Write Byte

The Warrior Poet as Hero

(December 4, 1998)

From a talk given at Orlando RWA Conference by Susan King, Mary Jo Putney, and Eileen Charbonneau

Return to Issue #63 of Laurie's News & Views

Who is the Warrior Poet?
Who is the warrior poet? A great romance hero archetype. We adore his various permutations, shapes, and sizes and spend a good part of our creative time with him!

His roots are in the Irish Fianna, an ancient society of professional protectors of the poor and voiceless. A man was not taken into this society until he not only proved himself in battle but also was a prime poet. In his trials he had to run through a gauntlet of nine fellow soldiers in Ireland's woods. His weapons could not quiver in his hand, nor could he crack a dry stick underfoot, or disturb a hair out of its braiding. This guy had to have finesse!

Mary Jo, Susan, and I see our heroes coming out of this tradition. They're crusty on the outside but sweet and balanced on the inside. We call them our M&M men. We'd like to make a case that the crusty, sweet-centered hero has a long and honorable tradition in literature and myth.

From legend and lore, out steps larger than life Robin Hood, King Arthur, Ossian, St. George (who, after slaying that dragon, helped in the birth of his children), Bevis of Hampton, and Guy of Warwick (who wandered in the desert for years rather than dishonor his lady love, though Susan forgets why!).

The heroes of Shakespeare's comedies qualify, as does Romeo, but not Hamlet or MacBeth (out of balance guys!). So do the Scarlet Pimpernel and Ivanhoe and Scaramoche. Jane Austen abounds in them, from proud Mr. Darcy to the tortured, loving suitor of the sensual Miss Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. The Bronte sisters sport one (Rochester of Jane Eyre) and another who's a different archetype: alpha (Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).

The Warrior Poet is everywhere. He's a favorite subject of the Pre- Raphaelite painters and Victorian "every picture tells a story" genre painting. Songs like Geordie and Reefs of Rye, When a Man's In Love and Anachie Gordon have celebrated him for centuries. He can be found in literature of genres besides romance, too. Try the balanced and decent policemen in Tony Hillerman's mysteries or Dave Robicheaux in James Lee Burke's tales. Who could forget the cheerful Australian POW Joe Harman in Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice?

And from Hollywood? Well, don't look to most of the heroes portrayed by Arnold Swartzenegger and Clint Eastwood, or the various Agent 007s or Rambos. What do they lack? Complexity. Growth, richness, emotional and spiritual substance. Balance. Some shining Warrior Poets spring from Harrison Ford in Witness, Star Wars, and Air Force One, Keanu Reeves in Speed, Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, Mel Gibson in Ransom and Braveheart, Liam Neeson in Rob Roy, and Kevin Cosner's Lt. Dunbar in Dances With Wolves.

So now that we know where to find him. . .who is he?

Who Raised This Guy?
The Warrior Poet is the kind of hero who might very well have deep dark secrets in his past causing emotional burdens. He may be a tortured soul filled with anger, fear, and the grief of tragedy in his life, but he's also had a time of unconditional love, so he knows how to give and receive it. It may come from strong feminine influences like the aunts and mothers and grandmothers who inhabit the heroes' childhood in Susan and my books. Or it may take a different tack, as in May Jo's Fallen Angel series. Her men come from an amazing variety of dysfunctional families, but band together in boarding school to give each other the love and support crucial to the emotional health of all (and their wonderful books!).

Now, Mary Jo is fond of saying that heroes can either torture themselves or the heroine, and she much prefers they torture themselves! Even when he hits bottom and keeps his pain to himself, he's never truly cruel - that's just not in our guys.

But violence and sacrifice on behalf of others? That's a different story. . . Stay tuned for the next installment!

Who is the Warrior Poet?
Who is the Warrior Poet? A great hero archetype, who we also call our M&M Man (crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside). In the last installment we discussed his current manifestations in popular culture and literature, as well as his roots in the Irish Fianna, robber outlaws, St. George, and the Arthurian cycles. We talked about his past - who raised him, and strong feminine influences that caused him to experience the great balancing effects of unconditional love. Let's bring him up to the present now, into the world of our stories.

Mary Jo believes that the hero is the most crucial part of a romance, the "linchpin that holds the story together." He has to be the man the readers fall in love with, of course. But he also sets the tone for the book. In her own books, Mary Jo finds that a humorous hero will make a more humorous book, that a dark brooding type will cast his cloud over the tone. I find this very true in her Fallen Angels series of seven books ("quite enough for a trilogy!" Mary Jo insists). River of Fire has the artistic passion of its protagonist, a plain, forthright hero who finds himself drawn toward the incongruous task of wielding a paintbrush as deftly as he wielded his sword in battle. Shattered Rainbow's angst is as palpable as conflicted, tormented Michael's torment in both love and war.

