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Martial Valor from Beowulf to Vietnam
By Alfredo Bonadeo
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Alfredo Bonadeo
All right reserved.
Born at the dawn of the modern age, Beowulf is aptly defined heroic history. Its protagonist covets valor as a means to prove and establish his reputation as a hero, a reputation that in his warrior society transcends all other values. In this society heroism governs the life of men and commonwealths.
Young, strong and brash, Beowulf travels to Heorot for the ostensible purpose to free it from the ravages of the monster Grendel and his mother. But the true reason is something else. He is known as "the man whose name was known for courage" (340), and when he fights he is for real. He shows little interest in the tragedy of Heorot and in the hopes of the Danish people, the liberation from the evil of Grendel and the re-establishment of the norm of life. Beowulf even shows contempt for the Danish warriors and tells them that the monster "can trample down you Danes / to his heart's content, humiliate and murder / without fear of reprisal" (599-601). Beowulf is in Heorot to fight to display his bravery. His heroism is known by his contemporaries, but not as much as he would like it to be. The monsters in Heorot give him the chance to reassert and reinforce his fame.
He places considerable value on his coming fights with Grendel and his mother; they will be the crowning achievement of his star studded career as a hero. To make sure that his valor will shine, he decides to fight the monster without any weapon, hand to hand. And just before the fight he confirms his intention to boast his reputation: "I prove myself with a proud deed" (637). When Beowulf will take on Grendel's mother, he tells Hrothgar that the fight will be another occasion for displaying his valor and achieving glory. Life is short and there is no time to lose: "For every one of us, living in this world / means waiting for our end. Let whoever can / win glory before death" (1386-88). When the sword fails to bite into the monster's flesh, and Beowulf suffers a minor setback, he gets hold of himself by "thinking about / his name and fame,"; then a jolt of energy enables him to discard his sword and to grapple with the monster bare handed, doing exactly what "must a man do / who intends to gain enduring glory" (1530-31, 1534-35).
The aftermath of Beowulf's encounters with Grendel and its mother confirms, and plays upon, the heroism of his performance rather than upon its fruit, the rebirth of Heorot. Beowulf "was granted / the glory of winning" and he "was happy with his nightwork / and the courage he had shown" (826-27). Already on the way back from the lake to Heorot, the retainers sing Beowulf's virtue: his deeds
were praised over and over again. Nowhere, they said, north or south between the two seas or under the tall sky on the broad earth was there anyone better to raise a shield or to rule a kingdom (856-60).
At the court Hrothgar's minstrel celebrates Beowulf's deeds, which are sung in well-fashioned lines, stressing the excellence of the hero, not the end result of his heroic performance - peace and security for the Danish community. His "courage was proven, his glory was secure" (1646). Hrothgar acknowledges what Beowulf craves, his fame as a valiant warrior: "Beowulf, my friend, / your fame has gone far and wide, / you are known everywhere" (1703-05). The apotheosis of Beowulf occurs on his return home where the chief and the people recognize that on Danish soil he successfully fought "to win glory / and prove [his] worth" (2133-34).
However, the deeds done and the valor shown in Heorot are not enough to quench Beowulf's thirst for glory. When age and weakness ought to induce him to desist from fighting, he decides instead to challenge the dragon in his own homeland to show that his prowess is undiminished, proclaiming that he has "no dread at all" of the dragon, which is known for its courage and strength. Beowulf fights for the "glory of winning" and his resolve is so compelling that he claims the right to fight the dragon single-handedly, just as he had fought Grendel earlier. He refuses his thanes' offer of help in the hope of getting all the credit for his exploit: "I shall win the gold / by my courage" (2514, 2535-36).
The Middle ages, too, holds valor both as a value in itself and as an agent of reputation. In The Song of Roland the display of valor demands that sound military strategy be defied and victory be forfeited. As Marsile's forces close in on the French rear guard at Roncesvalles, Oliver surveys the enemy horde and reports to Roland on the Saracens' overpowering strength: "Never on earth has such a hosting been," a hundred thousand of them. Thrice Oliver entreats Roland to blow the Olifant to bring Charlemagne and his army back and get the help that the rear guard desperately needs to save itself; thrice Roland refuses. Each of his three refusals to sound the Olifant is followed by the expression of his resolve to shed a lot of enemy blood independently from the military results:
I'll smite great strokes with Durendal my sword, I'll dye red high to the hilt with gore (83). Rather will I with Durendal strike out With this good sword, here on my baldrick bound; From point to hilt you'll see the blood run down (84) I'll strike a thousand and then seven hundred strokes, Blood-red the steel of Durendal shall flow (85).
