Arya’s Odyssey and Aragorn’s Actium: Rebirth of the Epic Hero in Modern Fantasy
[This post is shortened from a paper given at the Image of the Hero conference (Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery, Colorado Springs, CO 3/20/14). The paper was well-received and sparked an interesting discussion at the conference, and I hope others will enjoy it as well! – I took the above picture in 2011 in Essaouira, Morocco, the coastal city that served as Astapor in GoT season 3, where Daenerys acquired her Unsullied army.]
For a study on the representations of heroism in literature, one the most interesting genres is the epic. The words ‘epic’ and ‘hero’ have been found together since Renaissance Italians began studying the ‘heroic age’ in literature and dubbed its protagonists ‘heroes.’ Since then, one cannot conceptualize an epic without a hero. The word ‘hero’ has a wide range of connotations, as the very nature of this conference indicates, but in the context of the epic, its meaning falls within a specific set of parameters. In this paper, we will first define the epic hero as he is understood during the ages of epic, specifically the western classical world and the European Middle Ages. During the death throes of epic poetry during the Renaissance, the novel began to offer a different conception of narrative form, and both the epic and its hero disappeared. I argue that the fantasy genre has allowed the rebirth of the epic hero in ways not possible in other genres. We will focus specifically on two heroes from the major fantasy sagas of the century, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The choice of Aragorn and Arya Stark allows me to address two distinct forms of epic poetry, the teleological epic of collectivity, and the wandering romance of individuality. By applying the work of epic theorists to these fantasy sagas, I present Aragorn as a new Aeneas, whose destined kingship will mark the beginning of a new age, and Arya as a gender-swapped Odysseus, a guileful hero motivated by revenge and the desire to return home.
What is epic? What is its hero?
To describe the epic hero, we must first define epic. The term is especially problematic due to its overuse in describing everything from ski passes to concerts to ‘fails’. Its ubiquitous contemporary usage as a synonym for ‘big’ or ‘impressive’ is logically derived from the word for the long narrative poem. Aristotle’s Poetics uses epikos a word already common in his day to distinguish the long narrative poem from other forms of writing. Later authors of the Renaissance called the style the ‘heroic poem’ or ‘heroic work’ or simply a ‘long poem’. The understanding was a versified narrative of heroic action in the style of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. English began to use the word ‘epic’ to describe such works in the 16th century. The epic must treat themes of war, and its hero must be an exceptional figure generally of noble birth. As the epic is designed to represent a cultural collectivity, the hero must serve as an example to his people, both within the narrative and outside of it. He is the embodiment of the group’s cultural exceptionality. The epic hero is generally known for a particular quality that sets him above other men: cunning Odysseus, swift-footed Achilles, pious Aeneas, or Father Aeneas. These qualities are so essential to the character that these descriptions become an epithet in the poetry.
In the Middle Ages, where epic takes on a different form, the exceptionality of the hero is often expressed in Christian terms. As such, the hero’s status as hero is not called into question: there is no more ambiguity around the status of King Arthur than there is around Aeneas. As Roland famously cries at the battle of Roncesvalles, “Pagans are wrong and Christians are right!” This binary conceptualization of good and bad began to lose relevance in the Renaissance, especially in light of the Reformation, and genre theorist György Lukács cites this major change in world-view as a reason for the death of the epic and the birth of the novel, a form better-suited to expressing the complexity of the time. Even now such a lack of ambiguity in contemporary characters strikes us as odd, except in fantasy. In Tolkien, the heroes are easily distinguishable from the villains as world fights a supernatural tyrant, but Martin’s civil war narrated from multiple points of view breaks the tradition of moral clarity and gives us surprising and engaging fantasy. Let us now look more closely at our modern epic heroes, Aragorn and Arya.
For a discussion of the hero in a mythological context, it is impossible to ignore Joseph Campbell’s hugely influential 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. His thesis of one essential monomyth is clearly applicable to this paper, but I demonstrate similarities beyond the archetypal stages of the hero’s journey. Arya is introduced in her ordinary world of family life at Winterfell, and Frodo meets Aragorn in his own world of travel as a ranger, though the hobbit is first to receive his own call to adventure. It is interesting to note that Arya is immediately presented as a failed Penelope, the longsuffering wife of Odysseus who holds her suitors at bay through the womanly art of weaving. The opening line of Arya’s first point-of-view chapter stands alone as a paragraph and states “Arya’s stitches were crooked again.” Martin immediately establishes that Arya will not play the role of the patient Penelope; despite her inability to refuse her call to adventure (her father’s execution) and being launched into events beyond her control, much of her quest consists of the development of her agency as a character.
