Most of the heroes of legend actually existed, but not as they appear in the stories written about them. It's likely Arthur Pendragon was a minor Welsh chieftain partly responsible for ousting the Romans, not the king of a united Britain with his own personal wizard. Robin of Lockesly probably rebelled against Norman rule on behalf of the native Saxons, but he was hardly the stave-swinging, arrow-splitting jovial bandit of popular myth. And the French warrior Roland did ride with Charlemagne, but most likely didn't kill armored soldiers with the haft of his spear when his sword was broken.
And there are dozens more, many less-well-known but no less heroic, whose exploits grew until only the most superlative language sufficed to explain and record them. Heroes like the Cid, who led his Spaniards to drive out the usurping Moors; or Sigurd, who outwitted dragons and killed werewolves to keep his magic ring of invisibility; or Pwyll, who eventually became friends with Arawn, Lord of the Underworld, after the two traded places for a year and a day. Or Sir Gawain, or Cu Chulainn, or Egil Skallagrimsson, or Beowulf, or Vainamoinen.
If these heroes were so great, you may say, why do their deeds need to be blown out of all proportion? can't we just remember what they actually did, and honor them for that? Which is what modern literature does all the time, one might add—it demystifies our heroes, so that we do admire some things about them while also being (at times, painfully) aware of their shortcomings and failures. This democratization of heroes is at least partly due to a general abandonment of standards, and partly to a desire to keep everyone average and "relatable" (whatever that means).
Past ages understood far better the need for heroes that are smarter, stronger and more virtuous than the rest of us. If we just followed each others' examples we'd end up with each others' flaws and weaknesses, which is pretty much what has happened in our average society with its average heroes (or worse, its anti-heroes). With actual heroes to follow, there is a standard to progress toward, examples to inspire and guide us along a genuinely noble path even in our prosaic and ignoble world.
The word romance conjures images of smooching sweethearts and garden trysts, but it was initially used to describe the recorded stories about these legendary heroes—their quests, battles, suffering and love affairs. It referred to the Romance languages, particularly French, in which most of them were written, though its application is broader and includes the stories themselves. Fortunately many of them have survived and exist now in English translation that nevertheless manages to capture the glory, terror, violence and beauty of the original texts. While many opt for moralistic tales that blatantly show readers the best approach to any situation, we prefer these visceral tales that rather demonstrate right and wrong through the behavior of heroes both real and imagined.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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