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A Fictionista’s Map of Manhood from Antiquity to James Bond

January 8, 2021
man in teal tank top and black shorts standing in front of statue
Photo by Chris Curry

Manhood. It almost feels archaic to write such a word. It’s become a muddled term, seeming to have as many definitions and contradictions as there are coffee beverages offered at Starbucks.

But despite all the opposing interpretations of what manhood should or does mean – from treatises on “toxic masculinity” to the men’s rights movement; from domineering fictional fantasy lovers like Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, to men who bare their souls the way sweet, sensitive Noah does in the blockbuster novel and film, The Notebook – I don’t think this manhood thing is as difficult as we make it out to be.

In fact, I think a clear roadmap to manhood is right in front of us and has been all along. We’ve just been reluctant to use it. Worried that if we rely too much on historical interpretations of masculine attributes, we could compromise the progress women have made, or the way men have evolved in modern times.

But if we’re to unlock the very best of male traits for our twenty-first century brothers, sons and lovers (and in my case fictional characters), we can’t afford to disregard the wisdom of the past. This map to manhood that history’s mothers and fathers put into place came at great cost and through a harrowing process of trial and error.  ​They gave us our heroes and villains. Our rituals and rites of passage. Enabled the very freedoms women now enjoy, and the equal partnership between the sexes that we currently hold as ideal.

So, that’s where we’re going to begin – with the ancients. They are the logical first point on our map and we can find our way from there.

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Classical Greek male virtues were ones of courage, fidelity, industry and duty. Who can argue with that? These are tenets of manhood that linger on, regardless of whether men are perceived as living up to them or not. 

The Romans were a bit more elaborate, placing humor, mercy, frugality, wholesomeness (health), honesty, dignity, and a host of similar traits on the roster of model masculine attributes, but they ultimately concluded that the sum of a real man is one who lives a life of virtue, plain and simple. One who aspires to answer to his better angels.

Yet from a purely romantic perspective, all this virtue business is a bit dry and could use more fleshing out. As cute as the Roman’s were in their togas and gladiator outfits, they weren’t particularly romantic in nature. If we want to understand what a woman really craves in a man, how a man is just dying to be seen by women (and the world), we’ll do best to keep our eyes trained on fiction. Because it’s only in the novel, the story, that we get off the main highways and take a more scenic route to manhood.

Ahem. I said fiction.

Anywhere from the legend of King Arthur onward will do, if you want to stick to the less ancient classics. Tales of chivalry and love are particularly good at clearing away the cultural debris on our path, and allowing us to see what it takes to be the kind of man that makes a girl jump on the back of his horse and ride away with him to an uncertain future. One she is confident he can navigate. Stories like Don Quixote, Dracula, The Hobbit, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Call of the Wild, The Count of Monte Cristo, even Sense and Sensibility in its quiet, mannered way, chronicle the kinds of masculine characters who answer the call to adventure, and in the process, endeavor to do right by those they encounter. They use the knowledge they gained during their exploits not only for their own personal fulfillment, but to be of better value to society at large.​

As we move further down the map, mid-twentieth century writers such as Kerouac, Hemingway, Stienbeck, Salinger, and even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson give us a different perspective. They show us what a man wants to be at his wildest, while illustrating how perseverence, duty, even when a man is flagrantly shaking off the shackles of domesticity, keep him from straying too far from his role. Some of these authors – Salinger comes to mind – are especially adept at revealing to us what can happen when a man foregoes the map entirely and walks off into into unchartered territory. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Seymour Glass, despite his intelligence, talent, and courage at war, becomes so alienated from his family and society that he feels he is no longer of any use and kills himself. As appealing a character that he is, he’s a cautionary tale about the perils of going rogue.

More recent scribes – Diana Gabaldon, Maggie Shipstead, Nora Roberts and Amy Harmon – offer an updated and more feminine view of the kind of man a woman goes nuts for, and a man follows around like a good dog. Yet despite a few tweaks, their heroes still display all of the classical traits that have been written about for millennia. They may be more overtly emotional in their presentation – a bit squishy on the outside for the likes of your average knight or lone cowboy – but are solid granite just beneath the skin. These new, improved men know how to talk to a girl, not just provide for her, rip her bodice and take her right then and there. That’s no small upgrade, in my opinion. Like leaving a village and entering a metropolis.

Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser: bodice-ripper and great talker to boot.

But of all these authors mapping out the hero’s journey, even the most manly man wordsmiths among them seem to understand that when it comes to women’s most unfeigned expectations of men, it has always boiled down to one crucial element from which all of the other virtues quite naturally flow. A woman wants to be the center of her lover’s universe. No matter what and forever. She wants him to be that immovable force. The protector of her heart and her person.

That is the maxim of every work of fiction that trains its eye on a pair of sweethearts, and the most desired realestate on the map. It hovers unspoken in almost every genre, too. Even in high testosterone spy thrillers, players like James Bond – a man who finds a new paramour in every adventure – is prepared to give his life for even the most undeserving damsel in distress: The gangster’s moll, the double agent, the fellow assassin.

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She didn’t deserve him.

In my own fiction, I give a lot of thought to how much a romantic story – a term I use loosely – really does hinge on the creation and evolution of a man worth falling for. The kind of guy both the ancient Greeks and the girls in a modern day book club can appreciate. After all, if a man is going to make my female protagonist the center of his world, that world better be compelling and worth living in. It better be one of virtue. Or, if he’s the bad boy type, become one of virtue in the course of the story, and usually due to his valiant efforts.

I aim to cut through the dither and disorientation that surrounds the conversation around men and manhood these days, and make his direction clear. Draw up the kind of guy we all want in our lives. One who exemplifies the very classical virtues that, when followed, internalized, can make an evil man good again, and a good man great.

I find the points of interest in the rituals he performs. The ones that usher a boy into manhood and unveil opportunities for him to fulfill his promise, earn his place among the adults in the room, and ultimately, even lead them. “When” is a seriously under-appreciated concept in my view, and rituals play an important role in a man’s development, giving him the ready, set, go! signal he’s been waiting for. The one that dares him to put his virtues into play. Make them more than mere ideals.

From baptism to filling out a draft card to getting a driver’s license, graduating, being challeneged to that first schoolyard tussle, having that first kiss – these all let a guy know that it’s time. To move on, to step up, to fight, to finish, to make love, to marry, to make a decision. About where he’s willing to go and what he stands for, what he’s willing to do and risk everything for. Otherwise he ends up untethered, just wandering all over the map.

Because that is the crux of what makes up a man in the end, isn’t it? His decisions. His ability to make them and stick to them, accept responsibility for their outcome. A man’s virtues and ideals may tell him how he should behave, but his rituals let him know when it’s time to employ them. They show him and everyone watching whether he has the mettle to actually behave in the way he wishes others to see him. In the way that he will ultimately be judged and remembered when he comes to the last stop on the road.

Savage Island, excerpt

By Victoria Dougherty

“The women take care of a boy’s hair until his hifi ulu,” Ku whispers. He’s come up next to me, too, and I’m glad for his company. 

“Of course with Will, that’s been a no go. He hasn’t let a woman touch his hair since well before he left for England. Except for Oliana, of course.”

That just about stabs me through the eye.

“Of course,” I say.

Sure enough, Oliana takes up the scissors and lifts up one of Will’s ribbon-wrapped locks. She takes a first snip right above where the ribbon is tied up top and holds it high for everyone to see. There’s a big cheer and Will meets my eyes, so I swallow hard and give him the best and biggest smile I’m able. This is his day and I’m not about to behave like a jealous harpy.

One by one, each of the women and girls take a turn cutting off a beribboned lock of Will’s hair – something they get to keep for themselves as a memento of the occasion, and symbol of their role in making a man of Will. –Savage Island

The hifi ulu, the Nuiean hair cutting-ceremony that acknowledges the passage of a boy into manhood is real and I chose to feature it in my novel, Savage Island, precisely because of how important I feel such rites of passage are to young people. On Niue, until a boy’s hifi ulu, the women of his family take care of his long hair – brushing, braiding, doing whatever is necessary to keep it in shape. After his hair is cut, the implication is that the boy must begin behaving like a man, not only caring for his own person, but getting himself mentally and physically prepared for caring for a family and for others who may need him down the line. It’s a lovely ceremony, and crucial to my protagonist Will’s journey, as from that moment on, the responsibilities of manhood will fall on him in a way he never expected or could have ever dreamed of.​

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