Heroes, Protagonists, and the Beau Ideal


Not long ago I got into a discussion about John M. Ford, who I find always worth rereading. The particular book that sparked things off is The Dragon Waiting, about which I commented that I found the main character to be a perfect example of the Beau Ideal.

Some said the equivalent of “Huh?”, and some disagreed, a couple people getting into a debate about whether there really was a Beau Ideal. One person dismissed the Beau Ideal as mere wish-fulfillment, to be hotly countered by another who actively seeks books whose protagonists strive to make the world as it should be, could be, might be with a little imagination and grace.

That in turn was countered by a scoffer who brought up that much-beaten dead horse trope, the Mary Sue story, but we got past that surprisingly swiftly when all pretty much agreed that the Mary Sue was another name for an unsuccessful Beau Ideal: that is, a story centered around a protagonist made center of the universe just because the narrative voice tells us he (or she) is. That’s quite different from characters we come away feeling are real heroes.

don Q

Some of the participants in the discussion had a tough time coming up with examples in today’s books that everyone could agree on. That caused one person to claim that the Beau Ideal isn’t popular anymore, in this age of grimdark and moral ambiguity.

We definitely don’t see the old Beau Ideal—the chaste, religious, chivalric noble-born hero—except as either a hypocrite or a fool. “Like Don Quixote?” one commenter responded, pointing out that skepticism and cynicism are hardly new.

“Old or new, I rarely find morally upright heroes in books written currently, especially in times when morality itself is eyed skeptically. Morality is not considered hip in stylish circles.”

That got some hear! hear!s.


A counter claim:  that the standard heroes these days seem to be the the scarred, angsty ones who fight their way through a gritty world, maybe (at best) trying to choose the lesser of two evils.

“I’m drawn to books in which the protagonist starts off as a jerk but follows a more or less redemptive arc, and is that the Beau Ideal?”

“Maia in The Goblin Emperor is my idea of a perfect Beau Ideal, even if he’s not handsome, being half-goblin, but in all other ways he fits the definition,” someone else said.

When asked for the provenance of the Beau Ideal that I was talking about, I had to sit there considering decades of reading as I fumbled for an answer. I don’t perceive anyone in classical myths as the Beau Ideal; it seems to me (not a classical scholar) that the Greeks pretty much thought a good man was a good war leader.

The ‘ideal’ in Beau Ideal seems to reach in a different direction. Not starting with Castiglione’s Courtier as I’ve seen asserted, but farther back, and at the inspiration of a very strong woman, Eleanor of Acquitaine. She worked so hard to wrench the war-hungry drive of feudalism into a semblance of the chivalric ideal, according to biographies I gulped down my my youth because she got tired of stinking, sweaty men tromping with filthy boots into her fine rooms, blabbing exclusively of killing unruly barons and damned Saracens, to the exclusion of wit, history, song, and about anything else worth listening to.

The perfect hero for her and her court of smart women was clean, chaste, respectful, faithful, and content to worship his inamorata from afar. Parzifal was pretty popular all over the continent in tale and song–that mural up top there probably took a year to make, stitch by stitch.


I always wonder when I look at such things if the women doing the stitchwork as they sat in their cold, or stifling hot, castle rooms, speculated about the fictional heroes depicted, like fan fiction writers today. Anyway, Galahad was another, later on, who filled that role.

Guan Yu in Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a great example from Chinese literature; based on a real person, he passed into legend, becoming a symbol of heroism, loyalty, and righteousness.

The type crops up again as the novel develops in Western Europe. In the 1700s, Samuel Richardson  gave us Sir Charles Grandison, after readers complained about the attraction of the charismatic Lovelace, who rapes Clarissa Harlowe in her thousand page eponymous novel, before of course dying in remorse. (Naturally, she has to croak, too, as all impure heroines did, even though she was unconscious when he did the deed.)

sir charles grandison

The problem with Sir Charles is that he’s so perfect, he’s kind of boring.

What about the ones who aren’t boring? What’s going on that makes them attractive? Going back to Eleanor of Acquitaine, one of the commenters perceives a line connecting the Beau Ideal as written by female authors, and seen from the female gaze, as different from what most male writers see as admirable and heroic in their own gender.