The Hero's Light Past:
It's difficult to make the alpha hero (who in real life is a bullying jerk, according to Mary Jo) believable as a hero. He spends the book chewing up scenery and sometimes the heroine, only to "reform" at the end and decide he's enamored of her. This is not always convincing to the reader. The Warrior Poet doesn't need to reform. He's more complex, more balanced to begin with. Pain is part of conflict in romances. The Warrior Poet usually does not torture the heroine, but he often tortures himself. There is darkness in this hero. Our job as writers is to make it fascinating in the way it's expressed. Out of his dark past he draws from that time he was able to give and receive love. It will be the catalyst that restores health and moves the story to the satisfying conclusion we all as readers love.

The Hero's Dark Present:
If the hero has known warmth in his past, it figures he's craving warmth now, in the dark night of our story's soul. That's where our intrepid heroine comes in, of course! He sees the healing power of the heroine and struggles toward it. The more clearly we can show our hero's pain, the more our reader will forgive him his missteps along the way. If we understand the reasons the hero is behaving badly, Mary Jo asserts, we can get away with a lot. No one does this better than Dorothy Dunnett, she asserts. In the six novels of her recently reissued Lymond Chronicles, the 16th century Scottish "hero to end all heroes" (Dunnett's stated objective)does things Mary Jo describes as "utterly terrible" and yet never without motivation. It's motivation that Lady Dunnett makes clear even without going into the hero's point of view, as most modern romance writers now feel free to do. So torture away, but remember that good, clear motivation is the key to success here.

Sacrifice/Violence:
An essential component of heroism is sacrifice. Mary Jo uses these examples: surviving an escape from a terrorist attack-that's lucky. Going into a burning building to save a child-that's heroic. And much can be forgiven a person who has this kind of courage, who is willing to sacrifice his own life for another. This often means battle, and battle entails violence. The Warrior Poet, either modern or historical, does not seek out violence, but when it's an unavoidable part of the defending himself and others, he's good at it. Whether in Susan's 14th or 16th century Scotland, Mary Jo's Napoleonic Era England or my 19th century America, our heroes don't kill lightly, but neither do they shirk. Remember the poster of Hawkeye from the film The Last of the Mohicans? It shows an utterly mobilized hero willing to risk all to find and protect Cora in the heat of battle. A powerful image! In contemporary settings, this passion can be seated in the hero's profession of fireman, police officer, FBI operator, but can also stem from plain, competent courage in the face of teaching in a ghetto school or being an honest accountant.

Connections:
Warrior Poets are connected. They have that security buried in their pasts, but sometimes it's also very much present in our story lines. Waltzing in Ragtime has my hero Matthew Hart surrounded by strong (and protective!) relatives who be calls his "badgering women." In The Randolph Legacy, Ethan Randolph has to plead with Judith Mercer to see him as a courting suitor in a Quaker culture that assumes for her a maternal role. "I have too many mothers!" he insists in frustration. Susan's Scottish Lords are often the protective guardians of a family keep that includes assorted charges of fallen relatives, like her warrior surgeon in Lady Miracle. Part of what helps our heroes achieve dimension is their roles as sons, brothers, fathers, friends. Another connection component is the hero's relationship with children. Whether he's a father himself or has no experience with the small ones, his reaction and relationship to them can go far to let our heroine and readers now what kind of man he is. Again, children open up a world of contrasts- fierce protection of the softest members of societies: baby cheeks and steel. Children provide a way to show our hero's softer side, especially when he's not ready to yet show that side to the heroine. Animals and elements of nature work well in demonstrating his capacity for loving tenderness too!

The "S" word:
It's time to talk about the M&M guy's dreaded sensitivity. Yes, he has it. And it is not a source of weakness, it's part of his strength and intelligence. These guys are fierce warriors (all of them, even the monks, midwives and landscape artists among them!) with a soft, compassionate side. We revel in their complexity. Although they carry sadness and burdens of pain in their past that are manifesting themselves in our story lines, they function and handle their lives, even with its poignant emptiness.

Hero/Heroine:
Our fascinating heroine throws our Warrior Poet even further off balance before he lands on both of what Susan calls "his emotional feet, knowing more about his inner emotional landscape." The heroine's gentleness and her own brand of courageous strength are his equal and his match. Though their lives are in conflict throughout most of our romances, they both find their way out of emotional ruts thorough their evolving relationship. they are cadylists for each other. As Joseph Campbell states: "Love is the burning point." They're both changed, they're both made more whole, as a result of their integration.

Because of all the contrasts and balance, of the yin/yang of past/present, past/present, male/female, violence/sacrifice, that our Warrior Poet stimulates, we feel our novels take on a richness impossible without him. By the end of the story our M&M guys are free to express and use their gentle side, their compassion and love. The Warrior Poet is a true (and we hope, delicious!) M&M - the shell of his confidence protecting the core of his compassion.

-- Eileen Charbonneau

Return to Issue #63 of Laurie's News & Views
Read article We Need a Hero: A Look at the Eight Hero Archetypes
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