Romantic Hero in Archetype and Fashion

Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

During the last few weeks all occasions have conspired to make me think about the hero in archetype and fashion; specifically the romantic hero.

First there was my book winnowing, about which I have already mourned on this blog.  Identifying the books I absolutely couldn’t bear to part with has resulted in a personal romantic classics shelf.

Then there was describing one of my current works in progress to a non-writing reader. (Well, she did ask me.) Did my romantic hero have to be a lust object, she wondered. I considered. I mean I love him to bits but he can be seriously annoying, to author and heroine alike. Not a universal lust object, I concluded.

We talked a bit about myth, story theory and Christopher Vogler’s influential guide to the Hero’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces).

Which brought us to Bridgerton, the Netflix Phenomenon, of which more in a future blog.

And then, following the recent awards for the Romantic Novel of the Year, I’ve been dusting off my collection of the award winners of the RNA’s first half century, 1960 – 2010. And oh boy, did the fashion in heroes change over that time.

My Earliest Romantic Hero in Archetype and Fashion

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been reading – and, to some small extent, writing – romantic fiction since I was knee high to a chaise longue. I could recognise a romantic hero when I found him on the page before I was eight.

Image by MythologyArt from Pixabay

I recognised when he was a bit substandard too.

Wilfred of Ivanhoe is a case in point. (Didn’t tick the Good Judgement Box. Fancy childhood sweetheart, compliant Rowena, over courageous, independent Rebecca? Come on!)

I compared him with John Ridd in Lorna Doone. Wilfred fell at the first hurdle.

He might be a mighty warrior, loyal and incorruptible. But basically, he was a bit of an idiot when it came to people. But he went down very well with 19th century readers. They were keen on clean-living patriotic idiots and were fairly unreconstructed about Jewish heroical characters, at least until Disraeli and Anthony Trollope.

Note that this was before I had any awareness of  the power of sexual attraction, levels of hotness in guys or, indeed, the human reproductive system.

Romantic Heroes Don’t Fight Orcs

steampunk girl with book - change an orcI came across Joseph Campbell’s book about the same time as I was absorbing Jung on Dreams and Passion and Society by Denis de Rougemont. They all excited me. It felt as if serious people were acknowledging the power of magical thinking.

Mind you, at the same time I’d got to the term when we studied the Romantic Poets. Byron rather pulled me up short.

Lord Byron

In one way Byron was Campbell’s Archetypal Hero with his personal disasters, his adventures, his companions on the road, his lofty ambitions and, finally, his commitment to A Cause.

Unfortunately, in his own person he well and truly sank the romantic hero with his “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart. ’Tis women’s whole existence.” In other words, serious people could think in some depth about philosophy and metaphysics, But emotional development, pair bonding and love within society  were things they fitted in between Quests.

Sadly, Byron was the archetypal Free Spirit (Male). He was very, very fashionable in his own day and long afterwards with people of a similar persuasion. He certainly practised what he preached, as a number of women could attest to, not least Caroline Lamb.

Emma Darwin, on her marvellous blog This Itch of Writing, quoted Campbell’s sadly similar assessment: “In the whole mythological tradition, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to. When a woman realizes what her wonderful character is, she’s not going to get messed up with the notion of being pseudo male.”

Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's lover

Lady Caroline Lamb

Pseudo male! Yikes! No wonder we’re still having to wave a flag for #RespectRomFic.

Emma Darwin went on to say, with admirable moderation, “I found it in Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, which I got onto thanks to John Yorke’s Into The Woods. I think it’s going to complement Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise very helpfully, for all those writers of novels where the heart of the story is psychological and emotional change and growth within the village, not fighting orcs and throwing scary rings around.”…/the-heroine-s-journey…

John Ridd wouldn’t have given either Byron or Campbell the time of day.

My Own Classic Romantic Hero

a giant monster reaching outLooking at my personal classics, I do sometimes find heroes who challenge the orcs of their world, starting with David in Sweet Witch by Richard Llewellyn (1955) and moving through Eva Ibbotson’s Marek in A Song for Summer (1997).

