Medb hErenn as Byronic Hero
Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien
ecently, Kevin L. O'Brien was doing research to figure out the nature and characteristics of Gothic literature, when he discovered the concept of the Byronic Hero. It struck him immediately that his character, Medb hErenn, met most, if not all, of the characteristics for this classically Gothic trope. However, unlike influences he forgot or which acted subconsciously, Mr. O'Brien is confident he had never encountered the idea of the Byronic Hero before, so Medb's near perfect match was serendipitous.
That Medb fits the role of Byronic Hero should come as no surprise. The Byronic Hero is a form of anti-hero, and was one of the major influences for the modern form of this type of character. Mr. O'Brien deliberately patterned Medb's development so she would be an anti-hero, so it would be natural that she would fit some characteristics. However, she fits more than just a few; she fits so many in fact that it stretches credulity that she would conform so closely by accident. Yet that seems to be the case.
Naturally, the most serious objection to the claim that Medb could be a Byronic Hero is that all known Byronic Heroes are men. Yet at least one scholar has suggested that Victorian literature also created what could be called the Byronic Heroine, though she does admit they are rare. Several modern examples have been suggested, including Xena, Warrior Princess; to that list I would suggest adding Scarlett O'Hara and Lt. Ellen Ripley from the Alien movie franchise. However, while Victorian sensibilities required the Byronic Hero to be male, there is very little in the characteristics that are gender specific. In other words, there is almost nothing that would prevent a female character from being a Byronic Heroine.
What follows is a list of the standard characteristics of the Byronic Hero, with explanations by Mr. O'Brien as to how closely Medb fits each one. While she may not match them all, not every Byronic Hero does either.
"dark" attributes not normally associated with a hero
Though not unique to the Byronic hero, this may be the single most important defining characteristic. The model for the Byronic Hero — Lord Byron himself — was described by Lady Caroline Lamb, a former lover, as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. This pretty much fits Medb quite well. Byron was not mad in the conventional sense, but was considered mad because he flaunted convention, and for his eccentric, flamboyant manner and his unpredictable temper. As such, the Byronic Hero tends to be much the same, only more so and often much worse. Medb is also unconventional and flamboyant, unpredictable, and very controversial. She is also promiscuous, a trait almost never seen in conventional heroes, especially chivalric heroes. In fact, one fan suggested I make her celibate like Red Sonja, because he found the idea of a sexually active female barbarian difficult to accept. Yet to a large extent that is the whole idea, to make her different from more conventional types of heroes. Medb is vindictive and will not hesitate to do whatever she needs to destroy an enemy. She loves fighting and combat almost as much as sex, and revels in the carnage of war. And while she can behave herself when in polite society, she is never what society would call a lady of good breeding.
emotional conflicts, bipolar tendencies, or moodiness
If "dark" attributes are the most important defining characteristic of the Byronic Hero, the most important defining feature is moodiness, brought on by conflicting emotions. To paraphrase Joseph Conrad, the Byronic Hero wants to be a saint, but he also wants to be a devil, and it is this tension that drives him. Sometimes he is the perfect gentleman, charming, debonair, and gracious, but in an instant he can change into a ruffian, repulsive, coarse, and inconsiderate. It's almost like Jeckle and Hyde, except not as extreme, but like his literary cousin the Byronic Hero is willing to use force to get what he wants or feels is his due, despite his own misgivings about such actions. And sometimes these mood shifts can be so extreme as to suggest a possible psychological disorder, such as bipolarism (the new label for what was called manic-depression).
