Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Romantic Hero

The romantic hero is as old as storytelling. The epic of Gilgamesh written in about 2700 BC is one such telling of a romantic hero. Now perhaps my idea of “romantic” hero is swayed differently from your idea, but let me explain. For the most part, we think of the necessity of women involved in the story, that “romantic” aspect, if you will. But I’m going for the original definition of “romance,” which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is of “a tale in verse, embodying the adventures of some hero of chivalry, especially of those of the great cycles of mediƦval legend, and belonging both in matter and form to the ages of knighthood; also, in later use, a prose tale of a similar character.” So in the case of Gilgamesh—and many others we will talk about—it is about a quest for self-actualization with the help of a deep friendship between men. This is part of the “band of brothers” facet to the epic story and can most certainly be found in more familiar tales, like the Arthurian legends.

In the Bible you have many examples of romantic heroes in the Old Testament: Samson and Delilah—he embodies male strength and its weaknesses; David, the epic hero of the Jews, who shows not only great strength of character but also great weakness (are we seeing a pattern here?)

This kind of epic romantic hero has always been with us. As the Middle Ages rolled around we have many epic legends (sometimes called “histories” when they involved real people). One of the earlier popular epics that captured the imagination was The Song of Roland from the 9th century, and tells us of the brave doings of one of Charlemagne’s celebrated knights. His loyalty to his lord Charlemagne is his undoing but again we have a hero in the tradition of the “band of brothers” whose “romance” is his character and faith informing the story. Here, we have a tale of more action than deep introspection. His story is also a tragic one. Indeed, many romantic heroes end up at the wrong end of a sword, poisoned lance, phial of poison, or other nefarious end. Picture Romeo, and Tristan of Tristan and Isolde fame, Abelard and Heloise, Lancelot and Guinevere. All are young and a bit romantic and, let’s face it, a bit overdramatic, too. They invoke a hopeless situation and something achingly romantic (and in the case of Abelard, aching in another way. Ouch.)

These are the tragic heroes, for the most part. They might get the girl but usually it’s in a mutual suicide pact. In a “romance novel,” it’s a bit different. The hero may not always be heroic at first, but he usually survives the book…and in tact! After all, he’s got to woo the heroine.

Now when I sought to create the hero of my medieval mystery, I dug deep into my subconscious and was surprised at the eclectic mix gathering in that fertile repository. I discovered every kind of mythology that would make Joseph Campbell proud. There was the swash-buckling adventurer Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, the intellectualism of Lord Peter in the Dorothy Sayers series; the tough, hard shell of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, and quite a few romance novels, along with historical novels written by some of the greats, like Nora Lofts and Anja Seton. Throw this altogether and mix liberally with the legends of King Arthur, the Canterbury Tales, and a little bit of Homer, and you’ve got something with some meat to its bones (after all, steal from the best!)

I wanted not only a romantic hero, but a little of the suffering servant (what did I tell ya about stealing from the best?). I don’t think there is anything quite so attractive as a strong man who sacrifices himself for noble reasons. And thus Crispin Guest was born, ex-knight turned detective on the mean streets of 14th century London in my debut mystery VEIL OF LIES. Crispin is a tragic hero as well as a romantic one. Dark, brooding, sexy. He does survive each book, but barely. His loyalty is often his undoing and he is compelled not only by his unwavering chivalric code, but also that “band of brothers” aspect that brings about the loyalty of others. And women, of course. Women who may wish to use him for their own disreputable reasons or for other earthy motives.

It’s a fine tradition I’m glad to follow. Epic, tragic, romantic, with a twisty mystery thrown in for good measure. Old storytelling never goes out of style.

You can certainly follow Crispin’s musings on his own blog (yeah, everyone has one these days) by going to, or read the first chapter of VEIL OF LIES on my website

By Jeri Westerson


Sooki Scott said...

[a strong man who sacrifices himself for noble reasons]

My kind of hero! Your book sounds wonderful. Good luck.

Confucius say; forget injuries, never forget kindnesses.

Jeri Westerson said...

Thanks, Sooki, for stopping by.