Practice English Speaking&Listening with: The Byronic Hero: Isn’t it Byronic? | It’s Lit

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Edward Cullen.

Han Solo.

Killmoklknger.

Lestat.

What do all these characters have in common besides being heartthrobs?

They share a common ancestor: the Byronic Hero.

Brooding, sensual, violent, intelligent, and single-minded, the Byronic hero has been a

staple in literature dating back to the 19th century, but the archetype is all over film,

TV and even video games.

I see you Cloud Strife, all sad and angsty with your giant sword.

But what does it mean to be a Byronic hero?

And who was the man that helped create this iconic archetype?

Lets get into the myth, the man, and the literary legacy.

According to Professor Peter L. Thorslev, author of The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes,

and Romantic Contraries,

The characteristic Byronic hero. . .has borrowed characteristics from the Gothic Villain,

in his looks, his mysterious past, and his secret sins; and[...] from the Man of Feeling

in his tender sensibilities and in his undying fidelity to the woman he lovesbut he is

more than these: he is also a Romantic rebel.[...] he chooses his values in open defiance of

the codes of society

Thats right you defy the codes of society by beingsad and hot, with your slightly

stalker-like tendencies.

The Byronic Hero allowed for more complicated male characters to form and without him we

miss out on the development of the anti-hero.

But where did the Byronic hero even come from?

A very, very bad boy named George Gordon Byron aka Lord Byron.

Born to an absent father and a mercurial mother, Byron had a brilliant mind, but was tormented

due to being born with misshapen foot.

He came into wealth while young, but was surrounded by such a malevolent cast of characters in

his home life, he makes The Dursleys look loving and supportive.

Because of his slightly warped foot, Byron exercised excessively to make up for what

he saw as a flaw.

The other thing he was excessive about, was his love of the ladies (and the gents).

Enter: Lady Caroline Lamb, England, 1812.

Caroline Lamb, wife of future Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, had a very messy love affair

with Byron that had several public dramatic moments, including her breaking a wine glass

and trying to harm herself.

She notoriously called Byron: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

Definite a gemini, TMZ would have lived for it.

The real kicker came when Lamb wrote her gothic revenge novel Glenarvon, which frames Byron

as a vampiric figure who, through his incredible magnetism, attracts women only to suck out

their strength by stealing their hearts, and taking their innocence.

Glenarvon was basically a tell-all book under the guise of fiction with very clear allusions

to real people, allusions that were so obvious that it ended Lambs standing in society

…. forever.

But the public loved it and the main villain that Byron inspired, Clarence de Ruthven aka

Lord Glenarvon, wasdeliciously messy.

It was from this story that we got the first, non-Byron created, Byronichero.”

And lo, the Byronic floodgates opened.

Gothic and romantic fiction of the 19th and early 20th century ate this up.

The Brontes, Dumas, Hugo, Leroux, hell even Ian Flemings James Bond is pretty Byronic.

So why is this version of a romantic hero so popular?

There are many kinds of Byronic Heroes, but for the sake of everyone we are going to split

them into two groups: the Gothic and the Romantic.

Gothic novels which often blend together horror and romance feature dark hopeless figures

tormented by a wrong done to them that makes up their entire existence.

They can sometimes be villains, but are often anti-heroes possessing some sort of complex

emotional backstory meant to be sympathetic.

Some famous examples are Victor Frankenstein and Frankensteins monster (Frankenstein),

Captain Ahab (Moby Dick), Erik (Phantom of the Opera), and Edmond Dantès (The Count

of Monte Cristo)...and Megamind!

In Romance literature (ie Romance literature of the 19th century as opposed to the romance

genre we know today) the hero is a solitary figure who seeks to live out their life in

isolation, but is pulled into society against their will.

They have a mixture of monstrous appearances, yet alluring personalities.

They will yell at you once, and then stare longing into your eyes afterwards.

... Its kind of a red flag if you think about it.

Popular versions of this are Rochester from Jane Eyre, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights,

and ... pretty much any vampire in fiction who was ever sad about being a vampire.

They love to brood!

In the sad boy vs vengeance boy venn diagram what connects them is the grey morality that

makes you as the reader empathize with their situation.

The Creature from Frankenstein is reacting to the cruel world that created him and Victor,

while reckless, was genuinely frightened by what he had done and didnt deserve to have

his whole family slaughtered.

Edmound Dantèesdesire for revenge after spending fourteen years in a French prison

after being framed for a crime he didnt commit is very understandable.

However, does it actually justify the innocent lives lost in the crossfire of said revenge

quest?

Judge Claude Frollo from Victor Hugos 1831 novel Hunchback is a good man who loves his

adoptive son and younger brother, but is gripped with lust for a woman he can not have and

it tips him into madness quicker than you can sayIm losing to a bird.”

Heathcliff is such a compelling romantic lead because the text makes it clear he was forced

into becoming a bitter hateful man, but his young toxic love for Catherine and his lack

of redemption make him oddly sympathetic.

Rochester has this deep love for Jane and treats his servants kindly, but locks his

mentally ill wife in an attic and shames her for being sick.

Byron, he had this huge capacity for love, intelligence, and understood

the great beauty in the world.

But, also chaotic and emotionally aloof.

