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The William Wallace battle cry of “Freedom” in BRAVEHEART launches my every romantic sense onto full-scale alert. What a hero! Images of medieval knights in armor and soldiers astride destriers fill best-selling romance novels. Why?
Readers still believe in the early ideal of battlefield heroism, seeking reassurance of its continued presence in the modern day world. We savor the pageantry of the knight, the dignity of the regency lord, the raw appeal of the cowboy solider. Battlefield heroism provides an alluring facet of the warrior persona, scars leaving behind tangible proof of accomplishments and prowess.
Obviously, I want readers to turn that final page of my work and sigh, “What a hero!” Yet my rowdy doctor/fly-boy heroes don’t carry swords or fight the Black Knight. They don’t rouse soldiers to glory from atop a magnificent stallion. As a writer firmly rooted in contemporary romance, my voice doesn’t lean toward the historical setting. Thus began the quest to determine if my modern men measure up.
Can my own beloved heroes satisfy a reader’s yearning for the historic magnificence of the armored warrior? How do I quantify the legendary heroic ideal in a modern man? I found my answers in a surprising place: On my husband’s bookshelf.
THE MASK OF COMMAND by Joseph Keegan defines the shifting historical face of the heroic ideal. Following the rise of technology, he traces the transformation of the early Greek warrior to the present day military General. Keegan’s models also provide valuable insights into creating that nerve tingling novel hero; albeit not his original intent when penning his military treatise!
Keegan offers Alexander the Great as the consummate example of Heroic Leadership. As a commander, he combined the quintessential elements of heroism, battlefield bravery and dynamic theatricality.
Alex the Stud didn’t issue orders from the safety of his tent. He led the charge, immersing himself in the clanging, bloody thick of combat. This awesome hero didn’t allow the frequent stab wound to prevent him from attending to the needs of his men before seeking medical treatment for himself.
Furthermore, even his private life held strains of our most treasured keeper-shelf medieval heroes. The knightly style fervor carried over into all aspects of his daily life. Keegan avows this hero lived large “in the hunting field, in horsemanship or skills at arms, in love, in conversation, in boast and challenge, and in the marathon bouts of feasting and drinking that were the hero’s repos du geurrier.”
Sound familiar? Sure he does. Christina Dodd’s memorable ONCE A KNIGHT comes to mind. We’ve fallen in love with such warriors many a time during the wee hours of late-night reading.
Centuries pass and civilized manners creep in shifting the mask of our hero. He becomes – gasp – a gentleman! No longer do we find him belly-up to the trencher downing a flagon of mead. Now, when not on the battlefield, he sips tea and waltzes. Mary Balough and Mary Jo Putney fans adore such men.
Keegan offers the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wesley, in example. Wellington personifies a different warrior hero, no less intriguing than Alexander the Great. The Anti-Hero commands from close at hand, if not at the lead, but without the theatricality of the traditional heroic model.
Make no mistake, Wellington still accepted the shared-danger relationship with his men. He maintained close proximity to the battle, always prepared to step in if the situation so warranted. However, he also balanced his leadership with a thinking man’s staff, rather than acting as an autonomous lone leader of the charge.
The reserved Brit with the heart of a lion holds in the horrors of war. Dreamy sigh!
Starting to recognize him? Absolutely! Only the love of a strong heroine can soothe his wounded heart.
We’ve covered the larger-than-life hero, Alexander, and the reserved, stoic leader, Wellington. Keegan’s next category addresses the individual who considers himself no hero, but rather a man of the people. He’s not a knight or a lord. He’s an American!
General Ulysses S. Grant garnered a different sort of respect from his men, forget the bowing and scraping of an antiquated noblesse oblige hierarchy. Artwork depicts the streamlined dignity of a man unfettered by the trappings of grandeur. Yet, his men offered him no less respect, regarding him with reverence rather than awe.
Technology, however, began to distance the commander from the field, stealing the heroic impact of a leader gripped in the heat of battle. Grant’s use of the telegraph improved his strategic effectiveness. With the increased range of rifles, he also realized he couldn’t afford to risk the troops’ loss of leadership by thrusting himself unnecessarily into the fray.
Can we still write a moving story about this man-of-the-people warrior? Elizabeth Lowell does so with great appeal. Are you mourning the whittling away of the more traditional heroic trappings? If so, grab a hankie before reading further.
We finally arrive at the crux of my writing dilemma. Even Wellington and Grant, while distanced from the battle, still had the possibility of flexing their heroic muscles by leading the charge in a pinch. Not so for today’s military leaders.
Undoubtedly masterful commanders, Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell orchestrated their Desert Storm Victory from the sterility of the war room.
Although their days as Lieutenants in the trenches have passed, aren’t these men still heroes as well? While they don’t personify the traditional sword swinging heroic ideal, their laudable place in history is undeniable. Why? And how can we translate those characteristics into our modern heroes?
Keegan offers the romance writer an answer. “A commander ? must also know how to speak directly to his men, raising their spirits in times of trouble, inspiring them in moments of crisis and thanking them in victory.”
Hold your proverbial war horses just one minute!
Aren’t we now cycling back to Alexander’s theatrical oratory style? Bingo! The reader wins a hero. The charismatic presence of Colin and Norman offered a dynamic quality not found in the reserved Wellington and austere Grant.
Related to the world of contemporary romance, warrior heroes often range from military men to FBI agents. In an even less traditional example, IT HAD TO BE YOU by Susan Elizabeth Phillips presents football hero, Dan Calebow, who personifies heroic traits of both charismatic leadership and physical prowess – with an interesting twist. Battling from within a stadium, somewhat equitable to a modern jousting field, Dan rallies his men when heroine Phoebe’s life depends on him.
Are contemporary authors limited to traditional warriors for admirable heroes? Not a chance! Given technological constraints, can we suitably do justice to the heroic ideal in a modern day man? Without question!
While we’ve traced heroic elements through historic commanders, how do we translate these warrior hero elements into the everyday man? Keegan maintains one tenet of heroism as the level of danger, risk, willingness to sacrifice his life. He upholds the other as the inspiration of loyalty and devotion from his people.
A hero’s willingness to lay down his life for the heroine can certainly be found in modern day heroes; not only in the dangerous professions of detectives and soldiers, but also through any man’s offering of his heart for the love of a good woman. The inherent bravery of his incredible, total sacrifice of self inspires devotion, whether earned by a boisterous rebel, a reserved gentleman, a common man intellectual, or a powerful strategist.
As I watch my young son march through the yard in his dad’s bulky flight boots, a jet helmet weighting his head to the side, another image superimposes. A medieval lad drags his father’s broadsword, his head covered by overlarge chain mail. I look into my own modern day aviator husband’s eyes and see the glints of armored crusades, the mists of Culloden Moor.
Yes, I proclaim! The warrior spirit is very much alive and well, transcending time to offer his very soul, inspiring the love and loyalty of a worthy heroine.
Post script from author: I wrote this article years ago, but never has it felt more relevant. We’ve all seen well how the heroic spirit transcends time and garb: Cops, fireman, rescue workers, military, but also the businessman wearing a tie as he boards a doomed flight, the shoe store salesman standing in falling debris to give tennis shoes to women running barefoot through glass. The list is endless, the heroic ideal never stronger.