What keeps Roland from asking for help is not the belief that his own force alone would be able to prevail, but the fear of impairing his reputation. He thinks that calling for help is a sign of cowardice on his part. He responds to Oliver's pleading with an emotional and energetic refusal: "Madman were I and more, / And in fair France my fame would suffer scorn"; "May never God allow / That I should cast dishonor on my house." Oliver speaks again of the enemy's superiority, this time emphatically, pointing out that the Saracens "cover all the mountains and the vales" (83, 84, 86). Roland again refuses to blow the Olifant and justifies his refusal by the necessity of serving the emperor the way Roland thinks he ought to be served: "If the King loves us, it is for our valour's sake." Roland is resolved to stand and fight to prove his valor; the display of valor counts more than victory, and he will fight valiantly, but will lose the battle and all his men.
Roland's resolve to fight is irrational, and Oliver, a personage remarkable for his display of wisdom and opposition to the indiscriminate use of chivalric virtues, reveals the reason why Roland aims at plunging himself and the French into a hopeless battle, indicting him for his misguided valor. When the disagreement between Oliver and Roland reaches its climax with the poet's statement that "Roland is valiant and Oliver is wise" ("Rollant est proz e Oliver est sage," 87), Oliver admonishes:
There is a wise valor, and there is recklessness: Prudence is worth more than foolhardiness. Through your overweening you have destroyed the French; Never shall we do service to Charles again. Had you but given some heed to what I said, My lord had come, the battle had gone well, And King Marsile had been captured or dead. Your prowess, Roland, is a curse on our heads (131).
In the aftermath of the battle the dying hero turns to his sword and worshipfully intones: "Ah, Durendal! So bright, so brave, so gay! / How dost you glitter and shine in the sun's rays!" He faces death worshipping and glorifying his real God - Durendal, the agent of his heroic career:
With this I won him [Charlemagne] Anjou and Britayn; With this I won him Poitou, and conquered Maine; With his I won him Normandy's fair terrain, And with it won Provence and Acquitaine, And Lombardy and all the land Romayne, Bavaria too, and the whole Flemish state, And Burgundy and all Apulia gained (172).
The Durendal that in the past has performed so valiantly, enhancing the glory and power of imperial France, could do no wrong at Roncesvalles. Durendal's toil, reputation, and achievements set the seal of valor on the slaughter and loss that was Roncesvalles. Heroic exhilaration coincides with the moment in which valor reaches closure and immortalizes the hero's reputation.
Roland's decision to stand and fight at Roncesvalles echoes the mentality and practice of the age, which prescribed the "exercise of courage" independently from need. A recent study of the "Chansons de geste," chronicles, didactic treatises, panegyrics, and epitaphs shows that from the twelfth century on the exercise of courage was the chief requirement of knightly life. It was necessary for the noble warrior to perform "many acts of great courage and hardy enterprises," not so much for the welfare of the individual, family or community, but to gain "honour, glory, and posthumous renown." Valor was the blood of the chivalric class. Whether valor was used for a bad or good cause it mattered little; what mattered was its display and the reputation accruing to the valiant knight.
This ethos, which ruled the upper class, explains to an extent Roland's decision to stand and fight an enemy who will destroy both the Christian paladin and his rear guard. In the Middle ages the preoccupation with valor was not confined to great personages who, like Roland played prominent roles in public life. Valor played also a role in individual lives; valor was a virtue and a man distinguished himself by being valiant. Chroniclers and poets often represented the excitement and fulfillment that deeds of valor yield. "When battle is joined," wrote Bertrand de Born, "let all men of good lineage think of naught but the breaking of heads and arms," the tangible results of valor. He told his readers that he found "no such savor in food, or in wine, or in sleep" as in "seeing men great and small go down on the grass beyond the fosses; in seeing at last the dead, with the pennoned stumps of lances still in their sides."
In Arthurian literature personal valor matters more than in the epic, and the knight goes through trials and adventures to show his chivalric worth. "Aventure" is the knight's key test, and the test can be passed only by showing valor, which defines the worth of the individual. The decision of young Alexander, Cligés's future father, to travel from Greece to Arthur's court epitomizes the relevance of valor to personal power. Alexander, who felt unable to rule his father's empire because he had no chivalric virtues ("I am not brave and wise enough," he says), travels to King Arthur's court to gain the virtue he needs to rule: he will apply himself "to the whetstone and to the real true test, whereby my prowess shall be proved." Calogrenant explains his presence in the forest of Broceliande by his resolve to test himself for no other purpose than proving himself valiant: he is looking, he declares, for "some adventure whereby to test my prowess and my bravery." Erec proved his valor by challenging the custom of the sparrohawk, and won Enide's heart. But at the court he becomes neglectful of his virtue, a reprehensible vice, for in the chivalric world a life divorced from fighting and bravery induces degeneration. The knights at the court murmured that it was a great misfortune that "such a valiant man as he was" he now loathed to even bear arms. A reputation for valor must be constantly renewed. Enide herself pressures him into resuming the wandering life in search of adventures for his reputation's sake. Erec complies and finally earns King Arthur's approval. The pleasure of love and family traps Yvain, and threatens his reputation, too. He is saved by Gawain, who urges Yvain to show his valor, "to frequent the lists, to share in the onslaught, and to contend with force, whatever effort it may cost!"
