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Evolution of the Modern Heroic Archetype

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The evolution of the tragic heroic archetype in post-roman literature can be traced from one of the most well known of medieval heroes, King Arthur of Camelot, to such fictional creations as Aragorn, from Tolkien’s twentieth century masterwork The Lord of the Rings. The definition of a tragic hero is generally accepted as pertaining to characters who are morally good, but who contain a ‘tragic’ flaw that is responsible for their defeat. Taken from the Aristotelian definitions which define good tragedy on a classical Greek scale, these general terms are easily applied to the Arthurian myths and their modern heirs.

The question of whether or not Arthur was a real person in Britain’s stormy history must be addressed prior to assessing the validity of his status as a tragic hero. While it does not affect the presentation of the myths and the points in them which pertain to this analyses, it is a controversy which includes the very nature of the myths themselves, streamlining them into either exaggerated supernatural versions of real events, or the mythos of a legendary pagan god-king. Several points as presented in classical Arthurian mythology are debatable in the simplest of manners – temporal possibility. The traditional “knight in shining armor” that is presented as the model for both Arthur and his knights of the round table, was not present in the world until well into what are now known as the middle ages.

The use of splint, chain, and especially plate mail did not come into common use until the eleventh and twelfth century, and plate mail was cumbersome and awkward for knights in the saddle until developments in design and construction allowed for greater dexterity and range of motion in the mid fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. While assorted forms of chain mail and leather armor had been in use since the period of classical Greece, these forms of armor did not reach Britain until the mid-twelfth century; Roman legionnaires wore splint and chain mail armor, but it was a mark of the Empire and was refused by the native Britons despite the advantages it offered in combat.

Historians have localized the possible time periods in which Arthur could have lived, based on historical records from medieval times, as well as the earliest known references to Arthur’s mythology. If Arthur lived, it was most likely between the fourth and sixth centuries, as the King of a tribe or group of tribes of Britons, half a millennium from the time of the knight in armor. While the possibility of the romanticizing of medieval scholars provides impetus that disregards such impossibilities, it has been the gradual conclusion of most historians that no such person with a life of such apparent importance in local British history ever existed.

It is at the point of determining that Arthur is indeed a purely mythological figure where the evolution of an entire mythos can be said to begin. Tales of the sword Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake, Morgan Le Fay, Merlin, and the isle of Avalon abound in classical and modern works, reinterpreted, renamed, and presented in every fictional format from televised series to bedtime storybooks. But all of them wind inextricably around one man. From his mythology, Arthur appears to be the most perfectly chivalrous of knights, able to win both the love of the shy Guinevere and any military battle, no matter how difficult. Indeed, Arthur represents all that was considered good and noble in any gentleman of the era in which his myths first began to become standard fictional material, through the scholarly interest and writings of Sir Thomas Malory. He was an English nobleman with a slightly stained reputation, but excellent skills in compilation and revision, as evidenced by his Le Morte D’Arthur, perhaps the most celebrated of classical Arthurian works. Finished in the ninth year of King Edward IV (therefore between March 4th of 1469 and 1470), Le Morte D’Arthur chronicles the events of Arthur’s life, from the union of his parents due to the magical trickery of Merlin, through his claiming of the throne of England, and ending with his confrontation with Sir Tristram, who bore a shield detailing the affair between Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, and Lancelot, his most trusted knight. As a work of literature, the book is sadly lacking, having been compiled and edited rather roughly by one Caxton, within ten or so years of Thomas Malory’s death. The chronicle remains, however, one of the most complete and chronologically ordered works concerning the life of King Arthur, as well as certain adventures and misadventures of his knights.

Those qualities thought to be most exemplary in a truly chivalrous knight of the fifteenth century are generally known, and specifically documented. Piety, chastity, courtesy, and generosity are all listed as major requirements of chivalry, and it is important to note that the first of these plays perhaps the most important role, in conjunction with the second. Based around the ideals of a perfect Christian morality, the concepts of piety and chastity go hand in hand. Piety refers not only to attendance at church, but to an utmost devotion of self and soul to the perpetuation of the Christian cause. Chastity, as defined in the fifteenth century was not restricted to sexuality, but also concerned personality. It denoted a chasteness of thought and action that goes beyond explicit sexual conduct and contrived courtly games of seduction and innocence that force natural human desires into complicated linguistic travails.

It is Arthur’s embodiment of these characteristics which seem make him the perfect fodder for the hero mill, and yet while he has been presented as a noble and great King, one must take into account both his origins, and several accounts of his actions during life which contradict the chivalry with which he is gifted by popular account. Most tales agree that Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, who was the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, a mortal enemy of Uther, who claimed Kingship of all England.

The sorcery of Merlin allowed Uther to sleep with Igraine in the guise of her husband for a single night, during which Arthur was conceived; three hours before his conception, the Duke of Cornwall died on the battlefield, and it was later concluded by Merlin that his death previous to the sexual act that was responsible for Arthur’s life meant that he could be considered a legitimate child of the then deceased Uther Pendragon. Whether or not Arthur was legally the legitimate son of Uther, it is quite obvious from the story that his origins are far from pure, and the culture of the time considered bastardy to be a fault of the child, rather than the parents. Later in his life, a crowned King and survivor of his first war, in which he demonstrated admirable efficacy of strategy and feats of arms, (as befits a legendary hero) it is discovered that Arthur has fathered Mordred, a son by his half sister, Morgan Le Fey.

