Paper 1, revision.
March 2 2002
Xena: A Modern Byronic Hero, err… Heroine.
The Byronic hero, named for Lord Byron and his tales of dark, brooding, guilt-tortured wanders, is an enduring archetype. The hero of Byron’s Manfred is the most frequently cited example of a Byronic hero. He is a mysterious and gloomy character who has powers and passions superior to common mortals but who is tortured by guilt (Abrams 552). But the Byronic hero did not die with Byron. It continues to appear in modern pop culture. For example, Xena, the heroine of the cult classic TV series Xena: Warrior Princess is a modern example of Byronic Hero, with a few changes.
The most obvious twist is that Xena is a Byronic heroine. She is part of a growing trend of strong women, tough chicks and female warriors that has become popular in recent years. In fact, Xena was among the vanguard of that army. The traditional Byronic hero is not only male but in many ways very masculine. He is a man who women desire and men admire. Xena is a woman who both men, and many women desire and who both men and women admire (McLain). Xena has all the traits of the classical, masculine warrior-hero. She is a great warrior, strong, fierce, courageous and stoic. She is very much in the line of Odysseus and Achilles or Beowulf. But she is as also beautiful and sexy in a “femme fatal” sort of way. She also has, increasingly as her story continues, a soft, loving, protective and motherly side.
Another twist is that Xena shares with many recent incarnations of the Byronic heros is that she is, for all her darkness, a hero. The brooding, haunted Byronic hero has been mixed with the superhero: the super-human champion of justice and defender of innocent bystanders, small children and damsels in distress. Instead of being completely indifferent or even hostile to normal, human society, they protect it, but are forever apart from it. Xena must protect the world from what she used to be in her quest for an ever-elusive redemption.
The character of Xena was first introduced on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, as the tough-chick love interest/villain of the week. Xena was a warlord, meaning she ran around with an army and conquered things, killed people and burned villages. Then she met Hercules, who reformed her formt eh proverbial dark side, after which she wondered off being guilty and depressed and not in the least sure what to do with herself (“The Warrior Princess”, “The Gauntlet” and “Unchained Heart”). The answer came when she realized that it was not enough to simply give up wreaking death and destruction; she must fight to stop those who do so in order to atone for her own sins (“Sins of the Past”). So, she employs her talents for death and destruction against the Evil Nasties of the world.
In Xena’s case her love is not what damns her; it is what redeems her. Her affection for Gabrielle, who is essentially goodness and innocence incarnate, is the thing that makes her a sympathetic character, both in the eyes of the audience and in her own eyes. Xena becomes steadily less dark and frightening as the show goes on and her relationship with Gabrielle deepens. In fact, by the final season Xena’s character has become downright cuddly, at least in comparison to her earlier self. One could argue that Xena’s ambiguously sexual love for her sidekick is a forbidden love because it is between two women. However, the lesbian undertones of the Xena/Gabrielle relationship seemed to be more a topic of controversy around the show than in it. It is never directly addressed in the show and it is never entirely clear whether the characters are supposed to be lovers or just really, really, really close friends. A more central issue is Xena’s guilt over her fear that association with her will destroy Gabrielle, either by getting her killed or by destroying the innocence and idealism that is central to her character. As Manfred’s love destroyed his beloved, so Xena fears to destroy hers. But this fear underestimates Gabrielle. Gabrielle does loose much of her innocence and her naïve idealism, but it doesn’t destroy her. She retains her basic goodness and her ideals and becomes a sadder but wiser and much more competent character.
The Byronic hero is usually beyond ordinary mortals in some way, and Xena’s prowess as a warrior is downright supernatural. It is never very well explained why or how she can catch arrows in flight, do standing back summersaults ten feet into the air, single handedly fight off an army of armed men or demons and make the pieces of her chakram fly off in two separate directions and execute a complicated series of maneuvers before retuning to her. It is enough in the context of the show that she can, and does at ever opportunity.
The Byronic hero is “in his isolation absolutely self reliant, perusing his own ends according to his self-generated moral code against any opposition, human or super natural” (Abrams 552). The phrase “We make our own destiny” was the motto, so to speak, of Hercules, Xena’s reformer and onetime lover. Though the phrase is his trademark, the idea is still a pervasive force in Xena’s stories as well. She will be no one’s pawn. Like Manfred, Xena refuses to bow down before higher powers (and, in the mix-and-match theology of the show, there is no shortage of gods for Xena to defy, battle, ally with, destroy or annoy as she sees fit). She not only defies the entire pantheon of Greek gods, individually and collectively at various times, but kills most of them in “Motherhood”, to defend her daughter. Perhaps the best example of Xena’s defiance of divine will is in relation to the quesi-Christian league of angels and their unseen god who replace the pantheon. She allies with them and fights as their champion until they meddle too much in her life. Then she not only refuses to cooperate, she tries to drown an Archangel (“The God You Know”).
Abrams describes the Byronic hero as driven by guilt toward “an inevitable destruction” (552). In Manfred’s case, it is not so much an inevitable destruction as a death wish that is first thwarted and finally fulfilled (in a rather strange manor). For Xena, dying once like a normal person is not punishment enough. Over the course of the show, she dies and is resurrected twice, her mission not yet completed, her debt not yet paid. In the final episode she dies (And stays dead, despite her sidekick, who would resurrect her) so that the souls of the people she killed can rest in peace.
It says a great deal about the popularity of the dark, dangerous, tortured character of Xena that Xena: Warrior Princess, a spin off Hercules: The Legendary Journeys not only prospered, but became more popular that it’s progenitor. It ran for six seasons, acquired a large and loyal following and a place as a pop culture icon. Nor is Xena the only current TV hero to reflect characteristics of the Byronic hero. Angel, the vampire with a conscience of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin off Angel, Spike, also from Buffy and Dark Angel’s haunted, transgenic super-soldier Max come to mind. Dark, deadly and depressive seems to be in style in modern entertainment.
Abrams, M.H. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2. Seventh Edition. New York. W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Lord Byron, George Gordon. Manfred. 1817.
McLain, Cathy H. Xena and Heathcliff: Classic Byronic Heroes. http://www.whoosh.org/issue6/mclain.html. 19 February, 2002.
“Motherhood” Xena: Warrior Princess. Prod. Rob Tapert. Dir. Rick Jacobson. Writer: RJ Stewart. WB20. KBWB, San Francisco. 15 May 2000.
“Sins of the Past” Xena: Warrior Princess. Prod. Rob Tapert. Dir. Doug Lefler. Writer. RJ Stewart.WB20. KBWB, San Francisco. 3 August 1998
“The Gauntlet” Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Prod. Rob Tapert. Dir. Jack Perez. Writer. Peter Bielak. WB20. KBWB, San Francisco. 14 May 1995
“The God You Know” Xena: Warrior Princess. Prod. Rob Tapert. Dir. Garth Maxwell. Writer. Emily Skopov. WB20. KBWB, San Francisco. 29 January 2001.
“The Warrior Princess” Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Prod. Rob Tapert. Dir. Bruce Seth Green. Writer John Schulian. WB20. KBWB, San Francisco. 26 March 1995
“Unchained Heart” Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Prod. Rob Tapert Dir. Bruce Seth Green. Writer. John Schulian WB20. KBWB, San Francisco. 21 May 1995