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The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes by Peter Thorslev (1962)

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Thorslev’s The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes is a sprawling examination of the development and influence of the Romantic hero archetype, with a specific focus on Byron’s interpretation of the hero that came to bear his name.  It is a thorough and impressive catalog of just what it claims, the major examples and antecedents of the Byronic Hero in the Romantic period and its preceding eras.  In attempting to understand the origins of this figure, Thorslev also attempts to understand his widespread influence, including how he continues to shape conceptions of the heroic in the modern day, even by his absence in an anti-heroic climate.  There had not, to this point, been a definitive study of this character type’s ancestors in the literature at large before Byron, and the author sets out to map that uncharted territory.  This is a mission that The Byronic Hero accomplishes with aplomb. Thorslev’s central argument is that the Byronic Hero, for all of his identification with his poet namesake, did not spring full-grown from Byron’s head like some latter day Athena, but grew out of a well-established tradition that had developed along clear lines.  This nuanced reading of the Romantic hero’s literary pedigree challenges convenient labels and explanations that had previously been in favor.  Thorslev defends this position well with his careful cataloging and analysis of the likes of pre-Romantic characters such as Werther, Karl Moor, and Faust, illustrating how each helped shape conceptions of the heroic for the writers who followed, most notably Byron.

Thorslev's Motivation Edit

Thorslev undertook his study to address a serious lack of attention towards this figure as it manifested in Romantic literature across the age, previous studies having tended to focus only on the Byronic Hero in specific contexts, be it as an outgrowth of the villains of Gothic novels or in the search for the erotic element of Romanticism.   The author criticizes some of these works for being too overzealous in the pursuits of their individual themes, so much so that they provided distorted impressions of the spirit Romanticism.  Thorslev thought to address this confusion by careful constraint of his own methods and scope of study.  He states that he intends to scrutinize only the literary elements of the character type, eschewing what he regards as excessive focus on biographical information or attempts to map out direct lines of influence.  He condemns such efforts, at best damning them with faint praise, and indicating his own plans to focus only on the texts, ignoring, for the most part, biographical studies.  Thorslev points out that Byron, in particular, has fallen prey to an undue focus on the biographical at the expense of the literary, blurring the lines between the Byronic Hero and Byron himself.  Given the poet’s extremely colorful life, this is perhaps to be expected, but Thorslev sets out his definite plan to avoid such focus.  Though he does indulge in his own biographical asides from time to time, he never allows such ruminations to reflect in his analysis, which he limits strictly to the texts themselves.  Thorslev also does not attempt to prove direct influence for the most part, not concerning himself too much with whether or not one author had read another, but rather putting his efforts into establishing the nature of the literary atmospheres of the different eras of his study.  His attempt is not to prove direct descent but to create a sense of the culture milieu that produced these various texts and heroes.  

In his pursuit of this goal, Thorslev employs a hierarchical view of literature, revealing clearly established ideas about the relative worth of various writers, but he prefaces his work by acknowledging that such judgments are modern constructs and very often are not those that would have been shared by the writers’ own contemporaries.  As such, his analysis takes into account not only the canon-enshrined luminaries of the Romantic tradition, but also their popular counterparts that have since fallen out of favor.  Thus, secondary writers of the time, including Scott, Southey, Campbell, and Moore, as well as minor writers from the Continent, all receive attention, as their works, though not as enduring in the modern era as the likes of Byron and Wordsworth, were very influential in their own day.  They both influenced and were influenced by the cultural trends that created the romantic hero.  Thorslev takes pains to establish the relative success of certain characters as proof of their influence and popularity, and he points out that the “heroes of the general reading public were Marmion, Roderick Dhu, Child Harold, Conrad […], Lara, and Manfred; not the Ancient Mariner, Alastor, and Michael” (15), despite their relative popularity in the modern era.  

Methodology Edit

The author begins his analysis by establishing a set of prototype “pre-Romantic” heroes, including the Child of Nature, the Hero of Sensibility (or the Gloomy Egoist), and the Gothic villain.  He provides thorough examinations of each type, listing numerous examples, and building broad sketches of their basic characteristics and tracing their development, always with an eye to how these precursors informed the growth of the Romantic archetype.  Each type receives its own chapter with in-depth analysis of the major examples and how they relate to one another, and Thorslev further subdivides each, noting their own origins, as with the Child of Nature being descended from the earlier concept of the Noble Savage.  Notably, Thorslev avoids convenient generalizations, and he constantly complicates his own schema, pointing out the mixed ancestry of the major literary figures of the period and the interplay between different character types.  He acknowledges that the archetypes are most pure in the weakest literary offerings of an age and that the most weighty texts tend to present characters that push at borders of type.