The mythology differs as to the woman, whether she was actually the evil queen who was Arthur’s bane, or another woman who was his half sister, but it is an accepted part of the mythology that Arthur’s son was conceived with his half-sister. It is this action that constitutes Arthur’s ‘tragic flaw’, though he is unaware of his relationship to the woman at the time of the act. It is later, by Mordred’s sword, that he is either slain or sent to the mystical isle of Avalon to await the time of Britain’s greatest need, when he will be called up from the Otherworld and sent back to protect the land. It is the fact of his death (or disappearance) by Mordred’s hand which counts most importantly towards the analysis – the tragic flaw must be responsible for the destruction of the hero, and Mordred is most directly responsible for Arthur’s destruction. Even if it is considers lustfulness to be his tragic flaw, it is Morgan Le Fey, working through Mordred, who plans the battle which defeats the great king, and the same conclusion is reached. Arthur is thus securely defined as a tragic hero: mythological, containing those virtues which support moral goodness, and possessed of a tragic flaw he is unaware of, which causes his ultimate destruction. The question remains, however, of how a single mythos could inspire an evolution of an entire archetype that permeates modern western literature.

The answer may be found in the simplicity of the myths themselves, however complex the ideas they present may be upon analysis. In their most honest and open form, they are stories of adventure and romance, based upon courtly ideals amongst valiant men who vie for the favor of a beautiful woman. There are of course tales of defeat and sorrow woven in amongst the more heroically traditional, but the stories of Arthur are a saga more complete than those of Homer, though without the flowing grace of epic poetry. A saga requires defeat and sorrow in order to make victory and joy more poignant and meaningful, because it gives the characters a depth of life which is missing in shorter myths that do not encompass the entirety of a heroe’s life.

The latest evolution of the Arthurian myth appears in the twentieth century, far past the time of the knight-errant, but in the dawn of a new form of fiction writing that expands into a mythical and mystical world that is completely dependent on the creative capabilities of the author: fantasy writing. In the same way that Jules Verne pioneered science fiction in a time before it was a popular style of writing in the literary community, J.R.R. Tolkien pioneered fantasy writing. A British bred author, it is not surprising that he would turn to British mythology for a source of inspiration, and as is noted by his critics, Tolkien’s linguistic feats and astonishing detail in planning the world of Middle Earth is due partially to the rich cultural and traditional history of his homeland. As one of the most prominent of British myths, Arthur has an obvious appeal for any fantasy-inclined western authors, but it is the character of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings that appeals most directly both to the figure of King Arthur and to the heroic archetype that he spawned.

The proofs that apply to Arthur are not as difficult to apply to his fantastical doppelganger. Aragorn is a fictional character, and therefore obviously “mythical” in the most basic sense of the word. His virtue is displayed multifariously by selfless abandon in the face of danger, ultimate devotion to an ultimately unforgiving quest, and devotion to a love that is defied by socially and culturally structured boundaries. It is the idea of the tragic flaw that seems most difficult to pin on Aragorn, and it is in this area that the discrepency between Arthur the tragic hero and Aragorn, the tragic hero, is most plainly seen. Arthur’s flaw destroys him in a physical manner, causing his death and, following his death, the destruction of the values which he had fought for.

At the end of The Lord of the Rings however, we see in the Appendices that Aragorn has not only won the battle against the evil Sauron and aided Frodo in accomplishing his quest to destroy an artifact of great evil. He has reclaimed a kingship vacant for generations and won the hand of his elven princess, the bond of true love proving stronger than social or cultural restraints. He fathers sons, who are sure to carry on his dynasty and assure the stability and positive rule of the kingdom. It is apparent that he is not destroyed by any sort of flaw; rather, exercising a power of his ancestors, he chooses to end his own life in quiet sleep in a comfortable old age rather than slip slowly into a degenerate senility.

In a very real way, the triumph of the evolution of the tragic hero is the ability of the hero to evade destruction by recognizing and overcoming the tragic flaw. In this manner, Aragorn’s tragic flaw is his very humanity, the fact that he carries the blood of Isildur, the man that succumbed to the lure of the ring that Aragorn fought to destory, in his veins. The aspect of penance is also apparent in this updated version of a tragic hero; rather than be destroyed, Aragorn toils for long years in order to make right the arrogant mistake of his ancestor, seeking to clean his blood of the taint of evil power. The moment when Aragorn consciously chooses to leave the ring of power in Frodo’s care, against what might seem like good sense and all vestige of hope, is most important. It is Aragorn’s recognition of his own frailty as a human that allows him to overcome the aspiration to inhuman greatness that destroyed his ancestor.

The evolution of the tragic hero shows an important quality in mythological literature that seems out of sync with the idea of mythology as an unchanging tradition, against which the new can be measured. While it remains true that the tragic hero faces a mortal flaw, it is a flaw which is recognized by the character, something they may successfully overcome rather than an overweening disturbance of basic moral character which makes disaster ultimately inevitable. The fine line between moral humanity and moral perfection which a hero walks upon must be trod even more carefully than in ancient days, due both to a more complicated set of social proscriptions and to a sense that the myths of humanity must evolve as humanity evolves. The insurmountable obstacles of the past have been overcome by the twin tides of human ingenuity and sheer stubbornness, and it is these two traits, more than any other virtue, which endure as the defining, evolution-defying characteristics of the tragic hero.

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