Adventures, dangers and valiant exploits are the very blood of chivalric life, regardless of their results. And the roots that generate them must be kept alive. No matter how many adversaries the knights of Chrétien de Troyes's romances dispose of, the forest and the towns are left alive with evil characters. Chivalric valor is needed to oppose them. But what matters is its display, not peace and order in the communities. The knight needs the evil characters to display his valor, not to tame the wilderness of the forest; he needs the daemonic dwarfs, the outlaws, and the giants in order to have an enemy to fight and to display prowess. What matters is not the righting of the wrong in society, but the triumph of the knight's valor. Valor is the very blood of his life. "Bravery is what a baron's reputation and position depend on." His success modifies nothing in the life in forest, the world that needs to be tamed to improve the life of the community. The forest, the "locus of the physical and the chaotic," and the court, the place of courteous behavior, remain mutually exclusive worlds.
The chivalric spirit that places the worth of valor above historical or social contingencies reemerges in the Renaissance, and Ariosto mocked it. He portrays no less than one of the two "beacons" of Charlemagne's martial strength and wisdom - Rinaldo - deviating in a most theatrical and absurd way from his duty to pursue personal chivalric distinction. Dispatched by Charlemagne to Britain to recruit fresh troops for the Christian cause, Rinaldo's ship is thrown by a gale on the shores of Darnantes wood. Instead of doing the repairs needed to continue his journey and accomplish his mission, he lands and sets out in the wood. Rinaldo knows that Darnantes wood is the setting of famous chivalric deeds by the knights of the Round Table. Here "so often the clash of arms resounded amid the ancient shady oaks." He also knows that through it travel "knights errant renowned for their prowess" from all over Britain, and from other lands near and far. "Great deeds were accomplished here by Tristan, and Lancelot, Galahad, Arthur, and Gawain, and other famous knights of the new Round Table, and of the old" (IV:51-53). The place rich in chivalric deeds and tradition captures Rinaldo's imagination and lures him to imitate the brave knights of old for no other reason but to prove himself as valiant as they are. The poet even taunts Rinaldo: "The man of little valour should not adventure there [wood], for where he seeks honour he shall find death." Rinaldo sets out through the forest, looking for "novel adventures" (IV:52, 54). The forsaking of the mission that Charlemagne had entrusted him measures the intensity of his desire to show valor to enhance his reputation: to prove by some noteworthy feat that he "was deserving of praise."
The European romances that stirred a "radical" individualistic quest for honor and for reputation gained through feats of arms touched the English imagination. As a result the image of the knight as a man of martial prowess dominated the new chivalry in England; showing the prowess was the goal while the political and military considerations that prowess might serve were ignored. The chivalric tradition provided the knight with the basis for self-deception. This tradition influenced Shakespeare's portrayal of the "glorious defeat" suffered by the Talbots in France, a defeat that extinguished English heroism, at least momentarily. In an early play Shakespeare concentrates on two historical figures, the Talbots, father and son, "such heroism as the English displayed" during the years that encompass the Henry VI trilogy. In I Henry VI "valiant" Talbot the elder fights a lengthy skirmish, performing amazing deeds of valor. His "undaunted spirit" is an inspiration for all Englishmen who bravely rush into the battle (1.1.120-21, 28); he is instrumental in establishing England's reputation for valor on French soil. But the bravery of the legendary soldier fails to produce any results beneficial to the English cause. He suffers a spear wound, the city of Orleans is lost, and his forces are surrounded. Nevertheless, he reappears before the walls of Bordeaux, burdened with the weight of a heroic reputation that calls for validation. Adversity strikes as Somerset and York in England withhold military help, showing that not the strength of French arms, but the fraud of politicians works against Talbot and his men. However, the scheming of the English politicians is not an historical reality, but an invention designed to enhance Talbot's reputation for valor, as he now faces a superior enemy. Rather than disheartening him, the enemy's clear superiority stimulates Talbot to fight, and because he is the underdog, his courage in battle will be magnified.
Excerpted from Martial Valor from Beowulf to Vietnam by Alfredo Bonadeo Copyright © 2010 by Alfredo Bonadeo. Excerpted by permission.
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