The medieval notion of the hero changes drastically from that of the classical period. Up until this time, the hero had been a hard, nigh unstoppable force, out for personal gain and glory. Achilles springs to mind, the fearless Greek hero who fought for the Achaeans at the siege of Troy, whose greatest motivation was the gain of geras, that is, material prizes and enduring glory (The Iliad, 1. 342-355). The medieval hero, on the other hand, was faced with the task of finding balance between earthly fame and spiritual purity.
With the rise of Christianity, medieval knights became bound to a code of honor and aspired to become Christ-like. The model of Christ served as a basis for the virtues that knights tried to preserve, such as loyalty, honesty, and self-sacrifice. Classical heroes often worked for themselves and some were experts at using deception, such as Odysseus, famous for his cunning and trickery. It was Odysseus who thought to use the Trojan Horse to infiltrate the city of Troy (The Odyssey, 4. 270-290). It is unlikely that a medieval hero would ever do something of that nature, as deceiving one’s enemy would be a breach on their morality. Knights tried to meet their foes head on, to show their bravery, such Gawain’s confrontation of the Green Knight. As much as he may want to find a way out of it and though he tries to find some form of protection, Gawain nonetheless follows through with his promise made a year earlier and confronts the Green Knight in the open (Armitage 169).
In addition to glorifying God and their patron saints, medieval knights were also expected to swear fealty to a secular lord. While classical heroes often fought for a certain king, the knight owed his lord a far more devout, selfless service, and his deeds would often be performed for the sake of the king or the king’s honor.
One the largest differences between classical and medieval heroes was their treatment of women. During the classical period, women were treated like property and given out as war prizes, such as Briseis was given to Achilles (The Iliad, 1. 160-170). A woman was just another form of collecting geras. To a medieval knight, however, it was considered noble and courtly to serve a lady, as women were often viewed in relation to Mary, the mother of Christ. A woman could hold great sway over a knight’s actions and even his life, as demonstrated in the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere. Lancelot undertakes a great quest, with many risks to his life, to save Guinevere, even getting into a cart and risking his knightly reputation (Chretien 190). Upon his arrival, Guinevere sends him away, sending Lancelot into a suicidal madness. This shows the extreme power than ladies had over the knights who served them, a considerably different status than that of the almost right-less classical woman.
The role of the hero changed greatly between the classical and the medieval era. The rise of Christianity changed the notion of the heroic, making it so that a true hero would have to find a balance between serving God and serving his kingdom.
Homer. The Iliad. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1990. 82-87.
Homer. The Odyssey. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1996. 138-140.