Llewellyn’s hero is a patriotic Welshman in the time of Napoleon and his orcs are the English redcoats.

For Marek, in pre-war Europe, the orcs are Nazis. But his whole life is so much more than simply outwitting the oppressors. Marek is probably based in part on her former teacher, ecologist David Lack, and he inspires and sustains people who need both.

But the core matter of both books is building emotional connection and strength to face a changing world together.

Orcs are temporary issue along the way.

I shall probably return to my personal classic collection many times, now that I have identified the relevant books. But so far the only quality that I can detect in my favourite heroes, is a certain degree of competence in one significant area of life. It might be practical household management, it might escaping the jungle, it might even be controlling cats. But there is something in them that makes me a) smile and b) feel that they are worth their salt.

Sexy as sin may be nice but is not essential. Worthy of respect is.

I think integrity is probably the core. (And I think that may well turn out to apply to the Bridgerton heroes and heroines too.)

Romantic Novels of the Year

Witches' Sabbath by Paula AllardyceThe fashion in heroes over the first fifty years of the Romantic Novelists Association changed markedly.

In the sixties, the prize went to mainly contemporary books about middle class people, struggling with domestic issues. Though the second prize winner, The Witches’ Sabbath by Paula Allardyce included a hint of witchcraft, a dash of time slip and a border-line violent relationship between two lovers who had already parted once.

By the seventies, historicals had taken over and the heroes were both more flamboyant and dictatorial. And the class element had widened too. This lasted into the eighties and early nineties.

This was the time when the so-called Hot Historicals were huge sellers. A Hot Historical hero was often mysterious, always sexy and not afraid of breaking the law. Or a spot of rape and pillage either.

Definitely inspired by Rhett Butler, the gun-running rapist who entranced the forties in Gone With the Wind, he was widely known as the Alpha Hero and he set my teeth on edge from Page 1, I’m afraid. I recoiled from Captain Butler in both book and film, even though I admit that he could sometimes be funny and was usually a truth-teller

By the end of the 90s through to 2010, Romantic Novels of the Year  were largely contemporary, often with complicated extended family relationships.

As a result the hero’s role was often one of silent support and consolation (and witty comment) rather than sweeping the heroine off her feet. Sometimes strained, ultimately consoling.

Archetype Romantic Hero?

What is clear is that the Campbell/Vogler Archetype is essentially on his own. In spite of A mentor and possible companions, he decides and takes action on his own. His relationships mostly fall away as he completes his quest.

He may end up with a crown, promotion to the stars or a statue and a hero’s grave. But he’s on his own.

The Romantic Hero is the reverse of this. Over the course of the story, he is learning emotionally,  building a relationship on which ultimately he and another person will depend for warmth, support and kindness in whatever reverses or triumphs occur. He is, I think, infinitely various.

So far I can see, fashions change, so that what is acceptable at a certain time may be either bleurgh or downright nasty at another.

But Archetype? I really can’t detect one.

Sophie Weston Author


2 thoughts on “Romantic Hero in Archetype and Fashion

  1. Kate Johnson

    That’s interesting about Rhett Butler. I never really saw him as a romantic hero (say it with me: GWTW is not a romance!) but he is a really interesting character, and a lot more honest with himself than a lot of other characters. It’s a bit like rooting for Jaime Lannister I suppose: you don’t have to admire him to enjoy him. And Rhett is more or less the only person in GWTW to display any sort of sense, and to resist the propaganda of war that Scarlett and everyone else falls for. In fact his explanation—that war is a colossal waste of life, and he abhors waste—has stuck with me ever since!

  2. Liz Fielding

    I could never quite get my head around the way Rhett treated Scarlett, but they are both heroic and yet deeply flawed. Deeply frustrating characters. While I was reading this I was thinking about the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke Skywalker was definitely the archetype, with Han Solo developing into the romantic hero. Great character arcs over those three films which is undoubtedly why they are so memorable.


Have your say . . .

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.