Medb is not emotionally conflicted. Her seeming shifts from civilized behavior to barbaric acts are a product of the culture she was born into, not tension between a natural tendency towards violence and the desire to be civil. She does, however, have a volatile temper, easily shifting from joy to anger in an instant, as well as from hot to cold rage and back again almost as fast, but again the culture she was raised in did not teach children to suppress their true feelings. Her shifts can be somewhat extreme, and she is susceptible to black moods, but she is quite comfortable with being both a saint and a devil; in fact, she really does not distinguish between the two. Nonetheless, she shares the moodiness of the Byronic Hero even if she does not share his source for these moods.
self-criticism and introspection
Since the moodiness of the Byronic Hero is based on an emotional conflict between his best and worst natures, he tends to second-guess just about every action he takes, whether good or bad, and often his analysis will help determine his next course of action. Thus the Byronic Hero is constantly criticizing himself even as he rejects the criticism of others. However, this is probably the weakest part of the claim that Medb is a Byronic Heroine, because in fact Medb is the opposite of self-critical. Indeed, her greatest strength, which ironically is also her greatest weakness, is her supreme self-confidence. The only time she second-guesses herself is when she finds herself in over her head, and even then her only real concern is how to free herself from her current problem. And paradoxically, every time she narrowly escapes from a tight situation, rather than learn to be more cautious, her self-confidence simply grows that much stronger. She is introspective, but no more so than the average person. However, the Byronic Hero's self-criticism is almost never obvious to those around him. The only exception is his love interest, and even she must get past the persona he displays to understand his true nature. So the lack of self-criticism in Medb does not itself disqualify her as a Byronic Heroine.
struggle with integrity
Ultimately, the "dark" attributes, emotional conflict, and self-criticism lead to the Byronic Hero battling his own integrity as he seeks to balance contradictory desires. He wants to be accepted by society, yet he also wants the freedom to act as he sees fit. He wants to be seen as a loyal friend, but he also wants to be able to pursue his own selfish ends even at the expense of others. He wants to be loved by women, but he also wants to treat them like objects he can use and then discard. He wants to be thought of as fair player, but he also wants to win. He wants to be considered generous, but he also wants to claim whatever he can take. And all the while, he constantly struggles over what is the right thing to do.
As with self-criticism, this is probably rather weak support for the claim that Medb is a Byronic Heroine. Medb does not struggle with her integrity; she has a clear vision of right and wrong derived from her personal code of honor which is based on her barbarian philosophy. Her actions only seem contradictory to those who do not understand her. This is not to say that her code is harmoniously balanced. There are times when her selfish nature conflicts with her obligations towards others, especially her friends. At such times she can struggle with trying to figure out which should take precedence. Generally, however, she will not hesitate to defend the lives of those under her protection and she tends not to exploit those who are loyal to her, nor will she take from them things they value no matter how much she may covet them. Nonetheless, she will compete with them and she will do whatever it takes to win, short of harming or killing them. Yet all of this is part of her willing, deliberate nature, not some inner ethical conflict.
a troubled past
In Gothic literature, much of the foregoing is based on the Byronic Hero's troubled past. Whether his problems were of his own making or beyond his control, they largely shape who and what he becomes, and often his actions later in life are meant to compensate for or correct past wrongs. To a certain extent, this is true of Medb as well. Her mixed parentage made her an outcast in either society, and the feeling of isolation that resulted was intensified during her exile when she became the perennial outsider. As such, she had to fight for everything she felt she deserved, which often fostered additional problems. As well, her hatred of those she felt had wronged her prompted her to take actions that led to still more troubles; her exile was the direct result of her killing Elatha in revenge for his making a sex slave of her. Ultimately, the one major difference between her and the Byronic Hero was that she lived long enough to come to terms with her past and move on.
All of the above inevitably leads the Byronic Hero to become a cynic, as he tends to judge others by his own point of view. There are two major definitions of cynicism. The original was of a school of Greek philosophy that rejected all conventions in favor of pursuing virtue in a simple and unmaterialistic lifestyle. Its adherents sought to become self-sufficient and to live in harmony with nature, and they rejected the idea that money, power, and fame could bring happiness. The modern, or more correctly the pop culture, definition is the belief that people are motivated in what they say and do by self-interest rather than sincerity, virtue, or altruism. In essence, pop culture cynicism consists of a scornful attitude of jaded negativity and a general distrust of the integrity or motives of other people. This is the type of cynicism the typical Byronic Hero displays.
