The Hero through the female gaze

Rembrandt's Self Portrait as a Young Man, 1634, Oil on canvas.




A discussion of the quest, the heroic quest, and heroes at ConDor a few weeks back got me to thinking about male heroes, as written by women.

The hero from the female gaze is one I think of as the Beau Ideal.  This guy tends to show up with certain recognizable qualities, either admired by women, or written by women, or both, down through the centuries of Western literature.

So many historical versions present this hero as civilized—what the gentleman could be. (Little pun there, as “gentil” has a complex history, having as much to do with birth as it does behavior.)

I don’t think this ideal begins Castiglione’s Courtier as I’ve seen asserted, but farther back, and at the inspiration of a very strong woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine. What do you think? I am no medieval scholar, but from my limited view, she and her circle seem to have reinterpreted chivalry to be less about honor and war, and more about social discourse.

When I look at the songs and poems these women favored (and wrote) I can imagine that they did not see the ‘perfect knight’ in huge men tromping sweaty and filthy straight from the battlefield into her fine rooms, blabbing exclusively of killing unruly barons and damned Saracens, to the exclusion of wit, literature, music, and other emotions besides the urge to deal death. She and her ladies liked their men clean, pretty, and house-broken, with the skill to entertain.

There’s a traceable line from these heroes of medieval ladies going through female authors such as Madame de la Fayette and on to the Pimpernel; from him to Peter Wimsy and from him to Crawford of Lymond, the type branching ever outward.

That Beau Ideal is recognizable through his descendants—very often blond, slim, blue-eyed, more often than not a second son so he must shift for himself though he still is noble of birth—witty, well, read, courageous, seemingly immoral or amoral, but even when he gets kicked around by a savage world (and some writers really like to kick him pretty hard), he holds true to his beliefs.  And he has beliefs, even if it is only in honor and his fellow-man.

Not always written by females. Example, Dimitrios of John M. Ford’s Dragon Waiting, the anchor to the story; with Dimitrios, though the world around the characters seems to be sick with disease, war, greed, ambition, and death, there is grace, even if as elusive as the echo from an unseen choir.

Do you see this pattern, or any pattern?





The Hero through the female gaze — 24 Comments

  1. I suspect the ideal is pre-literary; women have been picking and choosing among men, and men have been trying to impress women, for a very long time. Genji is perhaps an instance. It might be possible to push that back further. I wonder what women of China and India wrote about men in the long histories of those cultures.

  2. Courtly love is older than Eleanor. She’s a marquee name, but the ideal was around long before she was. In fact she may have seen the beginning of its decline. The thirteenth century was not a good time for women in the western world.

    There is a very obscure tenth-century German romance (written in Latin) called the “Ruodlieb,” in which the lady demands full equality with the man, including the right to demand that he be as faithful to her as she is to him. Eleanor is twelfth century. So, two hundred years before she was born, in Germany, this concept could be imagined and turned into a poetic narrative. It’s been speculated that this is a kind of satire, the world turned upside down, but I’m not so sure. I suspect women were stating their objections to the male gaze, and male control, early and often.

    • Thanks, Judith. I do remember reading a couple of fragments in middle German way back when. But we skated right past them, and I had no idea if they were part of a pattern.

    • That’s what I was going to say, Judith.

      Dates / chronology: historian and theorist’s first and best friend!

      Not that I’m a medieval specialist, but Guillaume IX (1071-1127) was credited as the first courtly poet (later scholarship may have given that to another by now — things always change as new information is discovered and new dots connected by historians and scholars — but I have a specialist in these matters as a close friend and neighbor, who just put out at the end of 2012, his own translation of Villon’s poems, and this is what he thinks too), the seventh Count of Poitiers and ninth Duke of Aquitaine. He wasn’t a pretty boy, but quite a riotous warrior, which not preclude him from possessing both wit and lyrical ability.

      Also, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) preferred ‘rough’, if you judge by how she maneuvered the delicate, pious King of France into a divorce, so she could marry the sweaty warrior, King Henry, though certainly when young he cleaned up very well — very handsome — and significantly younger than she too.

