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Courage

Thursday, December 18th, 2008 | Posted by eeknight

“Take Courage– now there’s a sport / An invitation to a state of rigor mort.”

-sang Mordred in Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot.

The virtue of courage is the one commonality all the great heroes share. They persevere, even to a bad end, as Sam Gamgee said to Frodo as strength and hope flagged. Whether it’s Conan throwing himself into a ring of enemies, determined to break free or die:

With his back to the wall he faced the closing ring for a flashing instant, then leaped into the thick of them. He was no defensive fighter; even in the teeth of overwhelming odds he always carried the war to the enemy. Any other man would have already died there, and Conan himself did not hope to survive, but he did ferociously wish to inflict as much damage as he could before he fell. His barbaric soul was ablaze, and the chants of old heroes were singing in his ears. (Howard, The Phoenix on the Sword, 1932)

or Han Solo’s “Never tell me the odds” a hero’s first and foremost virtue, from the classics to the anti-heroes of today, is courage. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield, as Tennyson put it in his tribute to Ulysses.

The Ancient Greeks knew well of courage. Both the brave and the coward knew fear – the brave man just mastered mind, body, and spirit in order to act rather than be overmastered.

I know you for a brave man: you need not tell me. If the best men at the ships were being chosen to go on an ambush–and there is nothing like this for showing what a man is made of; it comes out then who is cowardly and who brave; the coward will change color at every touch and turn; he is full of fears, and keeps shifting his weight first on one knee and then on the other; his heart beats fast as he thinks of death, and one can hear the chattering of his teeth; whereas the brave man will not change color nor be frightened on finding himself in ambush, but is all the time longing to go into action–if the best men were being chosen for such a service, no one could make light of your courage nor feats of arms. If you were struck by a dart or smitten in close combat, it would not be from behind, in your neck nor back, but the weapon would hit you in the chest or belly as you were pressing forward to a place in the front ranks. But let us no longer stay here talking like children, lest we be ill spoken of; go, fetch your spear from the tent at once. (Homer, The Iliad, Book XIII)

Though the Greeks, as usual, threaded the needle. The best displays of courage, the most worthy of imitation, were when one passed between being the Scylla of being unable to act because of fear and doubt, and Charybdis of rashness that would expose you and your companions to foolish and needless danger. As Aristotle put it:

Of those who go to excess he who exceeds in fearlessness has no name (we have said previously that many states of character have no names), but he would be a sort of madman or insensible person if he feared nothing, neither earthquakes nor the waves, as they say the Celts do not; while the man who exceeds in confidence about what really is terrible is rash. The rash man, however, is also thought to be boastful and only a pretender to courage; at all events, as the brave man is with regard to what is terrible, so the rash man wishes to appear; and so he imitates him in situations where he can. Hence also most of them are a mixture of rashness and cowardice; for, while in these situations they display confidence, they do not hold their ground against what is really terrible. The man who exceeds in fear is a coward; for he fears both what he ought not and as he ought not, and all the similar characterizations attach to him. He is lacking also in confidence; but he is more conspicuous for his excess of fear in painful situations. The coward, then, is a despairing sort of person; for he fears everything. The brave man, on the other hand, has the opposite disposition; for confidence is the mark of a hopeful disposition. The coward, the rash man, and the brave man, then, are concerned with the same objects but are differently disposed towards them; for the first two exceed and fall short, while the third holds the middle, which is the right, position; and rash men are precipitate, and wish for dangers beforehand but draw back when they are in them, while brave men are keen in the moment of action, but quiet beforehand. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Chapter VII)

Aristotle goes on to lay the groundwork for the Alcoholics Anonymous creed – saying that you must be courageous about what is out of your control and hostage to fortune, and be prudent and cautious about what is within your control. Centuries later, Machiavelli insists that the courageous man must make fortune his bitch:

I conclude therefore that, fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her. (Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XXV)

Ouch, Nicolo. Back to the gender studies diversity program for you.

