Study Guide

Hero and Leander Analysis

  • Context

    The tragic love story of Hero and Leander has been an inspiration for artists and their audiences for literally thousands of years. So yeah, there's definitely something to it. Quick recap of all of its tellings:

    • Ovid gave the myth the royal treatment in his Heroides.
    • A Byzantine poet named Musaeus did a bang-up job in his version of the myth
    • Several other big dogs of classical poetry, like Statius and Virgil, took a swing at the myth, too.
    • Christopher Marlowe, rock star playwright of the English Renaissance, was the next major poet to take a crack at the myth. In most folks' opinions, he totally rocked it out. Not only is his "Hero and Leander" an awesome and entertaining poem, Marlowe also managed to reinvent the use of the heroic couplet while doing so. (More on that here.) Unfortunately, Marlowe died in a bar fight and never got to finish this masterpiece; it was later completed by George Chapman.
    • Hero and Leander get shout outs in the works of a bunch of other famous writers as well. Shakespeare, Keats, Kipling, Byron, Schiller, Jonson, Raleigh, Vega and many more all say hey to the tragic lovers.
    • The tale has even inspired composers like Georg Friedrich Handel, whose opera, Ero e Leandro (1707), is based on the myth.

    Whew. Quite a list, right? And these days, the tale lives on in the tragic love stories that fill our screens and flesh out the pages of our paperbacks. Every tissue-requiring romance owes a little something to the tale of Hero and Leander.

  • Setting

    Abydus, Sestus, The Hellespont

    First of all, how awesome is the name Hellespont?

    Here's some 4-1-1 on the coolly named spot. It's a strait, a.k.a. a narrow body of water that connects other water to even other-er water. This particular one connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea, and Leander has the gumption to swim across it every night.

    Legend says that the Hellespont was actually named for a girl named Helle, who fell into the strait while flying over it on the back of a flying golden ram. (Um….) The ram eventually became the Golden Fleece that Jason and the Argonauts came to fetch. Some say Helle drowned in the strait like Leander, while others say she became a sea goddess of the body of water. Though if that's true, you'd think she could've lent Leander a hand. Or a fin, we guess.

    Oh, and it gets better: the Hellespont actually still exists. Today, we call it the Dardanelles.

    One last thing: why does Leander have to swim the strait? Well, he and Hero came from two cities on either side of the strait. Today, those cities are located in modern day Turkey, and back in the day, they were really well positioned for trade. Being perched on the Hellespont was great because every merchant who was going from one sea to the other had to stop by. It was also beneficial for secret affairs. Just saying.

  • The Hero's Journey

    The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.

    The story of Hero and Leander doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

    Ordinary World

    Leander is just your average dude, chilling out in his hometown of Abydus. On the other side of the Hellespont, Hero is busy being a virginal priestess of Aphrodite. Well, she's not that busy actually. She just kind of hangs by herself most of the time.

    Call To Adventure

    When these two spot each other, it's love at first sight.

    Refusal Of The Call

    At first, Hero resists Leander's amorous advances. Guess he's not as smooth as he thought.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Leander turns into Hero's mentor of love, convincing her that any self-respecting priestess of the goddess of love shouldn't be a virgin.

    Crossing The Threshold

    Together, Hero and Leander cross the threshold of love, if you catch our drift.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Hero and Leander get along great, but the Hellespont lies between them. Their biggest enemy is this body of water that Leander has to swim across every night to be with his love.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    One night, a storm blows in, whipping the Hellespont into a fury. As Leander walks down the shore toward the churning water, he knows he's in for a rough time.

    Ordeal

    Unfortunately, the wind blows out Hero's light, and Leander loses his way in rough waters and drowns.

    Reward

    Yeah, there's definitely no reward of any kind here—only sorrow.

    The Road Back

    There's no road back for Leander. He's totally and completely dead.

    Resurrection

    No resurrection here either. When Hero finds Leander's body on the shore, she's so overcome with grief that she kills herself. Now they're both dead.

    Return With The Elixir

    Sorry, myth's over.

  • Star-Crossed Lovers

    Romeo and Juliet

    Made most famous by Mr. William Shakespeare, the tale of these two star-crossed lovers is widely believed to have been inspired in some part by the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. But how about Hero and Leander? After all, both couples

    • are young and desperately love.
    • are kept apart by their families (In Hero and Leander's case, it's just Hero's family).
    • die tragically in an attempt to be together.

    Pretty telling connections, if you ask us.

    King Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere

    King Arthur: you've probably heard of him. He was an awesome king who basically invented chivalry and recruited a bunch of noble knights to bring justice to England. Trouble came, though, when his best knight, Lancelot, and his gorgeous wife, Guinevere, fell in love. In many versions of the story, the affair that resulted ended up destroying Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot itself. Sound familiar?

    P.S. For more on this tale, check out Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

    King Mark/Tristan/Iseult

    If you liked the King Arthur tale, you should definitely check out the myth of Tristan and Iseult, which plenty of people think of as its predecessor. In this one, King Mark's trusted nephew and awesome knight, Tristan, is sent to Ireland to bring Iseult back as a bride for Mark. Unfortunately for Mark, Iseult and Tristan accidentally drink a love potion on the way back to England and fall in love. Their secret passion ends up causing all kinds of problems—and in many versions, it ends up with all three leading players dead. Womp womp.

  • Hero's Light

    Quick recap: Hero leaves a light burning in the window of her tower so her BF can find his way over to her in the middle of the night. Completely unsafe? Yes. Symbolic? Absolutely.

    Right off the bat, we wonder if maybe the light is a symbol for these young lovers' love. Light and love are often related in literature (Dante, anyone?), and this story probably isn't an exception.

    Okay, so every night, Hero's flame that guides Leander across the dark water to his lover and reminds him that she's waits for him with open arms. So what does it mean when the flame blows out? That love is—boom!—extinguished. Oh, and they both die. Lose lose.