Medb is actually closer to being the former kind of cynic than the latter. Though she can adapt to local conventions when required to do so, she still tends to reject them in favor of her own personal conventions. So also pursues her own concept of virtue, but her lifestyle is far from simple and unmaterialistic and she embraces money (more correctly material wealth), power, and fame as guarantors of happiness. In this respect she is more like an Epicurean, though in reality she is a hedonist pure and simple. She is not, however, a pop culture cynic. While she realizes people can be motivated by self-interest, she also understands that they can be motivated by sincerity, altruism, or virtue. As such, she is willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt until proven wrong, something pop culture cynics refuse to do.
disrespect of rank and privilege
The Byronic Hero's cynicism in turn often leads him to disregard his social betters even as he longs for their acceptance. Whereas society in general assumes that the members of high society deserve their rank and privileges due to their breeding and pedigree, the Byronic Hero sees a group of people who either grabbed power or had it given to them in some bygone age when danger threatened, but who now long after the threat has passed away continue to hold on to that power by any mean necessary. As such, any show of noblesse oblige, rather than a sincere and altruistic desire to better the lives of those less fortunate, is really just the cynical belief that if you do a few good deeds for the peasantry, they will overlook how you exploit them and let you continue out of adoration.
Medb understands both sides of the issue. As a member of the Iron Age Celtic Irish warrior elite, she embraced the warrior code which demanded that the strong protect the weak. Also, the interdependence of ancient Irish society and the fact that the tribe as a whole held power rather than the chief or king made it very difficult for the aristocracy to exploit those beneath them. However, during her exile and after her resurrection, when Medb wandered the world, she witnessed first hand many instances when the privileged members of a society exploited those beneath them and made only token efforts to better their lives. Then too, being a former queen herself, she considers herself the equal of or superior to any royal or aristocrat, so she seldom comports herself in the way they would expect of her, either because they are unaware of her former rank or because they consider her breeding or nationality substandard.
As a result of his disrespect for high society, the Byronic Hero tends to regard himself as being superior to their accident of birth because of his personal achievements in gaining his current rank. Whereas their privileges were handed to them as a gift, he had to earn his through hard work and in the face of strong opposition. Yet his arrogance goes beyond excessive pride to become hubris. Among the ancient Greeks, hubris was a great sin that usually brought about one's own downfall. In Gothic literature, the implication is that when the Byronic Hero finally does fall, it is due to his arrogance, and if he is redeemed at all, it is because afterwards he can finally give himself wholeheartedly to the heroine.
Medb is certainly prideful, and her critics would charge that it is excessive. However, she is actually not so much arrogant as supremely self-confident, even overconfident. Nonetheless she is generally perceived as being arrogant because of her willful and stubborn nature, her general lack of humility, and her often haughty manner.
a distaste for social institutions and norms
It is perhaps not surprising that, considering his cynicism and arrogance, and society's tendency to ostracize him for his behavior, the Byronic Hero would develop a general loathing for established social institutions and norms, and seek to ignore, bypass, or even break them if he can. Unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle in which with each new transgression, society snubs him even more, which encourages him to become even more disruptive, and so on. It is this that often finally triggers his ultimate downfall. Medb also tends to find certain social institutions and norms distasteful, sometimes because she opposes the ideologies and behaviors they encourage, but usually because they oppose her own ideology and behavior. She ignores them as much as she can, taking the attitude that if they leave her alone, she will leave them alone. If necessary, however, she will fight against them if they actively oppose her. In her case, though, her distaste stems from her personal code of honor, not wounded pride.
