Author Topic: Specialisation, skills, and flaws in modern and premodern heroes  (Read 4843 times)

Jubal

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It's interesting perhaps how historically uncommon the "everyone has strengths and weaknesses" model actually is in fiction. Admittedly premodern heroes perhaps had fewer skill-sets to use, but by and large I can't think of a huge number of texts until (in historical terms) quite recently where the protagonist isn't essentially a brilliant all-rounder.

(Topic split off from What Are You Reading?)
« Last Edit: January 19, 2023, 04:27:34 PM by Jubal »
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

dubsartur

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Re: Specialisation, skills, and flaws in modern and premodern heroes
« Reply #1 on: January 18, 2023, 06:34:50 PM »
It's interesting perhaps how historically uncommon the "everyone has strengths and weaknesses" model actually is in fiction. Admittedly premodern heroes perhaps had fewer skill-sets to use, but by and large I can't think of a huge number of texts until (in historical terms) quite recently where the protagonist isn't essentially a brilliant all-rounder.
Achilles is a one-man army but nobody would expect him to make things like Odysseus (I think he may cook BBQ once) or solve big communal problems like "how to take Troy without fighting our way in".  He is focused on himself and his glory and his friends and sex slaves.  Agamemnon is king but a terrible leader.  Odysseus is handy but tends to solve problems by tricks (or expending his crew) rather than hacking his way through them, and Poseidon hates him.  Paris is really really sexy but not great at fighting, and Aphrodite loves him.  Lancelot can't keep his cote on, Gawain and Galahad are better at the Christian virtues but can be a bit rigid and proud which is also a mortal sin.  And Arthurian literature is full of scenes where the future hero is educated as a child or young man in the skills they will need as an adult, or gets into trouble because they didn't get taught a skill they need.  Petit Jehan de SaintrĂ© catches the eye of a noble lady who spends years training him up as a suitable paramour inside and outside the bedchamber!

Tirant lo Blanc is a murder hobo fond of the old ultraviolence. 

Jubal

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Re: Specialisation, skills, and flaws in modern and premodern heroes
« Reply #2 on: January 19, 2023, 04:26:00 PM »
Hm, yes, that's all very fair points... though I think more of those are what I'd think of as flaws and issues of character than skill? You're right re the future hero missing skills, but for the medieval stuff issues with skill tend to be "you've not reached your potential/the societal expectation" rather than "this other guy is good at X, you're good at Y, these are different skills and that's narratively important" and I think the latter is a pretty important feature of a lot of modern literature with premodern or pseudo-premodern settings. Maybe Jason and the Argonauts or something has more of that skill variation, you're right to flag up the Greek stuff, I'd need to look at that again as it's hard for me to remember what I'm remembering about ancient texts and what I'm remembering from sanitised renditions I read as a child. I guess maybe the thing I'm trying to grasp at here is that modern literature has a more (in the social sense) cross-class viewpoint, so there's less focus on idealising a single elite set of common virtues and expected skills, which was a more important part of the values of medieval romance.

Also, topic split as this is really its own discussion rather than about what either of us are currently reading.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

dubsartur

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Re: Specialisation, skills, and flaws in modern and premodern heroes
« Reply #3 on: January 19, 2023, 06:10:16 PM »
Hm, yes, that's all very fair points... though I think more of those are what I'd think of as flaws and issues of character than skill? You're right re the future hero missing skills, but for the medieval stuff issues with skill tend to be "you've not reached your potential/the societal expectation" rather than "this other guy is good at X, you're good at Y, these are different skills and that's narratively important"
The medieval Arthuriana which I have read is very clear about two things:
- skills take time and teaching to acquire, and acquiring them is hard
- skills are specific, and knowing fencing (sword and buckler) or wrestling does not mean that you know fighting (knightly weapons) or horsemanship

In contrast, the modern novels I object to teach that if you are the Hero you can spent a few weeks or months practicing something you have never done before and start outdoing people who have done it for their job since puberty.

It does not necessarily go in to point 3:
- the qualities which make for excellence in one skill or area of life may be contrary to those which make for excellence in another (that is all over Indian thought though)

For example, in Jehan de Saintré:

Quote
At thirteen little Jehan catches the eye of a noble young widow, who spends the next seven years training him into a suitable courtly paramour. She teaches him edifying maxims from Latin authors with a helpful translation, and gives him a reading list. She advises him how to spend largely but wisely on good clothes and horses, and on appropriate presents to gain the good will of others at court, and provides him with the funds to do it. At twenty she sends him off to win renown with deeds of arms, and advises him on the ceremonies and choice of opponents. ...

Eventually his lady transfers her affections to a worldly young abbot, large and muscular, who humiliates Jehan in a wrestling match. We learn that Jehan, although a successful warrior, has not been taught to wrestle, unlike wealthy monks like the abbot who "are adepts at the art, as at tennis, hurl-bat, pitch-bar, and every pastime of the sort. They are their only recreations when among themselves..."

Jehan later has his revenge on the abbot and his former lover with matter of fact cruelty that reminds me of Tirant lo Blanc. Like Tirant, Petit Jehan de Saintré combines chivalric and courtly ideals with frank sexuality and practical detail.

When I wrote my first journal article on aketons, pourpoints, and gambesons, I read a lot of romances from the 12th century which have scenes where a character gets into trouble because the situation calls for a skill they never learned (eg. they have to strip someone of his armour, and they don't know how to do that).  I did not take notes on that and I do not own those books so I can't give chapter and verse (I do have this on Ulrich von Zatzikhoven though).
« Last Edit: January 19, 2023, 06:25:10 PM by dubsartur »

dubsartur

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Re: Specialisation, skills, and flaws in modern and premodern heroes
« Reply #4 on: January 19, 2023, 06:36:41 PM »
Also, its not just that Agamemnon is a selfish prideful person who makes bad decisions.  There is a scene in the Iliad where he wants to give a speech that starts with stressing how hard their situation is and turns around, but he overdoes it and the Achaeans start to say "you know what, going home does sound good, my wife is there and I am tired of living in a shelter on a beach and fighting half of Asia every day, and its not my brother's wife who ran off with Paris."  That is a clear failure of his skills in rhetoric which another character has to save him from!  In a tabletop RPG, you know he rolled a bad failure on his Leadership or Oratory skill.
« Last Edit: January 20, 2023, 12:24:22 AM by dubsartur »