      In other words women of the Courtly era liked their men able to sing, but they also liked them to be warriors. They could entertain while protecting the realm.

      It’s more like, when at home you should behave well — no raping of the ladies in waiting while shoveling venison down your gullet in the dining hall. Also, we needed more amusements than endless tourneys and jousts.

      What I do think is that its very likely that the Romance poets of the day, and later too, took many incidents directly out of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine as models for events in the Arthurian Romance clusters, particularly for Queen Guenivere — though there is absolutely no hint in any of the annals as far as anyone has written that Eleanor had a lover other than Henry II himself — though of course, Henry, being King, most certainly did have other bed-mates and mistresses, for either short or longer periods.

      Love, C.

      • Also, a lot of thinking tends to elide or forget or never knew how much influence upon this literary movement came from Islam via the Moorish culture through that constant permeability of border and sex that was the Pyrenees.

        Love, C.

        • Don’t forget the Venetian republic, as far as cultural influences went!

          • Venice again is fairly late, as a major power and influencer of culture. It’s also a merchant city, which puts it up toward the Renaissance and the evolution of power away from warlords and toward ganglords. And that comes full circle really, since the late Roman Republic and all of the Empire was pretty much the Cosa Nostra.

            In the middle (hence, Middle Ages), you had tribal cultures aiming toward a Roman-style imperium. Charlemagne was a rough-and-tumble sort, hardly even had a name–Carl/Karl means “male child”–and he was the offspring of a family of military men and bodyguards to the sacred kings of the Franks. Sort of like the Roman generals who took over the Empire when the heirs of Octavian ran out of steam (and sanity).

            If you study the real Charlemagne versus the legend that developed much later, you find a family man with a bit of a kink–he wouldn’t let his daughters marry, though some of them managed to take lovers and raise children regardless. You also find a world that gave women much more agency than you might think.

            The key here is to remember that the historians in general were churchmen (Charlemagne’s historian, Einhard, was a secular official, and he’s the one who talks at relative length about the king’s daughters), and the Church was a heavily patriarchal institution from its beginnings. And yet it, at the time, had women who held great power as abbesses, and coed monasteries.

            All that got clamped down hard by Eleanor’s era; by the time she died, it was all patriarchy, all the time. Very deliberately and intentionally so.

            And that is one major reason why the heresies that rose so strongly at the time featured so many powerful women leaders. Lacking any opportunities in the Church, they stepped outside it. Boy howdy, did they.

            • From what I am reading about the history of Venice, there was quite a bit of influence coming through after they conquered Tyre.

              • That’s the twelfth century, but there was also a lot of influence coming through all over from that part of the world through returning Crusaders. Genoa, Pisa, et al. were important as well–they provided the transport for the Crusading armies.

                By 1204 in the Fourth Crusade, Venice was out there manipulating with the best/worst of them. But that is late, relative to Charlemagne (eighth century) and Eleanor (died 1204).

                • Right. (The Fourth Crusade being a sorry thing in all regards. And I don’t think they even got to the Middle East, did they? I thought they spent all their time sacking Byzantium.)

  3. One can compare Beowulf or Song of Roland to the later Chansons de Geste for yet more examples of what you are talking about.
    Truth to tell I don’t always like the heroes other women create, although the qualities that you mention do appeal to me.

  4. The Tale of Genji is called the world’s first novel, so it might be hard to push that beyond the 11th century A.C.E.

    That said, I wouldn’t call Genji the beau ideal of manhood. Although much of the story deals with his romantic life, and although he is a second son of noble birth, he’s not a good person. He is sexually obsessed with his stepmother Fujisubo because she resembles his mother (which is also the reason she became the consort of his emperor father), to the point where a) they have a child and b) she becomes a nun and attempts to withdraw from public life to put Genji off and to conceal their affair. He also has sex with one of his half-brother’s de facto consorts (not an official wife, but definitely a favorite), and this does create a scandal…to the point where he leaves court before he can be kicked out. He also kidnaps Fujisubo’s eight-year-old niece, Murasaki, raises her and then makes her his concubine when his first wife dies. (Child grooming, anyone?) He does suffer and all of his problems are not his fault, but he’s not an ideal man.