Not everyone agreed with that, but several agreed in seeing a connection going from the Pimpernel up through Peter Wimsey to Crawford of Lymond and those he inspired.


That Beau Ideal is recognizable through his descendants—witty, well, read, courageous, seemingly immoral or amoral, but actually true to his beliefs. And he has beliefs, even if it is only in his fellow-man. They are also handsome and nobly born.

Anyway, to wrap this up, in The Dragon Waiting John M. Ford gave us the splendid Dimitrios, the anchor to the story, the sign that 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.

What do you think? Is there a Beau Ideal in books these days? If so, who serves as an example in your mind?





Heroes, Protagonists, and the Beau Ideal — 28 Comments

  1. The first thing that came to mind when I read your post was your Vidanric in Crown Duel. Was he your “beau ideal” when you wrote that?

    • I wrote the first draft of that book when I was 22, and totally unconscious of character types or really what I was doing. I pretty much channeled that story. But I’m sure the impetus was a compilation of the beaux ideals I’d been reading as a kid, teen, and young adult.

      • All right, what about Vasalya Lassiter, then? He seems to have it all: handsome, cultured, mannered as only a Colendi aristocrat can apparently be, cultivates an appearance of caring about nothing and nobody, but is deeply loyal in love. How well does he fit the type?

        • I think he is too selfish (and would be the first to say so) to be a beau ideal, who has to have a selfless aspect as well as a loyalty to love. Too cynical to risk everything for the good of all, though perfectly willing to risk himself for love.

      • They’re Choctaws in Oklahoma in the late 1800s. During a time of persecution they helped protect their families and others in the community (including non-Choctaws) by non-violent methods. They inspired members of the community by not responding violently but also not hiding or letting problems be ignored.

  2. This is just historically wrong:

    [ ” She worked so hard to wrench the war-hungry drive of feudalism into a semblance of the chivalric ideal, according to biographies I gulped down my my youth because she got tired of stinking, sweaty men tromping with filthy boots into her fine rooms, blabbing exclusively of killing unruly barons and damned Saracens, to the exclusion of wit, history, song, and about anything else worth listening to. ” ]

    Look who she divorced, and then who she married, and which of her sons she most favored. Look at her own favorite immediate male relatives, who were what her real idea was, both cultured and great warriors, who lived for war, for love and poetry all three. Look at her own political – military behaviors.

    • I haven’t looked at any material on her since I was a kid, part of the problem being that I don’t know the languages to read primary sources in, so everything I can get at will reflect someone else’s party line.

      However, I have read some of her successors who took away from her a thrust toward civilizing influences, and away from brute violence.

      • She was the end actually of a long line of male troubadours, and she was a couple of centuries into the idea of chivalry. She didn’t invent anything; she benefited from and enhanced what had been there for years. Her favorite son Richard was a famous poet and himself a trouvere (he sang in northern French rather than Provencal, hence the difference in the term). He was pretty late in the tradition (died in 1199), and it faded in the thirteenth century.

        The tenth-century German romance in Latin, Ruodlieb, was quite obscure but you would love the way the heroine refuses to marry the hero unless he allows her full equality in all things. No fooling around unless she gets to fool around, too. Interesting thing to find in a period that our narrative advertises as like totally patriarchal and heavy on the sweaty.

        • That is fascinating, thanks. If only I could go back in time and study Latin and medieval languages!

  3. Wow, the Beau Ideal… that’s a very interesting question.

    Firstly, I would say the Eleanor did not invent it – she was a product of a long line of such men and women who wrote and idolized such figures. But she herself was very much a realist – if Richard had only been a poet and not a strong warrior, I doubt very much he would have been her favorite. This is really the sticking point, I think – being a Beau Ideal (in any world with war) requires distinguishing yourself through war. And war is not a pleasant or honorable thing – Richard himself committed several deeds we would today term atrocities, then seen as the needs of war, and quite natural, not cause for censure.