He was the baddest bad boy and the appeal of that character is

that misguided hope that one day you will be the one.

That you might ~ change him.

~

As literary genre critic, Conrad Aquilina eloquently put it: “The Byronic hero bears

the dual markings of both villain and victim.

He is a fallen creature in his own right; a dark angel bringing both love and death,

yearning for redemption and ultimately finding none.”

Erik, the eponymous phantom from Gaston Lerouxs Phantom of the Opera is a talented man whose

lifetime of pain has forced him to resort to extreme means in order to be loved by someone.

Like building a torture chamber right to his guest bedroom.

In EM Hulls 1919 novel The Sheik - not only is our hero abusive and tortured (which

I am putting mildly) he breaks his victim so hard she totally falls in love with him

by the end.

But dont worry, he feels bad about it eventually.

This novel, though incredibly ~problematic~ created a paradigm shift for the Byronic hero

and romance in general - before this, if a woman isdefiled”, she can only regain

her purity through death, but this time shegets a happy ending?

With the guy who kidnapped her?

Winning?

Though not as hot of a commodity in the mid-20th century, the late 20th century saw a huge

resurgence in the popularity of the Byronic hero - there was the emergence of the bodice

ripper subgenre of romance novels like 1972s The Flame and the Flower, which is considered

the firstbodice ripperromance and revolutionized the modern romance genre, and

it has a dynamic between its two romantic leads that isvery influenced by the Sheik.

And then theres more recent characters like Twilights Edward Cullen, and his spiritual

descendant Christian Grey (ugh).

Yeah, I know, but hes a really popular example so we have to talk about him.

Grey has severe childhood emotional and sexual trauma that keeps him from being able to form

healthy sexual or romantic relationships with women he respects.

Orable to respect women period.

But dont worry, here comes bright-eyed virgin Anastasia Steele, whom he gaslights,

abuses and makes her cry a lot.

She wants to change him and by the end of the thousand-plus agonizing pages, she succeeds,

and hes healed now, hooray.

These characters are all different from the more traditional, upbeat capital R - romantic

hero in that they are primarily shaped and motivated by their traumas, past and present.

One might note that overwhelmingly these characters are male and white.

But more recently we see more female characters who possess some Byronic qualities: Faith

from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Regina from Once Upon a Time, Olivia Pope from Scandal,

Catra from She-Ra, but those characters are punished a lot more by both audiences and

writers for their nature.

It tends not to be framed with the same seductive quality.

The alluring aspect of female and non-white Byronic characters is seeing them have the

freedom to be more complex than just idealized one-note types of representation.

Atara Stein argues that Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights and Eustacia Vye from

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy are Byronic heroes because of theirrebellion

against a conventional society that stifles individualityand thatthese Byronic

heroines take on the characteristics of the rebellious, ambitious, narcissistic, individualistic,

and ultimately self-destructive Byronic male.”

However both these female characters are killed off and those who are not, end up finding

their way back totraditional female values.”

This reflects the reality for a lot of women in history who were both brilliant, but were

also loud, and may have suffered from mental illness and didnt conduct themselves as

ladies

A major difference between the male and female variants, at least in the 19th century, is

that these female characters are not allowed to be romanticized in the same way men are.

Byronic heroes are unlikeable on purpose, but there will always be a privilege of being

white, male, and rich that allowed these characters to be so awful and get away with it.

Do you think Rochester would be able to get away with having a wife in his attic for the

lulz if he wasnt a white dude?

Byron died at 36 years old from an illness exacerbated by the then-common medical practice

of bloodletting.

I'll let you google that.

His tragic death at a young age made him a hero.

The world mourned him in the same way people mourned Hendrix, Cobain, Winehouse, the sudden

death of a great artistic genius who burned so hotly and wildly that it was no shock at

all he burned out so young.

But in a delightful touch of irony one of the greatest legacies of Byrons life was

his daughter Ada Lovelace, called one of the first computer programmers and some might

say even more of a genius than her own father.

And according to British literature Professor Andrew Elfenbein, “Byron is

not just an author, but an unprecedented cultural phenomenon.

His work affects not only the novel, poetry, and drama, but fashion, social manners, erotic

experience, and gender roles.”

The Byronic Hero has much in common with the broader concept of the anti-hero: tormented

by forces beyond their control, with a sharp wit that they have developed in order to cope

with whatever monstrous thing is innate to them, be it vampirism, childhood trauma or

a weird foot.

Now this damage doesnt make them good.

There is no good reason to emotionally manipulate people or to lock your sick wife in the attic,

but the cruel circumstances of fate make them tragic.

Especially when the story makes it clear that otherwise they might have actually been someone

capable of true emotional growth.

Leroux even ends his The Phantom of the Opera thusly - “With an ordinary face, he would

have been one of the noblest members of the human race.

He had a heart great enough to hold the empire of the world, and in the end he had to be

content with a cellar.”

All of the tortured romantic bad boys of literature, film, and television have a little bit of

Byron in them.

So next time you get deep in your feelings for Kylo Ren or cheer on the redemption of

Prince Zuko or secretly pop on Twilight for the 200th time, pour one out for Lord Byron,

to whom we owe so much.

Yet we still formed an entire romantic based around who he was, flaws and all.

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