aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

The heroic life

It was from J.R.R. Tolkien's lecture, "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics," that I made acquaintance with the roots of the medieval outlook. Tolkien pointed to a fusion of cultures, starting by AD 500, certainly in full swing by the 700s, the time he gave for the composition of Beowulf. When the peoples of Northern Europe accepted Christianity, the Germanic warrior code was brought into contact with the Christianized morés of Mediterranean civilization.

The union of the two brought forth as its progeny the knight. Warriors were no more to fight merely for themselves, but to protect others. Why one fought was to be as important as how well one fought. An ideal of personal containment, of restraint, was especially admired in those who were necessarily capable of great violence. The whole long line of knight-errants, from Beowulf to Galahad to Nathan Hale to John Wayne, fueled the imaginations of our people.

Nowadays, the knight is considered passé. We go more for the ironic and the anti-hero in our movies and books. Likewise, warriors -- especially the individual defending the community -- are less attractive to our cultural elites than politicians -- the organizer, the lawyer, the leader of a movement. And I think many of the arguments I hear over the place of the military in our society and over Second Amendment issues as well are colored by our loss of the knight as an accepted and understood figure in our cultural code.

Still, for some folks, the knight remains a potent symbol. And in our democratic society, he need not be a role model merely for aristocrats. Everyone can aspire to the heroic life. As the membership vows in The UMC now ask as part of the renunciation of sin and profession of faith expected of every new member, "Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?" Some will see in that a promise to belong to the right movements, agitate for the right outcomes in social controversies, and mouth the correct platitudes; meanwhile, others will see in that a promise to stand in the path of the monsters, even if you are yourself overcome -- because it's the right thing to do, and others need your strength.

Heroism is not swagger. It is not resorting to violence first. It is not trying to get others to do it your way. It is not playing to the crowd. Heroism is offering oneself as an obstacle over which evil must ride in order to fulfill its purposes. And evil, which is often as cowardly as it is strong, will sometimes blink first -- sometimes, without your actually having to resort to conflict at all; nevertheless, heroism is not bluff, and you must actually be ready for the conflict.

I find both the jingoism of some on the right and the collectivist conformity of most on the left to be distasteful. It may be out of fashion, but I prefer an older model for personal and political action. Hwæt!

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