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Hunter and the Hunted:
Courtly Love and the Many Faces of the Hero
Literature abounds in depictions of the hero.
Solomon, Esther, Gawain, and countless others call to mind tales of strength, valor, and passion. Whether a text's purpose is religious, instructional, or purely a matter of entertainment, a single character stands out. Emotion is often overpowering, as too, are the choices between what is right and what is wrong. Morality plays an equally important role in each of these "superhuman" stories. Frequently, the path of virtue is crossed by the highways of desire. A hero may take the high road, or he may take the low road, but which choice is correct depends upon the specific circumstances of the narrative, and upon the central figure's point-of-view. A bewildering array of problems, impossible tasks, and larger-than-life villains can turn closely-held beliefs inside out, and cause a hero to commit acts that, in other situations, might be condemned or even punished. Love, a common theme of the heroic tale, is generally of the forbidden variety, or involves the breaking through of seemingly impassible barriers. The sacred is contrasted with the profane. The physical with the spiritual. The commonplace with the extraordinary. The Biblical Song of Solomon and the Book of Esther deal with the themes of love and society, or rather, how love can mold and even transform social conventions. In contrast, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, concerns the idea of an "anti-social" love that is, nevertheless, exalted by the Medieval Code of Chivalry. Sir Gawain is a classic tale of Courtly Love, the chivalric ideal of the knight who will stop at nothing to obtain the hand of his "unattainable" lady. In each of these three stories, the hero of the piece must contemplate or perform actions that may, at first glance, seem immoral, or even amoral, but which are essential to the fulfillment of the tale, and thus, to the satisfaction of the hero or heroine's desire.
First in time among these pieces, the Song of Solomon is a poignant piece representing the desire of a woman for her beloved. Over and over again, strong sensory images are employed to convey the very real passion that is felt by the narrator. As the object of the heroine's love is a king, the choice of metaphor comes from the courtly world of the Ancient Near East. Specific reference is made to the kinds of objects that would, at that time, have signified wealth and celebration. Over and over again, one reads phrases such as," Thy love is better than wine" or "Our vines have tender grapes," or, "How much better is thy love than wine!" Wine is a "forbidden fruit," a thing of value that brings both pleasure and pain. In the Bible, wine is both praised as an aid to merriment, and condemned as a substance that excites violent passions. The most holy of individuals, those who wish to dedicate themselves to the Lord must, "drink no wine nor strong drink... [in order to] be a Nazarite (i.e. A person who is specially devoted to God)." In numerous passages, the pleasures of love are compared to other "pleasures of the flesh" as incense, jewels, and rare ointments. Solomon, the object of the writer's desire, is regularly represented as a warrior-king leading his people victoriously into battle. Though not directly likened to war, it is clear that the poem is meant to convey the similarity between those conquests that are achieved through force of arms, and those victories that belong to the struggles of the heart.
Inevitably, among all the martial and kingly imagery, one gets the sense that Solomon must, on some level, shirk his duties as a monarch in order to be with the narrator of the piece. Secrecy is important - the ability to slip off unseen to join one's beloved. Hardly is this a socially-accepted marriage that is celebrated and sanctified in full public view. Much as the traditional hero demonstrates his skills in battle alone, so too is Solomon, in this case, described as a figure apart. As well, the heroine of the poem is set apart from all other women: "As the lily among thorns," what is thy beloved more than another beloved," and, "There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number," and the heroine excels them all. One would suppose a king to be king equally over all his subjects, but here that is not so. This one woman occupies a special place in Solomon's heart, takes him away from his responsibilities as a monarch, and causes him to do things that, in most other situations, would be considered selfish, or even immoral. Nevertheless, Solomon is a true hero; a true hero not only to the author of this piece, but to all women who seek a man who will love them completely and to the neglect of all else. Solomon is a hero because he serves as the model for the ideal lover.
In a somewhat different vein, the Book of Esther is also concerned with the love of a king for a particular woman, and with that monarch's responsibility toward those over whom he rules. Yet here, Esther uses love itself as a weapon, wielding it to save the lives of her people. Haman, the man whom Ahasuerus, King of Persia, had placed "above all the princes that were with him," had commanded that all of the Jews in the empire be killed. However, Ahasuerus' own queen was a Jewish woman, Esther, and Esther had been raised by her cousin, Mordecai, also a Jew. At length, Esther interceded with the King on behalf of all the Jews of Shushan. This tale is interesting in that personal vanity, or self-love, plays such a central role. Haman condemns the Jews to death because Mordecai, on religious grounds, had refused to bow down to him, Therefore, Haman's love for himself is pitted against the right of others to live and to worship as they please, and also against the duty of a king to all of his people, for according to Persian custom, no law once made can ever be rescinded - The Jews will be put to death whether or not the King has a change of heart. Again, it is a monarch's very human love for a particular woman, that brings him into conflict with the laws and traditions that he is meant to uphold in the name of all of his people. To save the Jews, he must transgress his own law. But, if he does not commit this illegal act, he will bring great sadness to his own beloved, and so by extension, to himself.
Even more interesting, is the fact that Esther encourages her husband to violate his own law, even though such willfulness on the part of a woman had led to the banishment of the previous Queen, Vashti, at the beginning of the story.
Vashti's banishment is not because of her disobedience but because of the potential effects of her disobedience. If Vashti were not punished, her decision could be the start of a major revolution. Other women might Vashti's banishment is not because of her disobedience but because of the potential effects of her disobedience. If Vashti were not punished, her decision could be the start of a major revolution. Other women might look to her as their model; her example would then empower them to rebel against the domination of their husbands.
So, Esther's act of will is not merely a challenge to the "law of the Medes and Persians," but it is a deeper, and fundamental, attack on the order of society itself. By playing the heroine, Esther, like her counterpart in the Song of Solomon, is urging her beloved to break one law, and risk subverting others, all in the name of the few against the many. Furthermore, as in the previous Biblical selection, it is the personal, private feelings of King that animate his actions. Selfishness is lauded above selflessness, albeit for what most, in the case of Esther and the Jews, would understand to be a desirable goal. Weighed together in the balance, Haman's love for himself and for the laws of the land is but little when compared to the enormity of the King's love for Esther, and his desire for his happiness. In the Book of Esther, the self-love and love for others react upon each other, producing in one case, an evil design, and in the other, a noble outcome. Each kind of love is also transmuted into the other. Haman's "selfless" respect for Persian law is used for a purely selfish end - his own vanity, while King Ahasuerus' very private love for his Queen ends up benefiting an entire people, and as some might say, even the empire as a whole, because it results in the removal of a very evil man from a position of power.
Both of these…[continue]
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