After establishing his literary ancestors, Thorslev investigates the manifestations of the Byronic Hero himself, including The Noble Outlaw, Faust, Cain/Ahasuerus, and Satan/Prometheus.  Once again, each of these categories receives a chapter-length analysis, but there is an implied progression in their presentation, as Thorslev approaches Byron’s own use of these figures. Notably, the legendary figures like Satan, Faust, and Prometheus receive impressive attention, and their Romantic ancestry is well-mapped beyond their obvious sources like Milton and Aeschylus.  Thorslev does a good job establishing the growing enthusiasm for these characters and their imitators as it manifested in multiple periods and as it evolved from merely sentimentalized beginnings to the Titanic manifestations at the height of the Romantic Movement.  

 Having taken stock of Byron’s Romantic contemporaries and precursors, Thorslev launches a more thorough analysis of the poet’s major works employing this type in his final chapters.  He begins with Childe Harold, which he regards as a first stab at the type, though an uneven and conflicted example.  It is notable for illustrating Byron’s own developing conceptions of the Romantic Hero in the poem’s various stages of composition.  Next, Thorslev explores the Four “Turkish Tales,” Byron’s verse romances, including The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara.  Once again, Thorslev argues for a progression in Byron’s conception of the hero in the succession of poems.  The author argues that Byron moves further and further towards a more unified characterization of his heroes with these romances. Finally, he investigates Byron’s two closet dramas, “Manfred” and “Cain.”  Thorslev paints Cain as the final establishment of the Byronic type, arguing for his being the highest expression of the poet’s conception of the Romantic Hero.  Thorslev makes a convincing defense of his contention that in both Byron’s Cain and his Lucifer, the titanic rebellion of the Byronic Hero reaches its fullest expression.

In his final chapter, the author takes some time to discuss, in brief, the influences of the Byronic type on the eras following the Romantic period, paying special attention to the decline of the archetype’s popularity and the arguments about the Romantic era’s influence on fascism and the rejection of the “Great Man” myth that followed the World Wars.  Thorslev points out the weaknesses in the arguments that attribute the evils of Nazis and fascism too closely to Romantic philosophy, and notes the similarities between the psychological dilemmas of some of Byron’s heroes.  The concluding chapter is followed by an excellent appendix with further information and a bibliography for all of the character types he has examined.

Critical Conclusions Edit

Taken all together, this book is a fantastic resource for any serious scholar in the field, and while it could certainly be helpful for a wider audience, especially students of Romanticism, Thorslev assumes a deep and thorough knowledge of the subject matter in his presentation of his arguments.  Many students would likely find the threshold of expertise here to be high.  The only real weakness on display is Thorslev’s over-reliance on German texts for his sections on the Continental response to Romanticism.  Thorslev clearly has an impressive familiarity with the German Romantics and their precursors, but in focusing on Goethe and his contemporaries, it is possible that the author gives short shrift to the contributions of other Continental influences.

Looking back, the timing of this study is of interest.  While in his introduction Thorslev references the Romantic period as the last great age of heroes, the era of this text’s publication saw the rise of its own fairly romantic set of characters.  This text arrived just five years after the publication of On the Road, with its disillusioned, lonely, and melancholy protagonist, who sets out on a quest for meaning that is ultimately unfulfilled.  How much does he sounds like Thorslev’s description of the Byronic hero, with his dark, moody mien and his “burnt-out passions,” rebelling against anything but the pure expression of the self and unable to commit himself to any absolute, no matter how attractive?  Gone is the Titanic stature, the aristocratic power of the cosmic rebel, but many of the other qualities resurface in the literary movements of the 50s and 60s.  It seems the publication of this study was well timed, at least insomuch as its subject is suited to the rise of the Beat generation, both in terms of ethos and in terms of literary expression, as many of the era’s leading figures claimed inspiration from the same poets discussed in Thorslev’s book.  Thorslev describes the age of Romanticism as “one of rebellion – social, moral, and philosophical, but he adds that “it was also an age of heroes.  These poems and novels therefore satisfied the taste of the age: they gave it a surfeit of heroes, all passion and fiery energy, all moral, intellectual, and political rebellion” (16).  The cultural climate was ripe for such a study, and the landscape of post-Romantic heroic influences would have looked much different if it had been reassessed just a few years later on.

Works Cited Edit

Thorslev Jr., Peter L. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962. Print.

Contributed by N.E.H. Fayard

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