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.
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.)
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?