September 2016 Print

Heroism in Literature

by Andrew J. Clarendon

The hero is universally admired, a figure present in differing cultures and throughout time. From semi-divine classical heroes such as Achilles and a host of characters from novels and films to the supreme example of Catholic martyrs of the past and present, the hero is a great archetype that deeply resonates within human nature. Traditionally and even etymologically, the hero is a protector, one who often possesses physical prowess; but even if the person lacks the strength of Hercules, all real heroes have a strength of will that is proved in some mighty struggle. Whether male or female, from whatever culture, a mark of the heroic is the possession of the virtue of fortitude. The perennial philosophical understanding of this virtue makes this clear: St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, teaches that fortitude is, in its strictest sense, “the virtue that binds the will firmly to the good of reason in [the] face . . . [of] the fear of dangers of death.”1 The most complete heroes are therefore those who not only have a strength of will beyond the natural desire to preserve one’s life, but also have great hearts that cling to the good regardless of the circumstances. Myths, legends, and other stories of literature have long presented this idea in a connatural manner; the characters and events change, but continuously present, binding together the ancient and modern worlds, is the touchstone of courageous sacrifice in defense of the good.

Heroes in Classical Tradition

As Homer and the other ancient Greek myth makers are the fathers of a great root of Western Civilization, many readers are familiar with the great heroes of that tradition: the Samson-like Hercules, the god-favored Perseus, or the wise and daring Theseus. Nevertheless, it is part of the ancient Greek genius—the culture that invented tragedy—to present heroes who are often deeply flawed, a reflection of the pagan gods who are part of the machinery of the tales. The same is true in many other cultures. By contrast, an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, looking back on his pagan forefathers with the insights of Christianity, produces in the great Old English poem Beowulf a vision of an ideal hero, a character who stands as a model of fortitude in its various aspects. Central to this heroic vision is that Beowulf possesses both the physical prowess and fortitude to face and defeat dangers no one else can. The first half of the poem involves Beowulf defeating the demonic man-eater Grendel—an echo of the Cyclops episode from Homer’s Odyssey among other things—and then diving into a hellish lake to destroy Grendel’s mother who takes revenge for her son’s slaying. Finally, with clear echoes of the Gospel, at the end of his life and as the long time king of his people, Beowulf sacrifices his life to defeat a dragon that is ravaging the land. About two-thirds of the way through the poem, the author writes the following remarkable lines to sum up Beowulf’s heroic qualities:

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour;

he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantange; never cut down 

a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper

and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled 

his God-sent strength and his outstanding 

natural powers.2

What is interesting is that this description of Beowulf’s character not only involves what he does but also what he avoids doing. Like many heroes, he is brave, powerful in battle, and has “outstanding / natural powers” that the poet confesses are “God-sent.” To be truly heroic, though, it is not enough to have these qualities; unlike a Hercules, Beowulf always maintains control, only using his power for the good: he is an honorable man. St. Thomas Aquinas, after discussing fortitude itself, goes on to list several virtues that are associated with it; among these are a magnanimous greatness of soul and what Cicero calls magnificence: doing great deeds.3 Beowulf, the protector and savior of his people, is a dramatization of all of these qualities; in fact, the only thing he lacks to be the ultimate hero is the true faith. He is what Dante envisions as a virtuous pagan, an example of the best that human nature can be without sanctifying grace.

As a human virtue, a habit residing in the will, fortitude is not only possessed by men; aside from the more common heroism of childbirth, there are examples of great women who have suffered and even laid down their lives for an ideal. Among the most famous literary works of this type is one of the greatest tragedies of ancient Greece, Sophocles’ Antigone. The plot centers on the refusal of Creon, the king of Thebes, to allow Antigone to bury her brother Polynices because he attacked the city. Extending punishment even to the dead, Creon declares that “Never at my hands / will the traitor be honored”4 with a proper burial; “his corpse / [is to be left as] carrion for the birds and dogs to tear, / an obscenity for the citizens to behold!”5 To begin to understand Antigone’s insistence upon burying her brother in spite of Creon’s decree, one must realize that the burial of the dead was one of the most important religious duties of an ancient Greek woman: those who rocked the cradle also mourned over the grave. As the play makes clear, Creon insists upon his own, fallible human will over that of the divine. In one of the play’s most celebrated episodes, the teenaged Antigone bravely stands up to the civil authority, rebuking Creon for his hubris: “Nor did I think your edict had such force / that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods, / the great unwritten, unshakable traditions.”6 This last line is often cited as a definition of the natural law. Antigone, a martyr to the divine and natural law, is sentenced to death; although Creon repents and tries to save her, he is too late, and, as a result of the tragic action, two others join her in the next life. Antigone, therefore, shows an aspect of fortitude that is different from the action of the battlefield. In his masterful book of daily meditations, Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen notes that:

“Although courage is needed to face or to undertake hard tasks, it is even more necessary in order to persevere in them, above all when they are unpleasant or of long duration, and it is impossible to avoid or change them. In this sense, St. Thomas teaches that the principal act of fortitude is not to attack but to stand firm in the midst of dangers, and to endure struggles, opposition, privations, and persecutions with a virile spirit.”7

This is the sort of fortitude to which all are called and one that is as important in our day as any.

Supreme Example

After discussing fortitude in general, St. Thomas Aquinas goes on to analyze the supreme example of Christian martyrdom. Although it can be said, as in the case of Beowulf facing the dragon or Antigone standing up to Creon, that martyrdom in a general sense “consists in suffering death for the sake of a cause,”8 to die in order to bear witness to the truth of the faith is the highest act of fortitude, an “act of the greatest perfection [since it is] the greatest proof of the perfection of charity.”9 These ideas are illustrated in one of the greatest plays of the twentieth-century, T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a dramatization of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. The play is split into two parts: opening with the return of the archbishop from exile, part one focuses on Thomas’ awareness of his upcoming martyrdom. It is interesting that St. Thomas Aquinas notes that the “real essence of martyrdom is its enduring with faith, love, and patience, the terrors and pains of deadly persecution.”10 Eliot therefore not only has the archbishop interact with the people and priests of Canterbury, but also includes a long section in which Thomas is tormented by four temptations before he faces his murderers. The first three temptations involve ways to avoid martyrdom: to make peace by going back to the good times he enjoyed before becoming archbishop, to join with the king, or to try to overthrow the king. When these fail, the enemy seeks to pollute the future saint’s intention by tempting him to seek martyrdom for his own glory, not for the love of Christ. Finally, Thomas overcomes the temptation and is ready to bravely face whatever Providence presents:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:

Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

I shall no longer act or suffer, to the sword’s end.11

After a prose sermon on Christmas morning which acts as an interlude between the two parts of the play and represents the above ideas in plainer language, Eliot moves on to the martyrdom itself. After a first confrontation with the four knights, the priests of the cathedral are terrified, and the archbishop comforts them with the words of a true martyr:

Death will come only when I am worthy,

And if I am worthy, there is no danger. 

I have therefore only to make perfect my will.

I have had a tremour of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper,

And I would no longer be denied; all things

Proceed to a joyful consummation.12

When the four knights, now drunk and ready to kill, return to the cathedral, like Christ in garden, the archbishop commands that none of his people be harmed and recites a variation of the Confiteor while being murdered. Those who are brave enough to resign themselves to God’s providence say with St. Thomas Becket:

I am . . . 

A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,

Ready to suffer with my blood. 

This is the sign of the Church always, 

The sign of blood. Blood for blood. 

His blood given to buy my life, 

My blood given to pay for His death, 

My death for His death.13

This active firmness of will that is also a passive resignation to God, this act of faith and charity, this supreme example of fortitude is what, with God’s grace, “Shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.”14

As with other human acts, one turns to the stories and characters of literature to vicariously experience tales of heroism which elevate and inspire. While few people are great warriors, are inspired to practice civil disobedience to the point of execution, or are archbishops, all are called to the fortitude and dry martyrdom of our daily duties and state in life. It may be that in our troubled age actual martyrdom will become even more widespread than it is today. Come what may, it is for the soldier of Christ to believe with courage and trust that “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”15


1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Q. 123, Art. 4. All quotations from the Summa are taken from the complete English edition in five volumes, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981).

2 Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney (New York: Norton, 2000), 2177-2183.

3 Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, A Tour of the Summa (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978), 267-270.

4 Sophocles, Antigone, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 232-233.

5 Ibid., 229-231.

6 Ibid., 503-505.

7 Divine Intimacy, Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., trans. the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Boston (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1996), 871.

8 Glenn, 266.

9 Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Q. 124, Art. 3.

10 Glenn, 266.

11 T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963) 44, 46.

12 Ibid., 69, 70.

13 Ibid., 75.

14 Ibid., 87.

15 The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims Version (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1971), Mt. 5:10.