being an exile, an outcast, or an outlaw
All of this tends to make the Byronic Hero an outcast within society, which in turn causes him to fight even harder for recognition. If he pushes too hard he can be exiled from society, either by being shunned or expelled from the community altogether. At that point he can even become an outlaw, whether figuratively or literally. Even so, M. H. Abrams, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, described the Byronic Hero as being "in his isolation absolutely self reliant, pursuing his own ends according to his self-generated moral code against any opposition, human or supernatural." This may in fact be the best possible single-sentence description of the Byronic Hero, especially for Medb because she fits it perfectly. She has always been an outcast in one form or another. During the mythological Irish Bronze Age, it was at first because of her mixed parentage, then later because of all the enemies she had made, especially among the Fomóraigh. She was even exiled for it. During her exile, she was the stranger in a strange land wherever she went, at best tolerated, occasionally revered, but never fully accepted. Upon her return to Ireland, her relentless ambition to unite Ireland under her rule by force, as well as her supernatural nature and alien racial makeup, kept her isolated from the Gaels she sought to protect. And in the modern and future worlds, she is the child out of time, even in her native Ireland, forever apart from the people and societies around her. Only in the Dreamlands, itself a world of outcasts, exiles, and outlaws, did she find acceptance and some semblance of a home. Her time there taught her to come to terms with her eternally outcast state and to embrace it as a source of strength and will.
high level of intelligence and perception
This almost goes without saying, because otherwise the Byronic Hero would not be as successful as he is usually portrayed. In fact, since the typical Byronic Hero seldom has the advantages that rank can bestow on a man, these traits may be his greatest assets. Medb is herself highly intelligent and very perceptive. She is also very experienced. She is so adept at reading people that it seems like she can read their thoughts just from their expressions, tone of voice, mannerisms, and body language. Her senses are also magically enhanced, and she has certain magical abilities that provide her with information her senses cannot. However, she is not particularly wise. While she can analyze a situation with great care and exactitude, she doesn't always come to the right conclusion, so she can miscalculate and make serious misjudgments. She can also be fooled or mislead.
sophistication and education
Being intelligent, the Byronic Hero is usually able to receive a fine education; some are self-taught. Prompted by his strong desire to be accepted by society, he concentrates on whatever studies will give him the sophistication he needs to properly interact with society. Medb is also well-educated, if self-taught, and eagerly seeks out new knowledge. However, her barbarian philosophy blends civilized sophistication with native savagery. As such, she can make herself at home in both a modern cosmopolitan city and a stone-age village of hunter-gatherers, though she tends to be a bit too savage for the former and a bit too sophisticated for the latter. Also, having been an aristocrat and a royal, she has some notion of proper genteel behavior among the upper class, though her warrior spirit and staunch personal honor makes her seem somewhat rough around the edges, and she can forget herself and engage in the "uncouth" behavior of a member of the Iron Age Irish warrior elite. Still, she can if necessary act in the manner expected of an aristocrat or social superior in whatever culture she finds herself in.
cunning and able to adapt
Sometimes, however, a Byronic Hero's intelligence, perception, and education are are just not enough to succeed. In such cases, these two traits work well for him. The ability to adapt allows him to size up a situation and alter his behavior accordingly. Cunning, however is an interesting term. It has two basic meanings: sly, crafty, or clever in a deceitful manner, and skillful. A Byronic Hero must be both if he is going to make a place for himself in society.
