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The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 11
The Heroes Reconsidered

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

A hero, whether royal or common, is essentially a throwback. An examplar of a time when father/right was in formation, still an uncertain condition when heroes were perhaps the norm.


The Premise

The Mythic -- King Arthur

The Medieval -- William the Conqueror

The Modern -- Lawrence of Arabia

Endpaper: The Father's Daughter -- Queen Elizabeth I

This is a continuation of column #10.

II The Medieval

William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror was born and raised with a number of Rank's, Raglan's or von Hahn's hero markers, over a dozen of Raglan's 22, with several that are interestingly half accurate. William's father, Robert the Duke of Normandy, fits the mould of "king."

His mother however was not a "princess" or "royal virgin" but rather a peasant girl, Herleve, probably the daughter of a tanner, as lowly as the mother of Jesus. Nor was William ever "reputed to be the son of a god" -- a cardinal point in the birth of mythic heroes. Only one god was acknowledged in the West by 1028 a.d., when William was born, and that was the heavenly father of Christ. The two fathers of the old heroes, a mortal and a god, were one and the same for William, speaking psychologically certainly. His father Robert, whom he never knew, having left Normandy when William was seven on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and dying en route home, would have loomed as a divinity akin to the Olympians who filled in for unrevealed fathers. We know that William was raised by his mother in his birthplace of Falaise, and a stepfather who married his mother not long after he was born. Lord Raglan has the traditional hero, after having been abandoned and rescued, "reared by foster parents in a far country." Falaise was "far," no matter how close. Villagers at that time rarely traveled, and a child raised under shroud of a secret, as William most definitely was, was far from the center of Duke Robert's life. Herleve fits the profile of "shepherd" as von Hahn puts it, "who raises the hero," or "female animal or humble woman" who "suckles" him in Rank's words. The mothers of mythic heroes either accompanied their sons in their abandoned state, or were required to cast them out, e.g. have them "surrendered to the water in a box" (Rank). Theseus the Minotaur slayer is an example of the former, Oedipus the unknowing husband-to-be of the very mother who once exposed him, of the latter.

The prophecy preceding the order for exposing an infant son, warning against a future patricide or threat to a kingdom, might be found in William's case in a curious footnote dismissed by historians as "a good story." When Duke Robert brought Herleve home to his castle and she conceived William, she had a dream that "a tree grew out of her body whose branches overshadowed all Normandy and England." In any mythic lexicon, such a dream would have oracular status. A mythologist could have a field day with it, and with the general mistiness and tantalizing bits of William's early life. Raglan says of his 22 heroes, "We are told nothing of [their] childhood." David Douglas, eminent biographer of the Conqueror, says, "Little is known of William's childhood." But then, what do we know of the early life of any prominent man raised in the obscurity of his mother's household? With the hero proper, we would only know of him after he grows old enough to leave his fosterage and begin the requisite search for his father, occasioning the kind of fantastic and superhumanly stupendous deeds bound to impress us. He is at the center of a patrilineal crisis, which figures in every instance of the mythic, the medieval, or to fast forward, the modern hero.

How and when does the hero find out about this? My three topologists leave the question out of their biographical indicators. And they only imply the essential secrecy surrounding the hero's identity and whereabouts in his hidden minority. Secrecy was endemic, as it is now, to the dark side of legitimacy, a child born in mysterium patrius. As the secret gestates, the part where it is revealed is always a crucial key in furthering the plot. Robert Graves in his classic compendium of heroes, "The Greek Myths," gives us that axial moment in the life of Theseus. He was 16, and had been raised by his mother Aethra, and her father King Pittheus of Troezen, far from Athens, the kingdom of his father Aegeas. Not having been set adrift or exposed, but instead readily adopted right where he was conceived and born in his mother's royal household, Theseus was abandoned in situ. If his paternity came up, he would have been told that Poseidon -- the Olympian brother of Zeus -- was his father. In fact, as the story went, the same night that King Aegeas had been tricked into sleeping with the princess Aethra, having been made drunk by her father King Pittheus, the god Poseidon had ravished her on a nearby island. As a cover -- the way we see it from a modern perspective -- the rumor that Poseidon had sired Theseus was spread discreetly by King Pittheus, the boy's guardian and grandfather.

Graves relates that when the boy was 16 his mother Aethra led him to a rock under which Aegeas had hidden a sword and sandals, "and told him the story of his birth." Aegeas had left Troezen sixteen years earlier not knowing whether Aethra had had his child or not, but in case she did and the child was a son, he had left instructions saying that when the boy got big and strong enough he should move this rock, find those ancient symbols of royalty under it, sword and sandals, and make his way to Athens to find him. It would have been at this point that Theseus knew the identity of his mortal father. A sword and a rock by the way were of course the medium of young Arthur's proof of manhood and identity as the son of King Uther Pendragon, via the 1485 book by Malory, "Le Morte d'Arthur."

