The hero narrative is as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and as new as Superman Returns. We find hero stories compelling, not only because we secretly want to be a hero for others, but we also want to believe that there is some sort of hero out there keeping an eye on things for us. Culturally, in modern times we like to look to our political leadership to be heroic, although the 24-hour-a-day coverage that the Internet provides makes it difficult for anyone to remain heroic in appearance. King Arthur represented a shift in paradigm from earlier heroes such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh and Achilles, because of whereas earlier heroes acted from instinct, he acts reflectively.
Gilgamesh’s primary quest is a journey after a plant that will give eternal life. He wants this plant because his close friend, Enkidu, dies in battle, and Gilgamesh wants to restore him. Impulsively, he leaves his kingdom and goes to the underworld, and is granted the plant. However, another impulse decision – to take a quick bath in a pool – loses him the plant, as a snake eats it.
Achilles’ most famed episode in history is his battle against the Trojans, culminating in his lengthy chase of Hector around the walled city. However, he almost didn’t enter the war at all, because he was angry at Agamemnon for taking his prize woman away when Agamemnon had to give his own back to her father. This impulsive anger almost costs the Greeks the entire war.
Beowulf is just as impulsive as Gilgamesh and Achilles, but he is rewarded for his impulses. His decision to chase Grendel, and then Grendel’s mother, are both extremely dangerous, particularly fighting Grendel’s mother in her underwater hiding place. Fighting the dragon, near the epic’s end, is equally impulsive, but ends up in Beowulf’s death.
Arthur, on the other hand, represents a new direction for heroes. While he sees the vision of the Grail, he thinks better of going after it because of the dangers involved. He uses ethical and moral considerations, instead of simple heroism, to guide his decision-making. Clearly, he represents a changing paradigm in heroes.