Medb does not adapt well, because she prefers to march to her own beat, but she does tend to adopt local dress, languages, weapons, and customs to some extent in order to make her way in new territory more easily, and if necessary she can suppress her natural inclinations. However, she tends to get restless if she must do so for too long, and she eventually moves on so she can resume her normal lifestyle. She also prefers to be candid and straightforward, and she does not lie, but by her own admission she is deceitful and she can play politics like a master. When necessary she can act slyly or think in a crafty manner to neutralize an opponent's advantages. With regard to skillful, she desires to be the best at whatever she does, especially fighting, so she trains constantly, and she seeks out the best instructors to teach her what she needs to know.
mysteriousness, magnetism and charisma
In Gothic literature, the Byronic Hero is presented as a mystery to the other characters. No one knows anything about his past, his family, his social standing, except whatever he might tell them. This mystery helps to empower his magnetism, for to an effete, jaded society, he can be a breath of fresh air. For the most part, however, his charisma is a direct result of his strong personality. At first this can be a positive trait, especially to the women, but in time, as his darker aspects become more obvious and his cynicism and arrogance come to the fore, it can turn negative.
Medb is a major mystery to everyone who knows her, even her mother, her few friends, and her numerous husbands, and that is exactly how she wants it. She reveals only what she wants other people to know, even about her emotional state, and that is as little as possible. People cannot help feeling strongly attracted to or repulsed by her, because of the force of her personality. She is often described as larger than life, and she has a commanding presence that engenders respect and makes her a natural leader.
social and sexual dominance
Whether for good or ill, the Byronic Hero's charisma makes him a dominant force in his social relationships, and along with his innate mysteriousness also grants him sexual dominance in his personal relationships. Medb tends to dominate whatever society she is in; even when she is trying to maintain a low profile, she still dominates the local community. She also dominates any personal relationship she may have, even with a husband.
power of seduction and sexual attraction
Women are often strongly attracted to the Byronic Hero because he seems virile, stronger and more forceful than the men they know, and his "bad-boy" persona can appeal to their own darker natures and sense of adventure. This, along with his sophistication and cunning maneuvers, makes him a master of seduction. Medb seldom seduces her lovers; she prefers a more straight-forward approach, namely just coming right out and announcing she wants to have sex. It tends to work, however, because her raw sexuality and animal magnetism are so strong as to be almost palpable, as well as irresistible. She can, however, be more subtle, and she has occasionally resorted to flirtation, depending upon the circumstances. Yet as in everything she is always the aggressor.
Nonetheless, despite his more positive attributes, the Byronic Hero still tends to engage in self-destructive behavior that can lead to his own ruin. However, in this case this does not mean self-harm; i.e., it does not mean he deliberately tries to hurt himself physically (though some Byronic Heroes do engage in activities that can result in severe physical injury if things go wrong). Instead, it generally means he deliberately or sub-consciously sabotages his own achievements and relationships, either as a way of coping with stress, out of feelings of unworthiness, or from a desire to repeat the struggle for success and so prove his superiority. Abrams noted that he was driven by guilt towards "an inevitable destruction".
Medb is not self-destructive in this manner. However, her overconfidence is her greatest weakness. She believes she can handle anything, and that often causes her to "rush in where angels fear to tread." Usually, by the time she realizes she's in over her head, it's almost too late to get back out, yet she never seems to learn from her misjudgment. It's almost as if, with each narrow escape, her overconfidence becomes that much stronger. As numerous people have warned her, one day it will be her undoing.
But there is one way in which she can and sometimes does sabotage her own efforts. A primary example is when she returned to Ireland after her exile, with the intention of uniting the tribes and kingdoms to prepare for the coming of the Romans. She knew she had an uphill battle, and the people living at the time made it more difficult than she had anticipated. But she ultimately failed, not because she could not control others, but because she could not control herself. She allowed herself to get caught up in the local political struggle, and she allowed her passions and the darker aspects of her personality — her vindictiveness and ambition — to get the better of her. As a result, she tried to unify Ireland through threats, intimidation, and warfare rather than through negotiation, cooperation, and alliances. And these are patterns which repeated themselves numerous times throughout her life. As well, her proclivity for having numerous lovers simultaneously, even while engaged in a "monogamous" relationship, often created problems in her personal life that then effected the larger events she was trying to influence. The point is that her unwillingness to discipline herself, and her tendency to give in to her passions and desires, can sabotage her own achievements and relationships.
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