"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Where are the Heroes?

March 18th, 2015 by

Many years ago, as a new graduate student, I enrolled in a Milton seminar. Our focus for the entire course was to be Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. Fewer and fewer English departments are requiring that students read this work these days. It is difficult. It was written by a Puritan. And it is about worlds that have vanished (the world that loved epics, England following its Civil War, and, well, Paradise, of course).

Paradise Lost has all of the creaking, obscure conventions of ancient epics, including the invoking of the muses at the start. Early in the term, Dr. Brown, our teacher, set out for us another of the great epic conventions, with the question that has haunted readers of Milton for nearly four hundred years: Who is the hero of Paradise Lost?

If, as our teacher noted, ancient epics traditionally featured a hero who achieved greatness and represented the values and ideals of the culture in which it was written, then who would that be in Paradise Lost? In a poem about humanity’s fall from paradise, who emerged with the pagan grandeur and stature of an Achilles or Beowulf?

Many of the romantic poets–Shelley, Lord Byron among them, probably more familiar with Greek mythology than many of us are today–thought Milton’s hero was Satan. And in Satan’s first speech, he seems one possible candidate. But this is only at the start, before we learn that his many “transformations” leave him squating as a toad at the end of this poem. After that, any epic stature he seems to have achieved earlier–for example, when he rises from the floor of hell to his new purpose–I have to take with a grain of salt. At the same time, I admit that on my second reading I was still looking around the poem for someone of epic stature, a Christian Achilles or even a Hector. But I was stumped: one simply wasn’t forthcoming.

In the Comics
By the end of the semester, we had engaged in a number of other complexities, certainly, including Milton’s sexism, his views of science, and the possibility of a “fortunate fall.” And I had begun to have new thoughts about the epic hero, especially with Dr. Brown’s casual references to the brooding egotists of the pagan epics. Achilles, for example, stays in his tent for much of Homer’s Iliad brooding because Agamemnon took the slave girl he wanted for himself while his countrymen are routed. And then there is Beowulf, who sits bored studying the monster as his tribesmen are slaughtered. Or consider Odysseus, a cunning liar.

Dr. Brown spelled out his impression that these were brooding egotists, adolescent types at best. I began to consider it possible that today’s epic heroes would be found among the comic books and WWE. But like all good teachers, Dr. Brown did not give us a final answer to the question of Milton’s epic hero. What he did offer was the following supposition: as Milton rendered his sweeping vision of the new world set out between Heaven and Hell, could his hero in fact be anyone, even nameless people, who stood with faith against despair and the rising tide of evil brought on by egotistical, demonic figures that appealed to the lowest and vainest in human beings?

I had to think about this. Was standing for what was good heroic? My first thought was of Achilles’ friend Patroclus, who wears Achilles’ armor to try to fight off and scare the Trojans into submission. Was this really our only choice? What of a real hero?

What of the Americans?
The longer I’ve thought about these suggestions, the more they have seemed at least helpful, and not only in a literature course, but helpful in life.

Today, there is much talk in the world about the need for heroes. Certainly, this talk suggests to me that we fear the villains, always in rich supply. We seem to fear that there is great evil among us, and our values are in danger of disappearing. When I was growing up, the devil was found in communism; then, with the breakup of the USSR, evil became personified in rogue fanatics like the Ayatollah Khomeini or tyrants like Libya’s Gaddafi or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Then it was Osama bin Laden. We seem to readily identify our devils. But our heroes?

It is as though there is much fatigue today with a world of gray, where we live too much of our existence in pursuit of needed material gain and not really tied to a greater purpose. I’ve heard some argue that this talk of heroes suggests that we are seeing the waning influence of Christianity on Western culture. And honestly, I’m not so sure about our heroes, who are often held up to media scrutiny and then fall from grace in some way. Who are they, and how should we think about them? Does Christianity supply us with a way of identifying them? If we think too much about this, will we realize that we are mistaken in our American views of character, success, prosperity, and greatness?

Certainly, a great Puritan poet like Milton would think so. He seems to be pointing in another direction.

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