The moment of truth for William of Normandy, when assuredly he would have been told the story of his birth, was just when his father died, in 1035. Only seven, he was unable to protect himself much less prove his manhood by moving a rock or pulling a sword out of it or anything. Nor could he possibly have made much sense out of the fact that a father he never knew and whose identity till this moment had undoubtedly been a mystery, had now made him the most sought after target for death in the Norman kingdom. Duke Robert, before leaving for Jerusalem, had instructed his magnates to recognize William as his heir in case he failed to return. The magnates had opposed his leaving in the first place. An orderly succession was the fairest guarantee of stability in any land. And Normandy for over a century beginning around 911 had experienced constancy in the descendents of Rolf the Viking. Duke Robert, the sixth in direct succession from Rolf, by leaving home on a perilous journey with only an illegitimate child to succeed him, had left the continuity of his line in doubt. A mortal sin may have been the background to this outcome.

Duke Robert was preceded by an older brother, Richard III, who reigned for only one year, perhaps no more than weeks or days. It is widely thought that Robert, jealous of his brother's position, was behind his death, and that his pilgrimage to Jerusalem wasæundertaken as a kind of penance. He had ruled for just nine years, during which the duchy was violently divided between supporters of his dead brother and himself. If Robert had offed his brother and felt therefore like an impostor, his son William was similarly endowed in his status as illegitimate. A concurrence in the death of Robert's brother Richard III in August 1027 and the birth of Robert's son William close to that time (his birth year is uncertain as being 1027 or 1028) shows some circumstantial proof of desperation for which someone had to pay. William was cast into an alarming struggle for survival, a state that actually never ended during his glorious war-ridden lifetime.

Theseus too was his father's appointed successor, and became likewise embattled. The two heroes, one mythic the other medieval, inherited not just their fathers' titles but their fathers' enemies, always emboldened by a contested birth, once its secret was out. The birth of Theseus was a result of his father Aegeus's sterility. Here is Rank's "difficulty in conception." King Aegeus had been unable by a succession of wives to have children. (In my Endpaper dealing with Elizabeth I as that anomaly, a "Father's Daughter," I highlight her chaotic beginnings and lifelong virginity, i.e. refusal to marry, in relation to her father Henry VIII's world-famous paroxysm in marrying six women, one of them Elizabeth's beheaded mother, all of whom failed to give him a proper heir.)

The problem Aegeus had was serious enough to make him consult the Delphic Oracle, prime authority of his time. Unable to decode the oracle's imperative -- "not to untie his wine-skin until he reached the highest point in Athens" -- he sought help from his friend, King Pittheus, who interpreted the message with no difficulty as meaning he should make Aegeus drunk and send his virgin daughter Aethra to him during the night. Omitted in the story is an explanation for why such trickery resulting in an illegitimate birth was necessary, since normally a king like Aegeas might obtain a princess like Aethra in marriage. Presumably Aegeas was still married to one of his barren wives, or Pittheus had another match in mind for his daughter. Or he wished to keep her at home in domestic servitude, her virginity intact, a state quite manageable where a ravishing god was involved. Nor is anything known of Duke Robert of Normandy's intimate circumstances between the time he impregnated Herleve, guessed to be when he was about 17, and the time he left for Jerusalem aged 25. No wives or girlfriends are confirmed in historical accounts. Such details could shed more light on the riddle of paternity embedded in classic hero tales.

Topographers have identified the principle of organization in our stories, but not given top billing to the unauthorized procreative fathers who instigate the scheme. How their sons' fortunes play out against the whole evolving field of father/right will tell us something about how patriarchy arose and sustains itself. As transitional figures in the evolution of father/right, these sons are throwbacks, reminders, of how all sons once existed -- not yet locked into a system through known or verifiable paternities. The tasks, or "labors," of the hero show us his means of transcending this original disadvantage, or we could say of secretly empowering a desperate wannabe father, by proving his worthiness and gaining access to his father's identity and inheritance. It seems the entire tradition was invented as a kind of backup to ensure the birth of an heir no matter what. The father needs a successor, but where the code governing father/right (no matter how primitive, e.g. not involving marriage as we know it) is breached due to barrenness or other misfortune, and he conceives an illegitimate son, he must follow the alternative script allowing for an heir. He listens to the prophecy warning against such an heir's birth, and tries to kill him, or at least have him exposed. Now he is ignorant of the infant's fate. But he knows that if the infant survives, and develops into a hero, he is in danger of being found and destroyed. Heroic feats are built into the script. There are of course many variations on the theme. Sometimes the father is an active accomplice in furthering his own downfall. The case of William the Conqueror, which I am aligning in a comparative spirit with the "alternative script" featuring Homeric heroes, shows a father, Duke Robert, dooming himself at practically the very moment he appointed his illegitimate son his successor.

