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Men and Masculinity

Stories Of Men

The earliest surviving text of classical Greek civilization centers on the deeds of ruling-class men, informed by a conflict over men's rights to women. Homer's Iliad presents a vivid picture of a military encampment and a besieged city, with warrior-heroes roaming the countryside, carrying off women and occasionally massacring the population of a captured town. War is undoubtedly men's affair, and both courage and military skill are tests of manhood. The business of men in these stories is to rule, cultivate land, found cities, and fight. Greek legend includes warrior women, but they are exotic figures. The central women in Homer's tales are Helen, the wandering queen who was fought over by the men, and Andromache and Penelope, archetypes of domestic faithfulness.

Yet Homer is no admirer of pure brawn. The mighty but slow-witted Ajax is of limited interest in the Iliad and becomes almost a comic figure in later Greek literature. The hero Achilles is an invincible fighter but is at the center of the story precisely because he is also highly emotional, takes offense, and refuses to fight. The hero of the Odyssey is perfectly capable of slaughter—Penelope's suitors ultimately get the same treatment as Helen's. But Odysseus is far more famous for his quick wit and his ability to talk his way out of trouble.

Attic drama of the fifth century B.C.E. tells a string of stories about men, power, and violence. They include the conscience-stricken Oedipus, the proud and rigid Creon, the vengeful Orestes, the prying Pentheus, and the faithless Jason. Classical Hellenic literature thus presents a spectrum of images of men. The texts complicate, and often call into question, the central image of the warrior-prince, which nevertheless remains an ideal, a point of reference.

It was the uncomplicated image of the warrior-prince that passed down into modern European tradition as an ideal of masculinity, reshaped by feudalism. In Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century reworking of the Arthurian legends, for instance, the presumed context is always one of fighting or preparation for fighting. Although Malory's Morte D'Arthur presents variations in the style of warriorhood—some of the knights are cool and others are hot-blooded, some are painfully honest and others treacherous—skill in battle is always the vital test of the "worshipful" knight. Yeomen and villeins are another question to Malory, but among his elite, there is only one male character who is not part of the armed competition for "worship"—the unaccountable prophet/witch Merlin. Arthur himself, it is easily forgotten, was a bastard even in the mainstream legend, and pulling a sword from an anvil was hardly an established form of royal election. He had to establish his claim to kingship by mass killings—"passynge grete slaughtir," in Malory's phrase—in a protracted civil war.

Historic images of warrior-heroes were handed down, and reworked as somewhat more widely available ideals, in European modernity. The point is made in a British popular song of the eighteenth or nineteenth century:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules,
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these,
But of all the world's brave heroes, there's none that can compare,
With a tow row row, with a tow row row, to the British Grenadier.

So it had already been in Shakespeare, with his archetype-soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. (As You Like It, 2.7.150–153)

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