Arrogance of Greek Heroes
Often readers will criticize the champions of classical and medieval epics for egotism. Critics cite examples from the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Beowulf of conceit and egocentric behavior. Odysseus, Aeneas, and Beowulf display a well-known arrogance befitting their accomplishments. The motivation for this arrogance, to complete these tasks, to perform these feats, is often over-generalized to the point of inaccuracy and confusion. One must not let such misinterpretations interrupt the humanization of these characters. Through the examination of the desires and behavior of these epic heroes, we can discover an underlying need for recognition or honor. In classical and medieval western epics, the hero’s desire to complete a given quest is fueled by their desire to gain or maintain honor or fame.
The first hero to be considered is one of the original Greek champions. Odysseus, often characterized as a braggart and self-centered, displays all the traits of a man doing his best to leave his mark. He will never take the simplest of routes to solve a problem; he would much rather use his cunning and inventiveness to contrive a plan that exploits the weaknesses of his foe and uses all the resources at his disposal:
“‘God help me!’ the man of intrigue broke out…
‘Come weave us a scheme so I can pay them back!
Stand beside me, Athena, fire me with daring, fierce
as the day we ripped Troy’s glittering crown of towers down.
Stand by me—furious now as then, my bright-eyed one—
and I would fight three hundred men, great goddess,
with you to brace me, comrade-in-arms in battle!’”(l.437-47, VIII)
Odysseus would rather orchestrate a plan that ensures a total elimination of the suitors than simply march straight into his house and risk battling a hundred angry men unannounced. Odysseus frequently takes the smarter, more impressive route, in an effort to make his cunning known. In Troy, he elected to follow the advice of the gods and, risking his life in the city, he manages to steal the Pallas effigy! When the Cyclops Polyphemus captured him, instead of succumbing to fate or attempting to break free by force, he dupes the giant with wine and blinds him with a hot spear! His exploits, though certainly incredible, and almost always necessary, are always made more dangerous and fantastic by his involvement. When escaping Polyphemus, his pride drives him to tell his name, guaranteeing that the Cyclops will let his deed be known:
“’…again I began to taunt the Cyclops—men around me
trying to check me, calm me, left and right:
“So headstrong—why? Why rile the beast again?”
…So they begged,
but they could not bring my fighting spirit round.
I called back with another burst of anger, ”Cyclops—
if any man on the face of the earth should ask you
who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus,
raider of cities, he gouged out your eye,
Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!”’”(l.548-62,...