After leaving home in disgrace, as we can speculate he did (with two disreputable deeds behind him: the murder of his brother and production of a bastard child), and not making it back, a vacuum in successorship magnified the climacteric that already existed. The survival of Normandy was at stake. The fate of the duchy and its patrilineal estate from Rolf the Viking were intertwined. Duke Robert left great chaos behind him, a kingdom in essence without a ruler. William's childhood was fraught with attempts on his life, and the murders of various custodians. Once he survived his minority and became 18, he was almost continuously at war. During the years 1047-1060, throughout his 20s and into his late 30s, he had to fight off internal revolts, and coalitions both within and outside the duchy against him. Protected at first as a ward by the king of France, Henry I, when William became older and more powerful, the king turned tail and joined forces with various counts and dukes to try to wipe him out. By 1060, in succeeding to subdue the opposition and unite Normandy, William's originally ambiguous entitlement was settled more decisively in his favor. Widely known as William the Bastard, he had risen spectacularly to the challenge of an illegitimate birth. And he now looked abroad to expand his legacy.

It was a patrilineal crisis in England upon the death in 1066 of the childless king, Edward the Confessor, which led to William's designs upon the English throne. The very leitmotif of William's existence -- a similar crisis in Normandy in 1035 when his father virtually abdicated and failed to return from Jerusalem -- set him up for this interest. He saw an opportunity in a field where he was experienced, a field of contest over claims of heredity. William was not without connections to the Anglo-Saxon royal family. He was actually related to Edward the Confessor, king from 1042-1066, through Edward's mother Emma,æWilliam's own great-aunt. Due to Emma, the fortunes of Normandy and England were tightly entwined in the early ten hundreds. She would become the wife of two kings, and the mother of two others. To begin with she was the daughter of Richard I of Normandy, William's great-grandfather, and it was through her marriage to the Anglo-Saxon king, Ethelred II (968-1016), that she produced Edward the Confessor. When Ethelred died, she made another brilliant marriage -- to Cnut the Great, the Danish conqueror who succeeded Ethelred and ruled England from 1016-1035. After two of Cnut's sons rather ignominiously succeeded him (one was a son of Emma's), the old West Saxon line was restored under Edward the Confessor. When Edward died without issue, the country seemed faced with two choices: a child called Edgar, great-grandson of Ethelred; or Harold Godwin, a mere brother of Edith, the barren wife of the Confessor. The moment William heard of Edward's death and the appointment by the witan of Harold as king, he was furious, and mobilized his forces to cross the Channel.

His fury arose from a promise he claimed Edward had made to him that he would be his successor, probably during the time Edward spent in exile as a youth in Normandy during the Danish occupation of England under Cnut. Whether Edward made the promise or not, the appointment of Harold, outsider to the privileged West Saxon royal line; and perhaps the example of Cnut's conquest of England earlier in the century, could have encouraged William to have a go. In 1066, he was in good shape in Normandy, his knights and magnates solidly behind him. He had unified his homeland, and now with the conquest of England and founding of the Anglo/Norman state, he would unify much more.

William fulfills the entries in Rank's, Raglan's and von Hahn's lists for the heroes' accomplishments. Here are a few: "He seeks service abroad," "Triumphant homecoming," "Slays original persecutors," "Is victor over a king," "Founds cities," "Takes revenge on his father," "Marries a princess." To the paternal revenge motif I would add or include avenging, with the hero after all making good on his father's name. As for marriage, William did indeed make a fine one, and to a princess. His wife Matilda was the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, and niece of King Henry of France. She was William's cousin in the fifth degree, directly descended as he was from Rolf the Viking.

After the Conquest, William fought tirelessly to maintain the unity of his new holdings, and to forge the Norman system of governance in England. By virtue of the Conquest, his new state had a strong shadow side: the Scandinavian heritage as it existed in both Normandy and England following the endless Viking raids from at least the 800s, one of which had produced William's line from Rolf.

The child born ex-paternitas has the burden of unifying disparate realms, seen locally at first as the separate spheres of his mother and father. In the life of William the Conqueror, patriarchal interests were well served. A magnificent hero, strong in character and physique, as brutal as brutal times required, born during the ten hundreds when serious vacuums in descent on both the Continent and in Britain threatened order and royal succession, William would prove out a tradition for continuance, largely hidden thus unidentified as such, when legitimate lines fail.

To be continued....

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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