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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

In her preface, Sutcliff lists the heroic qualities on which she based her selections: Each figure “is always a great man in one way or another”; “very often is not particularly wise or good”; “is larger than life, and enlarges the lives of those who share his story”; “has a...

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In her preface, Sutcliff lists the heroic qualities on which she based her selections: Each figure “is always a great man in one way or another”; “very often is not particularly wise or good”; “is larger than life, and enlarges the lives of those who share his story”; “has a special kind of magnetism that lives on after him” and allows stories developed about other men to be attributed to him; and “very often he dies young and violently.”

According to the author, Caratacus’ decision to retreat from the Roman troops and resume fighting at a later date was “a more difficult thing for any leader than to lead them forward in victory.” Caratacus is described as a charismatic leader. Later, he must make a Delphic decision as to the item with the most importance: his captured wife and children or his continued struggle with the Romans. One part of his life did not match the heroic characteristics—he did not die young, but in exile.

King Arthur is depicted as the source for many writers, all trying to place him in their own historical periods. The author presents the literary Arthur and questions whether Arthur was somehow lost in the retellings, with Sir Lancelot emerging as the hero. Sutcliff then provides the historical basis for Arthur as well as another heroic quality—that of stories about other men being attached to him. She credits Arthur’s victory at Badon with allowing the blending of the British and Roman cultures, rather than the decimation of the British.

Because of his efforts as a lawmaker, administrator, and translator of books, Alfred’s claim to greatness was possibly greater during times of peace. Sutcliff emphasizes his heroic efforts against the Danish. In the case of Hereward of Mercia, Sutcliff describes him as “a man like a west wind and a thundercloud and a burst of sunshine all rolled into one.” Like Caratacus, Hereward does not follow the heroic pattern of dying young, but he differs because the legends that developed about him claim that he died on the battlefield.

With Prince Llewellin, the next-to-the-last champion of Welsh freedom, Sutcliff emphasizes his traits of leadership and recklessness as heroic qualities. After his death, his prior mockery and scorn of the English led to his head being displayed in London, something that she claims frequently happened to heroes. Sutcliff also poses the idea that “it might have been better for Wales if he had never been born, but if he had not, the world would have lost something bright and fierce.”

In the case of Robin Hood, Sutcliff presents theories that he might not be a single man but an idea or a succession of men. Because of the many contradictory ballads about him, Sutcliff claims that she is unsure regarding his identity and time period. Nevertheless, she believes that Robin Hood represents “a war of races, and the voice of the Saxons remembering old resentments and proud of old resistance to the alien overlord.”

William Wallace and Robert the Bruce were contemporaries, although Sutcliff believes that Wallace better exemplifies the myth of the hero because he died young. Both led Scotland in its fight against English domination. Wallace’s strength as a leader was diminished by one defeat, even though he continued with guerrilla warfare. For some reason, King Edward I had a personal hatred of Wallace. This hatred eventually led to Wallace’s being hanged, drawn, and quartered, a sentence that Sutcliff describes in detail. Wallace’s cause against the English was continued by Robert the Bruce, who was crowned king of Scotland in 1306. Because of his expert military tactics and the fact that King Edward II was then leading the English forces, Bruce was able to lead Scotland to victory and rid them of the English. Both of these individuals had the ability to lead and had faithful followings.

Owen Glyndwr, a descendant of Llewellin, led the Welsh against King Henry IV. Glyndwr fought long against the English, who believed him to be the devil because of the bad weather conditions and the way in which the hills could so effectively hide him and his men. Like Wallace, Glyndwr was eventually forced to use guerrilla warfare. A paradox exists in his life: Through his military expertise, the Welsh had many victories over the English, but because he “had believed in the justice of his cause and had the courage of his belief,” he ruined Wales in fighting for it. Despite this fact, people later remembered him for “certain glories that at his coming had woken from their long sleep.”

The last of Sutcliff’s heroes is James Graham, the first marquis of Montrose, who for a year, “as the defender of Scotland’s liberty could not make a false move or lose a single battle.” Montrose’s army varied in size daily as people would take up his standard. He remained loyal to King Charles I despite the king’s habit of breaking his promises. Thus Montrose’s failure to keep his promise to raise Scotland for the king was “the direct result of the King having failed him.”

In all these individuals’ lives, Sutcliff emphasizes their heroic qualities while placing them in their historical contexts. As a result, she reveals relationships that are not necessarily found in history texts. Through a unique blending of fact and legend, each life is revealed. Because Sutcliff’s standard for heroism allows for human foibles, these figures are realistically portrayed rather than presented as demigods.

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