    It’s a bit hard to tell about the beau ideal in China, as novels weren’t regarded as a literary form (and certainly not acceptable for women to write). According to this, there aren’t any confirmed novels by Chinese women before 1840. And, of course, China doesn’t have the same styles and traditions in poetry that the West does. There may not be much overlap between a woman poet of ancient China and a medieval trobaritz.

    Example, Dimitrios of John M. Ford’s Dragon Waiting, the anchor to the story; with Dimitrios, though the world around the characters seems to be sick with disease, war, greed, ambition, and death, there is grace, even if as elusive as the echo from an unseen choir.

    While male writers can certainly depict the beau ideal type of protagonist, I question whether John M. Ford’s characters have any place in a discussion of the hero through the female gaze. Unless Ford defined herself as a woman, that is. Otherwise, we’re just talking about a man’s interpretation of how some women writers have depicted and do depict their ideal man.

    • Thanks for all those facts.

      I probably shouldn’t have tossed Ford’s writing in, except when I was reading the novel, I kept thinking, A woman could have written this hero. Male heroes as written by men usually fall into other patterns, at least, so it seems to me.

    • Gehayi, thank you for your remarks. I will quibble, though. To Murasaki Shikibu, as she called herself, and probably to her readers, Genji was a romantic figure and a spiritually elevated one, despite what we see as his failings. I think it’s fair to call him a romantic hero.

  5. Malory had Ector’s lament over Lancelot mention as much that he was well-behaved in the hall as that he was a great warrior on the field.

    Chaucer described his knight as “meek as a maiden” and that was praise.

    It’s a long ancestry of the chivalric man.

  6. On a different level….

    huge men tromping sweaty and filthy straight from the battlefield

    Note that James Bond accomplishes macho-quantity overkill without ever breaking a sweat, or wrinkling his tailoring. And has at least a veneer of small talk.

  7. I’m certainly not going to argue the archetype you present here (given my abiding devotion to Dunnett), but I do think there’s some variations to be seen. I recently reread Martha Wells’ Ile-Rien novels, as well as the Raksura books. And those present quite a variety of heroic models.

    In Ile-Rien, you have Nicholas Valiarde, who is probably the closest to the suave/debonair model, as a highly intelligent, wealthy, competent man–but he is also a thief and an assassin, and it’s made very clear that his compliance with social rules is entirely optional. He is, in fact, rather completely amoral, and is driven more by personal loyalties than any adherence to socially-constructed rules of honor. It’s a bit as if Wells took the end-state image of a Dunnett hero and then reverse-engineered him to see how he could get there: the result is someone rather less endearing than Crawford of Lymond. He is, in a word, unsettling.

    As an alternative, Wells also gives us Ilias of Andrien (from The Wizard Hunters), who is not just a hero, but a romantic lead–he is physically competent and attractive, loyal and virtuous, but is also not a political or social leader. In fact, he’s a sidekick–but Wells draws him and his insecurities so deftly that he’s far more appealing to the reader than his heroic foster brother.

    Moon, from the Raksura novels, shares some of Ilias’ vulnerabilities as well as his strengths: he’s a complete loner with no knowledge of his origin or even his species. He’s extremely physically competent (which is a commonality for Wells’ heroes), but socially pretty damned inept, because of his background and enforced isolation. As a result, he’s the antithesis of the Peter Wimsey type: silent, brooding, and frequently incapable of following the social narrative. He is uncomfortable in social settings, and worse, makes other people uncomfortable. All he really has going for him is his physicality, which in fact reinforces his insecurities. And politically, he’s both important and yet a pawn–one of the trilogy’s narrative lines is his perpetual fight to control his own destiny.

    I wonder if any of these three characters would have been as appealing to a readership sixty years ago? Valiarde, maybe–but the other two, I think, are rather less common.

    • Oh, good question.

      I do think that the Dunnett model has been explored in various ways, as Wimsy was a couple generations ago (Lymond being one of them.) These characters do share one element: being written by smart women. Very often the heroes’ primary characteristic is their brains.