On Courage


Last night as I was falling asleep (or tossing and turning, depending on the point of view), a portion of the climax scene for the Perceval novels came into my mind, playing out like a movie.  No, I’m not going to describe it here (smile), but what came into my head upon waking this morning is this: is Evan Quinn a courageous character?  Or is he actually a wuss?  And then, how does a writer create a courageous character without sounding preachy or goody-goody about it?

What is courage?

When I looked up “courage” in my handy dictionary, I found an interesting word history.  It comes from Middle English “corage” which came from Old French: “cuer,” the word for “heart.”  To have courage is to have heart.  Well, the definition is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.”  But it also takes nerve to be courageous and a strong heart.  Courage does not mean the absence of fear.  Courage is the ability to act despite fear.  Using fear as a motivator rather than a paralyzer.  Courage is something most people believe they don’t have and don’t think about it, especially in the midst of an action that is, in fact, courageous. 

It takes courage to express oneself honestly and create original, fresh writing, share that writing with others through publication (or a blog), because the writer is sharing her soul, her innermost imaginings and heart for others to read and experience.  This is true for artists in general.  And every occupation has something that is fear-inducing and requires facing that fear and doing the job anyway.  Performers suffer stage fright but perform.  Conductors (and other musicians) also suffer stage fright but they conduct.  Having that fear, that edge, can also be a good thing.

I haven’t decided yet whether Evan is courageous or actually a wuss.  My imagination gave me only last night some of the material I need to figure that out.  He is very much a human being with flaws and strengths, and a heart.  I trust that by the time I arrive at the climax of book 5, Perceval’s Choice, my imagination will have provided me with more material so I’ll know the answer and will be able to write the ending to that book and the series….

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20 responses to “On Courage

  1. The best characters always seem to be those that seem like the most ordinary people but do extraordinary things because of the circumstances they are thrown into. People related much more to John McLain than to James Bond. Maybe Evan is a wuss – a real over-the-top wuss tortured by everything and everyone – who under a set of extraordinary circumstances finds courage that even he didn’t believe he had. Now that would be an interesting character to me.

  2. There are various virtues in medieval social or religious philosophy. I participated in a discussion about which was the most important: courage, joix d’vivre, humility, generosity, mercy … I don’t recall the 7 virtues they were considering as the ‘knightly’ ones.

    One man argued that courage was the most important virtue, as it is required before one can pursue the others. One must have the courage to be humble (i.e. the courage to face the potential of humiliation), to embrace the joy/fullness of life (I.e., one must be able to risk losing it), etc. etc. etc.

    I happen to agree with his argument. Perhaps it is because, of all of the virtues, it is the one I most wish I had? I know I’m capable of being generous, or humble, or patient (ok, not often, but I know I can do it).

    As you pointed out, we often don’t see ourselves being courageous. It is often easier to see the immediate consequences/outcomes of the performance of other virtues. Giving someone money so that she doesn’t get thrown out of her home with her two kids – easy to see it’s generous. Letting someone else take the limelight – humility, etc.

    But, how can I tell if I’m being courageous? I think it a more nebulous concept than many of the other virtues. Charging the enemy guns in a war can be a pretty damn stupid thing to do; throwing oneself on an IED rather than have your comrades-in-arms get blown to bits can certainly be courageous. But – thankfully – there aren’t any bombs going off in Mpls these days.

    What about the child who stands up to the playground bully to defend another child? I think that is perhaps more courageous than the soldier in the above example. An adult choosing to give up her life for someone else is making an adult decision with the knowledge of the consequences. Is she fearful of the consequences? Yes (otherwise it’s back to stupidity). A 10 year old standing up to a bully is doing so likely with a fear totally fueled by ignorance of the potential outcomes.

    I read a definition of courage once: being afraid and doing what is necessary anyway.

  3. Great to see you here, Chad! Thanks for the comment. I’m thinking of Evan as being both courageous and a wuss…and I don’t mean that as a cop out. Each person is full of contradictions, and good characters have their contradictions too. How is Evan courageous? In his job as a conductor. It takes courage to perform. How is he a Wuss? Now I’m working on my definition of wuss to see how Evan fits the term….