In order to achieve the ultimate boon and complete the return stage, the hero must transform through the abyss, often involving a descent to the underworld. Aragorn fulfills this stage as he travels the Paths of the Dead to summon the Dead Men of Dunharrow in a moment essential to Aragorn’s identity as epic hero and founder of an empire. His journey to the underworld is much like that of Aeneas in book 6 of the Aeneid; this moment marks the acceptance of a destiny as king, a role both heroes are reluctant to play. Aeneas leaves the underworld ready to found a new Troy in Italy, and Aragorn claims his heritage for the first time, assuring the Men of Dunharrow, “I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart forever. For I am Elessar, Isildur’s heir of Gondor.” The underworld journey forces him to assume his destined name and title just as Aeneas’ forces him to accept his role as founder of Rome.
Arya’s relationship with death is one of her most interesting features as this communion enables her progression towards agency. While Aeneas and Aragorn both travel physically through a world populated by the dead, Arya, like Odysseus, brings death to her. Odysseus’ journey to the underworld provided a model for Virgil, but it is important to note that the Greek never crosses into the other world. Odysseus performs a blood ceremony at the threshold of the underworld, and “the souls / of the perished dead gathered to the place, up out of Erebos.” The dead come at the hero’s call to provide essential information to complete his hero’s mission. Arya’s relationship with death begins with her first kill and later intensifies through her relationship with Jaqen H’ghar as he bestows upon her the power to kill three people in payment to the Red God. This ability to “kill… with a whisper” signals the beginning of Arya’s agency; she proclaims herself to be the ghost in Harrenhal, and for the first time, she becomes an agent of change. Arya’s time in Braavos at the House of Black and White (the sanctuary of Jaqen’s devout assassin order, the Faceless Men) defines her relationship with death; she is not merely a killer, but learns to bestow ‘the gift’ herself. Here, she claims to become “no one” just as Odysseus assumes the identity “nobody” for his interactions with the giant Polyphemus. As the series remains unfinished, we do not yet know the full implications of Arya’s journey to the abyss, but already the girl who left her home in Winterfell has been more transformed by death than anything else.
Larger Epic Contexts
Though Aragorn and Arya fit well into Campbell’s monomyth, this is about more than just the hero’s journey; it is also about the role he plays for his people, both in the context of the story and for the poem’s audience.
As essential as the conflict between hero and king is to the epic, its resolution is what allows the conclusion of the narrative action. In The Hero and the King, Jackson states that epics are born in periods of social unrest in which conflict between the hero and the king challenges old ideals; without this conflict, the epic cannot exist. Fantasy’s world-building allows its authors to create the necessary tension. The Lord of the Rings presents a conflict similar to Aeneas’ upon his arrival in Italy; Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, must be removed before Aragorn can assume his rightful throne. Denethor insists, “I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart… I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.” Turnus similarly refuses to accept the foreigner who arrives to supplant him, and both representatives of the established dynasty die for this refusal. Aragorn himself is aware of the potential of a power struggle and he has “no mind for strife except with our Enemy.” Though he unfurls the banner of the kings during the battle of the Pelennor Fields, he remains outside the city until the war is won and the new Steward Faramir invites him in as king. King Latinus also recognizes the mutual benefit of union and marries his daughter to the Trojan.
Two major theorists on the socio-political circumstances required for epic will help us understand why fantasy is better suited than other contemporary genres to fulfill the terms of epic. In Epic and Empire, Quint distinguishes between epic and romance, describing the former as the teleological genre of the winners and the latter as the wandering journey of the losers. The Aeneid is an interesting example of both and is thus essential to both Quint’s study and ours; the first half narrates the romance wanderings of Aeneas after his loss at Troy, but the underworld journey transforms the work into a teleological epic of conquest. To understand the end-driven narrative, Quint highlights Aeneas’ prophetic shield that depicts the culmination of Roman as the battle of Actium, from which the Roman Empire is born. Thus the winner’s epic presents a vision of the world, told from the winner’s perspective, in which action is divinely-driven and their victory is immutable. This builds upon Lukács’ earlier description of the epic as a totalizing genre. In The Theory of the Novel, Lukács proffers the idea that the novel is born at the beginning of the 17th century because developments in the understanding of the world lead to a situation that can no longer support epic as the prevailing view of the world shifted from a base in totality to contingency. Lukács insists that the totalizing nature of epic is no longer suited to a more developed society, so the genre ceded its place to the novel.
