—it has no name and it takes no form but it is able to whittle a man’s fortitude quite effectively.
Unless confronted with grit and strong willpower, any hero is susceptible to destruction and defeat, unawares, from such a powerful creature. Indeed, no hero or legendary figure can simply muscle their way to victory against such an enemy. In fact, the essential virtue required to win is not one of strength but of restraint; not one parried swords but battled with the mind and character. Such a monster or enemy is potent and violent precisely because it thrives within the hero himself. It is a struggle from the inside and it is fought and won through pure virtue and temperament.
On this point, the tales of Beowulf of the Germanic tribes and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight of the early Christian English period are concrete proof that heroes also fight monsters that are only and ultimately themselves. Accordingly, foremost in the discussion and explication of the thesis of the paper is to recount the specific instances where it was not strength that won the day but virtue; and vice-versa where the lack of virtue resulted to painful and even perhaps shameful defeat.
The objective is to underscore the fact that tribes and communities of the past also recognized the importance of the attributes of honor, decency and righteousness, and not just a one-sided and blind glorification of epic feats of strength. True enough, primarily a hero becomes who he is based on the number and extent of his grand exploits, and that more he has in his belt the more likely it is for him to be adored. However, it is equally true that without possessing the features of proper manners and attitude the hero becomes merely a swashbuckling yet wholly insignificant grunt or warmonger who will soon perish from inattention.
Lastly, it is also the main objective of this paper to draw the line that separates man from his evil self in order to highlight the notion of self-identity and consequently, resurface the idea that heroes or any man for that matter has for himself alone a formidable opponent. Beowulf and Sir Gawain are famous heroes whose tales have been immortalized in songs and epic tales. Although they are merely products of old traditional literature and of fictional tribal narratives, they represent the realities prevalent in early societies during the primeval eras wherein the tribal, in-group-out-group philosophy has naturally flourished.
Their characters and their stories reflect the ideals of the past which have developed since the beginning of early civilizations. These ideals put prime importance on certain heroic qualities which include might, skill and the ability to lead and inspire people. Of course, such qualities are practical must-haves for the hero figure inasmuch as it encourages the tribe or citizens to emulate valour and gallantry in the battlefield.
The heroic epic poetry that details exactly the accounts of the hero who has defeated a certain so and so not only provides entertainment but also allows the tribe to develop a strong sense of purpose when the tides of war rushes to its shores literally and figuratively. As a consequence, there is a deliberate attempt to exaggerate the stories to the point of incredulity with respect to the modern reader. The idea is that the greater the feats of the hero figure in text or in theory, the greater any tribe or society would appear to the outside world.
In other words, the creative and liberal embellishment as to the history of the hero figure has some very practical and useful benefits. The songs that are sung of these hero figures cultivate a kind of shared interest in the protection of the community which consequently goes does down to the very survival of such a community against invasion or at least expansion and growth in conquest. It is for these basic and simple reasons that epic poetry should contain at least a substantial list of achievement of the brawns for a hero.
Yet perhaps as society developed into complex social institutions different subtle manners have then started to permeate the socio-cultural niche. The result is that certain qualities and virtues aside from just the ability to wield a sword, ride a horse or to don a garment of metal and chains began to gain stasis and psychological influence among the group. Thus, the ability to speak eloquently, to exhibit grace and gentility no matter the situation and to address the pressing issues with such manner, sensitivity and imminence that truly befit an honourable warrior and knight became essential qualities to a hero figure.