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Two Classic Heroes of Literature, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1191

Essay

Introduction

It seems the word “hero” has taken on interesting qualities over the centuries, and some very much not in keeping with the actual exploits of the classic heroes of ancient literature.  The modern idea of the term typically encompasses nobility of soul and character; a hero, people tend to think, is one whose sense of virtue is so powerful, facing great danger for the sake of others is not a question.  This renders the actual evolution of the term interesting, because it largely derives from concepts of ancient tales with little regard to the circumstances of the “heroic” exploits they relate.  This dichotomy between conception and reality is best examined through two of the most legendary heroes of all ancient literature.  More agreeable interpretations aside, the reality is that Gilgamesh and Ulysses, while demonstrating some of the classic attributes of the epic hero, reveal far more in the way of human weakness than of real greatness.

Discussion: Gilgamesh and Ulysses

If anything unites Gilgamesh and Ulysses as characters who merit the title of “hero,” it is that both move through their worlds in a larger-than-life way.  Each, it is made clear, is a vastly powerful man physically, gifted with great strength and skill, as each occupies landscapes wherein gods and demons are ordinary elements.  Both men are, as well, revered by the men around them, presumably because of their physical power and daring alone.  This likely accounts for the semi-divine birth attributed to each, as no more mortal man could be believed to be so magnificent.  The Epic of Gilgamesh, the more ancient of the texts, more particularly blurs the line between god and man, and in something of a tribal or primitive way: “Like a wild bull he makes himself mighty…There is no rival who can raise his weapon against him” (Gilgamesh  I).

From the beginning of the story, then, it is understood that sheer force elevates Gilgamesh into heroic stature.

At the same time, it is also made clear that there is a fierce brutality in Gilgamesh; ruler of his people, he ravages the women and takes whatever he pleases, and only the creation of a “friend” for him by the gods can soften this cruelty.  Here, then, Gilgamesh is both completely anti-heroic, yet redeemable by virtue of a core of humanity.  He does become attached to Enkidu in a way that reveals feeling and caring: “Taking each other by the hand, Gilgamesh and Enkidu walked to the Egalmah”  (III).  The bond between the two, in fact, is beyond love, for it seems that Enkidu defines life itself for Gilgamesh.  This is established in Tablet VIII, as Gilgamesh is unable to contain his grief over Enkidu’s death.  He calls upon every living thing and the landscape of Earth itself to join in his mourning. Nonetheless, the self-centered creature he is surfaces as well, for this loss inspires Gilgamesh to avoid a similar fate:  “My friend whom I love has turned to clay…Am I not like him? Will I lie down, never to get up again?” (X).  What the reader is eventually left with is a “hero” who is more coerced into the role than born to it.  The gods, speaking through Utanapishtim, intervene once again and command him to be the savior of life before flood destroys the land:  “Make all living beings go up into the boat, the boat which you are to build”  (XI).  If Gilgamesh is “heroic,” it centers chiefly on the fact that his inclination to do anything at all is exploited by the powers above him.

This same attraction to grandiose action for its own sake seems to define the heroism of Ulysses, if to a lesser extent.  Ulysses is a king, first of all, and a kingly sense of entitlement marks most of his adventures in The Odyssey.  There is a duality of background providing a distinctly more human foundation to the character, in that it is made clear Ulysses both longs to return to his wife, and that he is very much at the mercy of the gods.  This humanity is also presented in an ambiguous way, in terms of heroism, when Euryalus mocks Ulysses and triggers his masculine need to defend his own stature: “I am worn out by labour and sorrow, for I have gone through much…in spite of all this I will compete, for your taunts have stung me to the quick” (Homer VIII).  Here, the classic hero is strangely fallible; Ulysses goes on at length to indicate how well he understands the snide character of Euryalus, but he is still unable to turn away from the challenge.  At the same time, and in defense of his heroic standing, it must be  remembered that, as a leader and king, Ulysses has a persona to uphold.

In other parts of the tale, however, there is more human weakness than hero to Ulysses, even if he still conducts himself forcefully in a variety of episodes.  In relating his adventures to King Alcinous, for example, Ulysses presents a picture of heroism unequivocally based on military achievement, and somewhat mercilessly so.  He is pragmatic about his first journey, when he and his men reached Ismarus: “I sacked the town and put the people to the sword.  We took their wives and also much booty” (IX).   As with Gilgamesh, this is not heroism in any modern sense, but of a kind defined by conquest alone.  Ulysses does demonstrate cunning and, as he commands a large number of men, it appears that this is a desperately needed quality.  Trapped by the Cyclops, it is Ulysses who conceives of the plan of clutching unto the bellies of the monster’s sheep, to be safely let out of the cave.  There is the impression that his men’s welfare is important to him, and there is heroism in this.  Nonetheless, the following encounter with Circe belies any nobility of nature.  Even assisted by the gods in thwarting the witch, Ulysses’ victory over her takes the hedonistic form of lingering: “We stayed with Circe for a whole twelvemonth feasting upon an untold quantity both of meat and wine” (X).  Ultimately, this choice alone renders his grief over his separation from Penelope somewhat questionable.  While it may be that a normal man would easily give into such temptations, a hero should be above such things, as his concern for getting his men safely home should also eclipse such desires.

Conclusion

It is ordinary to assume that the heroes of ancient literature reflect qualities that have endured as representing real heroism.  The reality seems to be different, for an examination of classic heroes in literature reveals much more weakness and selfishness than goodness or nobility.  These “heroes” are strong, and they have a massive impact on their respective worlds, but heroic action, which is action performed for the good of others, is sparse at best. Gilgamesh and Ulysses, while demonstrating a few of the classic attributes of the epic hero, act far more for self-serving purposes than as expressions of real, selfless greatness.

Works Cited

Epic of Gilgamesh.  Ancient Texts.  2012.  Web.  Retrieved from http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/

Homer.  The Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler.  The Internet Classics Archive. 2012.  Web.   Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.html

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