Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Heroic Code or Humble Christ?

I recently read Mark Edmundson's Why Read?

I don't agree with everything that he says -- such as his view that great writing can fill the absence left by the departure of religion -- but Edmundson has many good insights into the reading and teaching of great literature.

I'm particularly indebted to him for citing (p. 70) a passage from C. M. Bowra on the heroic outlook of the Greeks:

"The essence of the heroic outlook is the pursuit of honour through action. The great man is he who, being endowed with superior qualities of body and mind, uses them to the utmost and wins the applause of his fellows because he spares no effort and shirks no risk in his desire to make the most of his gifts and to surpass other men in his exercise of them. His honour is the centre of his being, and any affront to it calls for immediate amends. He courts danger gladly because it gives him the best opportunity of showing of what stuff he is made. Such a conviction and its system of behaviour are built on a man’s conception of himself and of what he owes to it, and if it has any further sanctions, they are to be found in what other men like himself think of him. By prowess and renown he gains an enlarged sense of personality and well-being; through them he has a second existence on the lips of men, which assures him that he has not failed in what matters most. Fame is the reward of honour, and the hero seeks it before everything else."

Edmundson borrows this passage from Bowra's The Greek Experience (New York: Praeger, 1957), apparently from pages 20-21, if I can trust the online citation that I tracked down.

After citing Bowra, Edmundson briefly contrasts this heroic code with the Christian one:

"Jesus' originality lies partly in his attempt to supersede admiration for the ambition and self-vaunting of Homer's heroes -- an admiration very much alive in the Roman empire Jesus is born into" (p. 72).

Edmundson's point is that the Christian's belief "in doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, in turning the other cheek" (pp. 71-72), along with the "Christian aspirations to modesty and grace" (p. 73), do not fit very well with the pagan values that we've also inherited in the West.

I find this interesting because I deal with the the two codes -- the heroic and the Christian -- in teaching Medieval and Renaissance English literature. Read The Hymn of the Rood and see one of the early attempts in Anglo-Saxon literature to bring the two codes together. Here's Charles W. Kennedy's translation (Cambridge, Ontario: In Parentheses Publications, 2000) of a central passage in which the rood, i.e., the cross, describes a heroic Christ:

"The Hero young -- He was Almighty God -- did off His raimant, steadfast, stout of heart. With valour, in the sight of many men, He mounted up upon the lofty gallows, when He would fain redeem mankind. I trembled when the Hero clasped me. Yet dared I not incline unto the ground, nor fall upon the face of earth, but I must needs stand firm" (p. 3).

This presents Christ as hero and the cross as Christ's loyal thane. As my cyber-friend Ed Tyler once noted on a Johannine Literature listerve (Yahoo! Groups):

"The Anglo-Saxon poem "Dream of the Rood" pictures Christ at the Passion as a Teutonic warrior (rinc) who mounts the cross with the same verb (astigan) with which a warrior mounts his steed or a boards his ship."

One of my Korea University students, Sun Bok Bae, attempted in an assignment to explain how this Anglo-Saxon image of the heroic Warrior Christ can fit the New Testament image:

"If this is an odd, awkward image of Christ, then is it contradictory to the Bible? I am trying to prove that it is not so. There is not only the image of [a] weak, tender, and peaceful Christ but also the image of [a] willing, determined, and warrior-like Christ in the Bible. First, there is possibility that the authors of these texts are overlapping the image of [a] second-coming Christ in the Book of Revelation with the image of Christ of the four Gospels because this second-coming Christ has always been believed to be the same Christ who first came in the four Gospels. Then, it is less strange that we give the crucified Christ the images of the texts we've been looking at.'

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.' [Revelation 19:11]

Here, 'a rider who is called Faithful, and True' reminds us of the image of a knight as in Ancrene Riwle.'

With justice he judges and makes war . . . . Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.' [Revelation 19:11, 15]

Here, I think there is no problem to overlap this image of making war, using sword, expressing the fury of the wrath, and so on with the image of Beowulf who boldly fights with terrible monsters. Further, in the Book of Revelation, Christ is expressed as[:]

'the Lion of the tribe of Judah.' [Revelation 5:5]

As we know, the image of Lion is very valiant, violent, aggressive, and strong, so we have no problem to match this image with the images we have discussed in The Dream of the Rood, Beowulf, and Ancrene Riwle, such as the images of a knight and warrior who fights."

I had directed this student, Bae, to The Book of Revelation for passages presenting a warlike Christ, but he went me one better in noting a passage that already in the New Testament presents the crucified Christ in heroic terms:

"[T]he [Medieval] authors may know a victor's image of Christ on the cross. Traditionally, in Christian culture, from the age of Apostles on, the death of Christ on the cross was regarded as a victory. Let’s look at Colossians, which was written by the Apostle Paul:

'He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.' [Colossians 2.13-15]

Here, [the] Apostle Paul expresses the death of Christ on the cross as a triumph. Traditionally, the powers and authorities are interpreted as evil powers. Christ was not passively attacked on the cross. It was . . . [a] real battle, and he was waging an invisible battle with evil powers on the cross. John Stott, a famous English theologian, says that the image of Christ on the cross shows the picture that Christ is being attacked and besieged by dark power[s], but he is disarming them. [The Cross of Christ (InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 232-233] This view about the death of Christ on the cross is dominant throughout the New Testament and was broadly accepted by early churches. This reminds me of the scene [where] Beowulf and the dragon fight . . . together. I think this view about the death of Christ on the cross can be well applied to the images of Christ in The Dream of the Rood, Beowulf, and Ancrene Riwle."

