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Courage in the Face of Adversity in The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and The Winter’s Tale
From the substantial body of work that has been examined in-depth during the course, one particular theme that has arisen several times is that of ‘courage in the face of adversity’, such that major characters are confronted with tremendous hurdles that they are expected, and more often than not, do overcome them. Perhaps the most famous definition of courage is not as the absence of fear, but as the willingness to act in spite of it. From the literature, characters in these works demonstrate courage in their decision to work through their own fear towards whatever goal they’ve established for themselves. However, they might also occasionally stumble along their journey as their character flaws can impede them, especially given a set of difficult circumstances that challenge the protagonist physically and/or mentally. To a degree, these brief, but noteworthy moments throughout these narratives test the limits of these major figures and determine whether or not they’ll surpass their own expectations or fall short and succumb to their weaknesses. Odysseus and Gilgamesh are both heroes whom display courage in their clashes with various gods and monsters of myth. Paulina, on the other hand, conveys her own brand of courageousness in her gutsy retorts to Leontes after witnessing the queen hounded with accusations and insults. Coupled with this ongoing theme of courage in these narratives as a frame of reference, are its parallels in the real world where courage is exhibited by ordinary people.
Odysseus demonstrates courage in The Odyssey over the course of the narrative, but one of the most prominent was his descent into the Underworld to consult the dead prophet, Tiresias, and discover how to get home from that point on. A land not meant for the living, Odysseus and his crew bear witness to and are seized with terror when the spirits of the deceased gather around the blood of the sheep they sacrificed to call forth Tiresias from the grave: “The souls of the dead gathered, the ghosts/ Of brides and youths and worn-out old men… They drifted up to the pit from all sides/ With an eerie cry, and pale fear seized me.” (Book XI, lines 35-41) Despite his own obvious discomfort, and even more so to his astonishment at seeing those he knew personally, Odysseus does not cower or flee from the scene but instead holds his ground and assumes the responsibility as captain of his crew. As the spirits gather around them, Odysseus fends them off and commands them to form a line so that conversations with each of them could be had: “Myself, I drew up my sharp sword and sat, keeping the feeble death-heads from the blood/ Until I had questioned Tiresias” (Book XI, lines 45-47) This illustrates his courage and daring in ordering around a horde of listless ghosts. Here, Odysseus comes face-to-face with the shadow of death itself, which includes seeing his own mother among the spirits, and yet he does not flinch from it. Having experienced tremendous hardship withstanding the sight of old friends and family, now mere shades of their former selves, Odysseus collects his wits and remains focused on the task at hand, which for him means getting back home to his wife, son and kingdom. He has proven that fortune does indeed favor the bold when it comes to surviving one predicament after another. Similarly, the story of Odysseus and his courage could relate to ordinary people whom struggle to accept and move on from the death of a loved one but can muster up the courage to push through this adversity and carry on.
While Odysseus is coerced into his journey through both the actions of himself and his own crew, as well as at the whim of the fickle gods, Gilgamesh, on the contrary, pursues different avenues of danger wherever it is to be found, accompanied by his faithful companion, Enkidu. To Gilgamesh, these ‘hunts’ could be construed as attempts in testing his own strength against that of various monsters he stumbles upon along the way. A case can be made that courage does not necessarily entail being hurled into these conflicts against someone’s own free will and forced to participate in ongoing hostilities but facing up to conflict regardless of one’s personal discontent. One such example of Gilgamesh’s courage is when he defeats the beast, Humbaba, whom resides in the Cedar Forest and refuses to allow anyone to pass through: “My friend? Humbaba is guardian of the forest of cedars, / Finish him off for the kill, put him out of existence… Before Enlil [king of the gods] the foremost one hears of this!” (Tablet V, lines 65-69) To even summon the level of courage needed to face the beast is extraordinary in and of itself. Gilgamesh’ willingness to put himself in harm’s way so that the path through Cedar Forest will be open to all is but one tremendous act of courage noted in the epic among others. Gilgamesh’s style often involves throwing himself into these conflicts in order to demonstrate not just his brute strength, but his mental acuity in prevailing over hurdles as he comes across them. His partial divinity plays a significant role in how Gilgamesh is portrayed as a larger-than-life, carefree adrenaline junkie with the necessary strength to combat these monsters of myth. Despite his divinity, Gilgamesh is still subject to the same natural laws as everyone else and willingly puts himself in these situations, just so he can experience life at its fullest and show courage when confronted with fear. Similarly, if you take any soldier that enlists in whatever branch of the military, they are doing so with the awareness that they will be entangled in high-stakes conflicts far from home, with a high likelihood of being severely injured or even killed in action. Courage on the part of the troops for their tremendous sacrifices, putting themselves at risk for the greater good corresponds to Gilgamesh’s own expeditions and the slaughter of monsters for not only his sake, but for his people’s as well.
Building off of this idea, Paulina from The Winter’s Tale could be said to fit within this model of courage as willing to act in spite of fear as she puts herself in a life-or-death situation when she comes to the defense of Hermione after her husband, Leontes, falsely accuses and name-calls her in front of his court. Returning the favor, Paulina implies Leontes’ behavior borders on tyranny and that everyone in the room is thinking the same thing, even if she is the only one inclined to announce it: “I care not. It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you a tyrant; But this most cruel usage of your queen, Not able to produce more accusation Than you own weak-hinged fancy, something savours Of tyranny.” (2.3.112-115) Exceedingly courageous on her part, Paulina has a clear understanding of the predicament she has embroiled herself in. With the knowledge that Leontes had grown more deranged and unpredictable, Paulina nonetheless engages him and assumes the role as his opposition in pointing out that his ravings are unfounded and are signs of his increasingly paranoid and delusional conduct. She refutes his suspicions regarding his wife’s infidelity which only serve to exacerbate his already diminished state of mind, and withstands his escalating and overdramatic threats, which ironically only proves her point that Leontes is indeed spiraling out of control. Paulina’s type of courage can be characterized as selfless and aspirational, as it takes immense courage to stand up for what’s right, especially when Paulina is the only one doing so in this context. Any other member of the court would’ve quaked with fear in the presence of an angry, unhinged king. Yet, Paulina does not share this same sentiment, refusing to back down to Leontes even when she’s inches away from being put to death at his command.
In short, courage in the face of adversity is a fundamental idea that pervades these literary works, and which operates in the story by way of the thoughts and actions of the major figures, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, and Paulina. Their confrontations with fear inexplicably lead them to acting either in the interest of a common good, whether it be for themselves or for those around them; or perhaps there is no rhyme or reason to their courage, going beyond any inherent motivation which would mean these characters commit themselves to a course of action considered courageous because it is in their nature to do so. Regardless, courage in the midst of fear is a quality indicated and demonstrated by these major figures in their stories.
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