A fine example of Greek fine-tuned courage can be found in Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds (1952). Du Maurier is one of the outstanding writers of the 20th Century (I believe her novel Rebecca has been continuously in print since 1938), but somehow she never gets ranked up there with Hemingway or Faulkner or others of that singular generation. This grim, apocalyptic thriller, which must never be mistaken for the movie featuring a collection of neurotics dealing with a localized problem, is the story of a part-time farm laborer named Nat Hocken and his family as they cope with every bird in creation suddenly organizing into one super-flock and waging large-scale war on humanity.

Nat, as the menace grows and becomes better defined, isn’t a hero through physical courage, though he does fight the birds with a blanket when they break into his children’s bedroom and dash through swarms of them at need. But he does have the moral courage to withstand ridicule as he prudently boards up his windows, screens his chimney, and picks up his daughter at a bus stop toting a hoe just in case the birds attack. It’s almost biblical, with Nat reinforcing his old, thick-timbered house despite jeers like Noah building his ark.

At one end of the scale are people like his wife, terrified into inaction at times by fear for her children. Then there are those who meet the threat with too much courage, like his employers, the Triggs.

Mr. Trigg, showing the rash courage Aristotle spoke of, plans to hold off the birds with his sporting guns:

“My missus says if you could eat gull, there’d be some sense in it,” said Trigg. “We’d have roast gull, baked gull, and pickle ‘em into the bargain. You wait until I let off a few barrels into the brutes. That’ll scare ‘em.”

“Have you boarded your windows?” asked Nat.

“No. Lot of nonsense. They like to scare you on the wireless. I’ve had more to do today than to go round boarding up my windows.”

“I’d board them now, if I were you.”

“Garn. You’re windy. Like to come to our place to sleep?”

“No, thanks all the same.”

“All right. See you in the morning. Give you a gull breakfast.”

The Triggs, and their hired man who also wonders at Nat’s precautions, don’t make it to the end of the novella.

Nat is an easy hero to like because of his caution and plain sense he shows, looking to safe shelter, food, fuel, all in the interest of protecting his family.  He’s the first, and apparently the only person to observe that the timing of the bird attacks is connected to weather and tide.  He uses that knowledge to his advantage just as Ulysses might have.

I think the courage readers are looking for is the courage to do. Helps the story too, to have your protagonist always doing something as his sea of troubles works up into a Force Ten storm. As C.S. Forester had Lieutenant Bush put it, in assessing his friend Hornblower, a hero cut from the Greek cloth that others like Captain James T. Kirk or Honor Harrington would later wear:

Bush had learned something during the past few weeks which his service during the years had not called to his attention. Those years had been passed at sea, among the perils of the ses, amid the ever-changing conditions of wind and weather, deep water and shoal. In the ships of the line in which he had served there had only been minutes of battle for every week at sea, and he had gradually become fixed in the idea that seamanship was the one requisite for a naval officer. To be master of the countless details of managing a wooden sailing ship; not only to be able to handle her under sail, but to be conversant with all the petty but important trifles regarding cordage and cables, pumps and salt pork,, dry rot and the Articles of War; that was what was necessary. But he knew now of other qualities equally necessary, a bold yet thoughtful initiative, moral as well as physical courage, tactful handling of both superiors and of subordinates, ingenuity and quickness of thought. A fighting navy needed to fight, and needed fighting men to lead it. (Forester, Lieutenant Hornblower, Chapter Seventeen).

Audience tastes and expectations change. But they’re still looking for inspiration to keep them on their feet and trying day after day.

By the way, Daphne Du Maurier’s works of fantasy and horror have been recently collected into one volume:

Don’t Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne Du Maurier (New York Review Books Classics)

1 Comment »

  1. Interesting stuff, and a great range of evidence. I’ve never read the original Du Maurier “Birds” story, and now I think I’ll have to.

    I’m not sure if antiheroes always display courage, though. The courage of Cugel the Clever is a fairly flexible quality (“I prefer to run, but I will fight if I must”) and Harry Flashman seems to have no virtues whatsoever, but is particularly deficient in courage. I guess it depends on exactly how the antihero runs against the grain of the heroic tradition.

    Comment by James Enge - December 19, 2008 1:23 pm


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