I think that Bae is right. Paul does present Christ here in the heroic guise of a warrior who disarms his foes and thereby triumphs over them. Even if Paul did elsewhere seem to glory in the humiliation of the cross, which he acknowledged was "a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23), his words in Colossians 2.13-15 imply a need to present Christ's actions in undergoing crucifixion as consistent with a conquering role that people would expect of a great hero.

A great civilization survives through its ability to impart meaning to everyday life, to produce wealth that can undergird cultural achievements, and to motivate its members to defend it from attack. The West, with its Christian and Classical heritage, has always had to deal with the tension between a clearly pagan ethos of the heroic achievement against an enemy and the clearly taught Christian ethic of love for the enemy. From the interaction of these two value systems came the rules of Chivalry and, ultimately, the guidelines of Just War theory.

The tension also, I think, lies behind the West's ambivalence about war, its critical self-reflection, its deeply divided soul.


At 12:31 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Great post -- thanks.

I don't want to get too stupid about this, and I don't want to reveal my embarrassingly geeky tendencies, though they seem to push through despite my best attempts at self-government. . . but your description of the tension between "the pagan ethos of heroic achievement against the enemy" and the "Christian ethic of love for the enemy" reminded me of Tolkien, as that very tension seems to be one of the themes that gets explored in The Lord of the Rings.

Or am I way off base here?

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Not far off base, I'd say.

Recall Frodo's pity for Gollum, his enemy. He doesn't kill Gollum when he has the opportunity even though he knows that Gollum probably would kill if given the same chance.

But Tolkien is intentionally writing a pre-Christian pagan epic, so he can provide only obscure hints at the Christian ethic.

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Tom Shippey (in his book Tolkien: Author of the Century) makes the same point you do, Kate Marie. Shippey cites the oft-quoted passage in which the 8th-century abbot and teacher Alcuin claims that the old heroic paganism can't coexist with Christianity: "For what has Ingeld to do with Christ? The house is narrow; it cannot contain them both."

Shippey goes on to say:

"The whole poem Beowulf, it could be said, is a mediation between contradictory opinions, with strong similarities to The Lord of the Rings. Both works were written by believing Christians, but neither mentions anything specific to their belief; The Lord of the Rings goes further in all but eliminating references to any form of religion at all." (That's from page 183 of the hardcover edition.)

Shippey is referring specifically to how these literary works deal with (or don't deal with) the afterlife, but I think his example and HJH's Frodo example are probably just two of many. Tolkien spent so much time immersed in (and admiring) the Anglo-Saxon mindset, with its back-and-forth between heroic paganism and Christianity, so it's only natural for that mindset to have shown up in his fiction. In my opinion, Tolkien readers who notice it understand quite a bit more about The Lord of the Rings than those who don't.

At 6:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I can't claim any special insight, for I've gleaned my ideas from chance readings of various online articles and blogs. Here are the most important:




There must be a better way to do links, but I don't yet know how.

My excuse: All the instructions on my computer are in Korean, and I'd have to constantly plague my wife to translate them for me if I wanted to do more . . . so I don't.

By the way, I've published an article on "Beowulf as Antetype of Christ" in a Korean journal, in case anyone's interested.

At 6:28 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Thanks, Jeff! I have read the Shippey book, and I'd forgotten, or only vaguely remembered, the section you refer to.

I was probably thinking most specifically of The Two Towers when I mentioned seeing this tension in Tolkien, because I think it appears there structurally as well as thematically, in that the plot line with Aragorn, Gandalf, Theoden, etc. is concerned with rousing people to heroic action, and the plot line with Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Faramir, etc. is concerned with refraining from action (sparing Gollum out of pity, Faramir's refusal to take the ring as a kind of proto-Christian abdication of power). Anyway, thanks for reminding me about Shippey.

Jeffery, of course you're right that Tolkien is writing a pre-Christian epic, though I might quibble about just how obscure the hints of a Christian ethic need to be. Thanks for the links to the articles. I'll enjoy reading them.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Paul M. Kingery said...

Thanks for your thoughts Jeff. I look forward to following your blog. I suggest a little heroic thought and action of our own would do more than reading all the fine books in the world, but here's one more to read. Take a look at
and let me know your thoughts.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Paul, you're probably right about more heroic action in the world. Right now, I'm heroically preparing for the soon up-coming semester.

If I can find some extra time, I'll try to look at your book.

Jeffery Hodges

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