Hercules among the Victorians: myths as typologies
Typology is the explication of persons in the Old Testament as pre-figuring those of the New: the former are Types to be fulfilled in the Antitype of Christ; both precursor and fulfilment were perceived as divinely ordained. Typological reading of the Bible, an ancient and widespread practice, was also applied to other literature and to the natural world. In the Victorian period poets and novelists could expect their readers readily to adopt this approach for secular works.
Graeco-Roman myths were susceptible to typological interpretation, as evidenced by Tractarian poets John Keble and Isaac Williams; the latter analyses the practice in The Christian Scholar (1849). He defends the educational use of classical literature (dangerous and testing though it may be) and illustrates how, by extension or by comparison, Christian truths can be derived from it. Thus, Williams takes Hercules – who, like Sampson, had long been regarded as a Type of Christ (cf. Milton) – and uses part of Pindar’s First Nemean to contrast his birth with the Nativity. The same subject is treated by John Warren, Lord de Tabley, in a poem (1862) which similarly requires typological reading. Charlotte Yonge framed an entire novel (My Young Alcides, 1875) as a contemporary version of the Labours.
However, as cultural and religious changes over the century greatly affected the understanding of the biblical text, typology likewise underwent a shift. This is apparent in William Morris’s ‘The Golden Apples’, one of the episodes from his long mythological poem The Earthly Paradise (1868-70). Morris had grown away from his early Tractarian influences and was moving towards Socialism. Zealous in action but lacking certainty, his Hercules appears less a Type of Christ than a Type of modern man.
Provisional content for The Modern Hercules (Volume 1)