  4. Elizabeth, I tend to agree with you about courage. I think it takes a LOT of courage to get out of bed each day and live, especially in this world that we all have created for ourselves. I have often thought of war as stupid, so a lot of combat is mostly stupid, too. Defending one’s home is another story, however.

    Maybe another way to define courage is being afraid, knowing the possible outcomes, but acting anyway to change the outcomes….

    • Hi, Hugo,

      Yes, I’ve researched the original Perceval story from France. Perceval defeated the “Red” Knight, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, in order to make room for himself to be a knight at the same table. Arthur sent him, Galahad and Bors in search of the Holy Grail. Perceval actually found the Holy Grail but did not realize it because he asked no one about what he was seeing. His “blindness” in the face of plain evidence is what truly intrigued me about the story. He wasn’t particularly courageous, although he’s supposed to have had lots of adventures in the story. Galahad went mad as a result of the search, and Bors was the sole knight who returned to Arthur.

      It’s fun to ferret out stories and legends from the past that illuminate human behavior….

  5. Yeah, the tunnel vision or not seeing something that is right in front of him is a trait of the Percevals, for sure.
    His courage is like innocence
    Another myth about the story is that it was in Wales were Perceval grew up, it was actually Goeul or Gaul as we now know it – so the Northern France location makes sense according to the real Percevals/Brescheval/Percivals.

    Many Percevals and their descedants have some pretty common traits:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Thomas_Perceval
    – …history by his fearless and honest exposure of himself

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Maurice
    – would approach any subject whether it be mundane or profane

    I like very much Elizabeths’ discussion on humility, it is a necessary trait for courage.

    • Thanks, Hugo, for the comment and the links! You sound like you’re really into the Perceval story down through the ages. I found it as a result of reading through a names book. I really liked the King Arthur connection, too, and it fit perfectly what I was trying to do with the character. And I like the name in general….(smile)

  6. If you dig into the House of Yvery history, the Earl of Egmont describes the many possible origins of the name:
    Knight on horse: Per cheval – as in perched on his horse.
    Per se Valle – regarding inner strength or independence in action and thought, from Latin.
    and yet another…since it’s hard to confirm after a about a thousand years

    You are most welcome, I like the name too!

    Spencer Perceval was also a fearless U.K. PM who was the only one assassinated actually, and right in the hall of the House of Parliament. He was responsible for putting Wellesly on the field in the Peninsular War that ultimately led to defeat of Napoleon Buonaparte, over almost a decade ending up at Waterloo when he came back to the continent as the Duke of Wellington.

    • I had also thought that the name could mean “pierce the valley” in French, which refers to a military strategy. Which also has a somewhat erotic allusion and that pleased me no end!

      Very interesting tidbit about Spencer Perceval (now those are two great names together!).

  7. sorry, didn’t finish:
    Val de Perci is the last major possible source of the name. The Google books link makes it easy to search within 🙂

  8. http://www.patdeegan.com/blog/archives/000006.php According to this description, courage is also about defiance, while keeping your heart and head together.
    Spencer’s son was very much affected by his father’s murder (some sources state he had witnessed it even..).

    • Thanks, Hugo, for this link! How interesting and rich. I think it’s true that humans are not taught really to listen to the inner voice. The default seems to be that we have no inner voice and if a person does, the poor sod is nuts. But that inner voice is wise and true….

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  13. After the Franco-Normans had conquered England, they though it best to convince the local Angles, Welsh, and Saxons, who had all thier leaders hunted down and slaughtered (unless they swore allegiance, of course) that the new overlords were related to the Round Table Crowd.
    So the legend of Arthur was updated with a twist that included Norman knights such as Percival (Robert D’Ivry de Perceval). See youtube The Normans (loss of identity) – there was even a point where graves were dug up, all in the name of propaganda and to tie the new leaders to being part of the land and legends.
    Roman Emperors did this too, linking themselves to the source of Rome, stating their descendence from Romulus and Remus. See what Octavian did once he became Augustus, even to the point of buiding a place on the Palantine Hill, just next to the cave where the wolf was supposed to have raised these famous twins.

    • Hugo, this is very interesting. I had no idea that “Perceval” had such a twisted history! Somehow, the Franco-Norman charade certainly fits in with the original Perceval legend about not asking questions, simply accepting what you see even if you don’t understand it. This is what drew me to the name to begin with. Thanks for following up with this comment!

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