Brutes, Wimps and Heroes.
The alpha male, the beta male and the chivalric ideal.
“Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.”*
I’ve been wondering about the ‘alpha male’ recently and why I find him such an inadequate ideal for a hero. Several things have come together to spark off this post, one of which was finding the essay by CS Lewis on ‘The Necessity of Chivalry’ from which the Mallory quote above was taken. Another was watching an interesting TV programme on the BBC recently called ‘Last Man Standing’. Both of which seemed, to me, to contrast the alpha male with the chivalric ideal.
My understanding of the ‘alpha male’ is that an alpha male is a man who is completely without doubt as to his ability to handle a situation. He’s arrogant. He knows best – or at least, he believes he does. He is physically strong and doesn’t hesitate to use that physical strength to get what he wants. He is prepared to over-rule anyone who opposes him. He does not feel, let alone express, fear or weakness or admiration for others. He gets what he wants, and if he wants a heroine or beta male, that person had better learn to like it, because they are not going to get away.
The alpha male is ruthless. He is not riddled with guilt or doubt, and weakness in others attracts his contempt. He doesn’t give quarter. If you bank on his pity, you’ll be in for a nasty surprise.
In short, the alpha male is a barbarian. He’s like a Viking hero who, having captured a bishop and being unable to understand what the educated man is talking about, beats him to death and thinks he has won the argument. He’s like Achilles in The Iliad, for whom nothing matters but his own glory. Snubbed, he’s willing to sit by and watch his friends die because someone took away the captive he was going to rape and thereby proclaimed that they were more powerful than he was.
This is not the sort of man I want to have to deal with, either in writing or in real life.
But what does that leave me with in terms of my own heroes? Must my heroes be ‘beta males’?
Well, I have to say I don’t really understand what a beta male is. I presume, from the fact that you typically have an alpha/beta pairing, that the beta male is a man who doesn’t mind being constantly overruled, controlled and dominated by his alpha partner. As he fulfils the role of a heroine, perhaps he’s meant to be more emotional, less self-assured, maybe a little passive? Is he a bit of a pushover? Maybe inclined to cry and hope for someone to come along and solve all his problems? Is he, in short, something of a wimp?
I’m sorry, but are these really my only choices? Brute or wimp? I don’t want either. I’m – to quote the song – holding out for a hero.
So what exactly do I mean by that?
Well, what I’m looking for in a hero is the chivalric ideal. It’s not my own invention – it came into Western culture in the Middle Ages – and it is epitomised by the quote by Mallory up there. My hero is a man who is ferocious at need, who can be an alpha male if the situation requires it. A man who is the fiercest and most deadly warrior on the battlefield, accustomed to death and hardship, sure of himself, strong. A man who wins.
But – and this is the clincher – he’s also a man who can then come home, get cleaned up, and discuss the curtains with his maiden aunt. Who can weep over a sentimental film and be trusted to look after a child. A man who listens to others, respects the rights of the weak and is gentle with those who need help. He doesn’t boast or dominate. He is meek, and by his restraint he allows others to exercise their own power. He is both alpha and beta at once, depending on what the occasion requires.
But, you may say, Launcelot wasn’t real. No real man could fulfil such an ideal. It would be completely unbelievable.
At which point I drag out my copy of ‘Men of Honour’ by Adam Nicolson and direct your attention to the battle of Trafalgar. This is of particular relevance to me because the naval officers who fought at Trafalgar are the role-models, the real life examples from whom I’ve taken Peter and Josh in ‘Captain’s Surrender’ or John and Alfie from ‘False Colours’.
Nicolson describes Admiral Nelson thus:
Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar would not have occurred unless he had allowed and encouraged free rein to the less conscious forces of devastating aggression, the desire to excel, the desire for prizes, the desire to kill and the desire to win.
But this is what Admiral Collingwood, who was second-in-command of the British fleet says of Nelson:
There is nothing like him left for gallantry and conduct in battle. It was not a foolish passion for fighting for he was the most gentle of all human creatures and often lamented the cruel necessity of it, but it was a principle of duty which all men owed their country in defence of her laws and liberty.
Collingwood himself, who was at war most of his life, wrote long gossipy letters home to his sisters and was devastated at the death of his dog, Bounce.
The violence and overwhelming bloodshed of Trafalgar are well known, but what is less well known is that immediately following the battle, the British fleet did everything humanly possible to save the lives of the French, during the three day storm that broke over them all.
Violence and gentleness coexisting, switching from one to the other when needed. Proving, if you like, that the chivalric ideal is something which is very far from being unobtainable.
Indeed, it’s not even a phenomenon of the dim and vanished past. ‘Last Man Standing’, which takes six modern young men out to compete against the warriors of various different tribes at their own particular forms of sport/ritual combat, showed that the ideal was alive and well. I’m thinking particularly of Richard and Rajko, who – when forced to kill animals for food – mourned. They were self-effacing, they spoke of their doubts and hesitation rather than boasting about how inevitable it was that they would win, and they attacked the challenges with every bit as much aggression as the ‘alpha males’ on the show. Rajko’s stepping up to the mark in Trobriand, despite a half-severed toe, and taking his team to victory against all the odds was a ‘Chariots of Fire’ moment I’ll not soon forget. All the better for being real and not fiction.
So I have no hesitation in making John Cavendish from ‘False Colours’ the sort of person who would blush in real discomfort on hearing a dirty joke, and take on a dozen men with an axe in the next breath, nor in letting Alfie Donwell beat up the boatswain of a rival crew and weep inconsolably over a dead bird.
If this means that both of my heroes are alpha and beta males at the same time I can’t help but feel that not only is that historically accurate, but that it makes for an interesting dynamic. There should be a back and forth – and a potential for conflict – there that just doesn’t exist in a less equal relationship.
Plus, of course, they both get to be awesome, and they both get to be tender. Twice the value! They know, as Captain Anselm Jon Griffiths says in his ‘Observation on some Points of Seamanship’ published in 1809
The man who endeavours to carry all before him by mere dint of his authority and power would appear to me to know little indeed of human nature.
You tell it how it is, Captain! No one likes a smart-arse or a bully 😉
*Thomas Mallory; ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’. Sir Ector is describing Sir Launcelot.