If we look closely at modern fantasy, we can see that the creation of myth in a world built by the author once again allows a teleological narrative and a totalizing worldview. In a 1956 letter, Tolkien described his writing intent as “being precisely to restore to the English as epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own.” His depiction of the time between the Elder Days and the Dominion of Men means the defeat of Sauron and subsequent founding of the Age of Man takes precedence over Frodo’s individual quest. Prophesy plays a large role in the founding of a New Age, as it does for Aeneas and his descendant Augustus; the famous prophesy about Aragorn ends with the line “The crownless again shall be king.” Aragorn himself acknowledges the teleological nature of his quest on the Paths of the Dead saying “I go on a path appointed.” Such teleology cannot function in a real world setting where outcomes are ruled by contingency. It is only through the creation of mythology in the realm of fantasy that Tolkien is able to restore the teleological aspect of ancient epic.
The loser’s romance, by contrast, does not see action as end-driven, but rather as a product of circumstance. Martin’s fantasy would does not offer a totalizing worldview; his narrative is based on contingency and thus more closely resembles Quint’s description of romance, whose characters are prone to fortune rather than fate. This is true of Arya as her journey mimics that of Odysseus, though both ‘romance heroes’ appear destined to return home (especially if we consider Arya’s direwolf, Nymeria). Eddard’s execution and Arya’s escape from Kings Landing align her with the losing side of conflict. Like Odysseus, her principal desire is to return home, but she is swept away by circumstance and repeatedly kept from her goal. Like Odysseus, she must continually adopt new identities in order to move forward and assume agency as a character. While Odysseus’ need for revenge begins later in his journey when he learns of Penelope’s suitors, Arya’s revenge-driven quest begins with her call to adventure. At this time, we cannot know if Arya will indeed return home as Odysseus does and likewise slaughter those responsible for her family’s strife.
Despite these ties to Odysseus, Arya breaks from tradition, notably through her gender and her age. Throughout this paper, I have referred to the epic hero with masculine pronouns because the epic hero is fundamentally male. Women play important roles in epic, as goddesses, wives, mothers, and witches, but whatever their importance, they are primarily defined by their relation to male characters. The female warrior is a common component of epic, and while these women may be very skilled in battle, they are usually defeated by a male warrior before being either married or killed. Even Tolkien’s Éowyn is married off after defeating the Witch-king of Angmar. Arya, however, breaks the mould; she is an epic hero in her own right, and it would be surprising to find her married before the end of the series. While Arya detests sewing and would rather be a knight than a lady, it is clear that she does not wish to be male. Her repeated insistence of “I’m not a boy” and “I’m a girl” show that she has no desire to pass for male. Her role may be that of a traditional male hero, but this frequent reminder of her femaleness has a profound implication for a gendered conception of the epic hero. Her role as hero is not because she is ‘acting like a man,’ but she is a hero in her own right by making her own choices. Similarly, her extreme youth is highly unusual for an epic hero (indeed, she is only 9 when the story begins). Her training with the Faceless Men sets her apart as the order rarely includes children. Throughout, neither her age nor her gender calls into question her status as hero; rather, these differences only add to her exceptionality.
To conclude, we can see that similarities exist between the epic hero of old and the hero of modern fantasy that go beyond surface-level plot comparisons of the monomyth. Arya’s status as wandering hero on the losing side of conflict fits into Quint’s analysis of the loser’s romance as a celebration of individualism; like the romance hero, her story is driven only by personal motive. Tolkien’s interest in creating a new epic for England culminating in the founding of the Age of Man allows a return to the teleological narrative of epic that was not possible in earlier forms of novel. Aragorn represents the collectivity described by Quint in the winner’s epic both within the story and without. Like Aeneas to the exiled Trojans, Aragorn founds a new empire for his people in uniting Gondor and Arnor. Since Aragorn belongs to the human race rather than another, the reader can relate to his bringing the race of men to the forefront of “history” just as Roman readers of the Aeneid shared the collective experience of their common ancestor. While genres have clearly evolved over the centuries, it is interesting to find new potential for reviving ancient literary forms like the epic hero.
 Song of Roland, trans. Glyn S. Burgess (New York: Penguin Classics, 1990), l.1015.
 The super quick version: ordinary world, call to adventure, departure, threshold guardians, helpers, abyss (death and rebirth), ultimate boon, transformation, return.
 George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam, 1996), 68.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 772.
 Homer, Odyssey, trans. Richmond Lattimore, (New York, Harper Perennial, 1965), 11.35-36.
 George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings (New York: Bantam, 1999), 469.
 Update 9/30/16: This paper was given after only three seasons of the show and five books had been released. The show has since moved on, confirming in episode 6.10 my belief in an Odysseus-like Arya who returns home to Westeros in disguise to begin fulfilling her quest for vengeance against those who wronged her family.
 W.T.H. Jackson, The Hero and the King: An Epic Theme (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 2.
 Tolkien, 835-836.
 Tolkien, 843.
 Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics (and Other Essays), 180.
 Tolkien, 176.
 Tolkien, 766.
 Edit 9/30/16 – Since this paper, HBO’s Arya has now begun this quest for vengeance.