    Going back some 60 years, I think both Aragorn and Faramir are excellent examples of this – both chivalrous, honorable, handsome men who through their courage and devotion, gain the hands of the two fairest ladies in the land. If we’re looking at more recent books, I think Vidanric, Jehan and Alec (Ysvorod) have definitive Beau Ideal attributes, if not the concept entire… You can even see some sign of them in grimdark books, I feel. Take GRRM’s aSoIaF series, often seen as very gritty and dark – I think Jon Snow has some Beau Ideal attributes – handsome, brave, very honorable.

    The problem, I feel, is that today, many of these attributes are not seen as ideal. Any warlike hero is bound to face moral quandaries about the righteousness of his fighting and the suffering caused by it. It was easy for Aragorn and Faramir, fighting against an evil empire, but even Jon Snow, facing the apocalypse, has had to undertake several less than honorable deeds. The realities of war, which we are aware of and no longer see as justified, make the Beau Ideal much harder to attain. Even against an unequivocally evil enemy and a righteous cause, we expect reality to throw obstacles in the heroes path – and it is difficult to overcome these obstacles without forfeiting some of your ideals.

    • Excellent points.

      Can we say then that the Beau Ideal can include skills in war when employed only when we agree that the cause is righteous? With Faramir, it’s very clear, for example.

      • Even the cause being righteous is not always enough. Do the means justify the end? I feel that more and more today, people think not (though of course, there are always those who think that they do). Moreover, I think that is what people like better. The flawed hero – the one who must do some repugnant deeds, who must face hard choices where no answer is right – is seen as more realistic (and I think is better liked) than the Beau Ideal, who never faces such a conflict.
        I think it actually has the potential for a very interesting story – take the Beau Ideal, and give him/her an untenable situation, where making the right choice, staying true to his/her ideals, loses him/her the battle/war. What are the consequences of this? Was the loss and death caused worth the preservation of his/hers ideal? Will keeping to your ideals truly better this world?

        • I think what is considered righteous has to be in the eye of the reader. But these are interesting questions. (As are the rightness of an unbeatable war commander in effect laying down the sword and saying, enough. And so peace is achieved, though at the cost of being considered a traitor. . .)

          • Oh, righteousness is always judged in the eyes of the reader… but I sometimes ask myself, what did the author think? Did he truly think this could be seen as righteous? These are the things which can make or break the reader’s interest – I will always hate the creators of Merlin (the TV show) for constantly portraying Merlin as justified, and not acknowledging the injustice he caused to Morgana, which perpetrated her downfall to villainy.

            And, oh, very much so regarding peace. Though if I may say – Inda was never a Beau Ideal, and I loved him all the more for it. Most importantly, perhaps, he never cared for such trappings – all he wanted was a simple life, protecting his people and surrounded by love. And perhaps that is another symptom of the Beau Ideal – once he betrays the ideal, he not only ceases to be the Beau Ideal, but is a traitor to concept (which reminds me of very interesting stuff I read from Robert Rath about Dishonored, and the culture of honor…)

  4. I agree about Aragorn and Faramir and would add Merry on a smaller scale. Consider Miss Austen’s most attractive men–Mr. Knightly (ah that name!) and Captain Wentworth.
    You chose a good time to get out of town. #punishing heat.

    • I’d choose Col. Brandon over Knightly, who got more than a bit snarky there in a paternalistic way. Not exactly a mansplainer, but close, so not really a Beau Ideal (doesn’t mean I don’t adore him, though). However, Captain Wentworth is Beau Ideal through and through (especially as embodied by the young and macho Carian Hinds)

      Huh. So is John Harmon in Our Mutual Friend. And oddly, Rupert Venebles in Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret. He is overconfident, messes up horribly. makes bad decisions, humbly takes help, is still sort of a prig, but in the end he’s still the Beau Ideal. It’s sort of funny, actually.

  5. This made me think immediately of The Lady of Shallot, where Lancelot, who typically is considered the Beau Ideal (until he betrays Arthur, anyway), is shown as not at all the Beau Ideal but nobody really knows it. Dramatic irony.

    I would say Paksenarrion (Elizabeth Moon) is a Beau Ideal.