Knights – brave and doughty individuals trained in the art of swordsmanship, who fight on behalf of a lord or kingdom against great foes – are perhaps the most common and popular archetypal hero found in fairy tales and fantasy. Someone has to shine a light in the darkness, slay wolves and dragons and stand between all that is good and the forces of darkness. When predation rears its head and howls, a Knight may be all that stands between innocence and death. This character has a long and honourable tradition in the old tales; without his axe or sword, happily ever after might never come to pass. The typical image that immediately springs to mind when the word ‘Knight’ is used is that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, each clad from head to toe in a suit of armour. But don’t let the word ‘Knight’ fool you – these heroic figures are known by different names all over the world. They were Cavaliers in England, Paladins in Italy, Chevaliers in France, Caballeros in Spain and Samurai in Japan. Despite the martial stereotype, this character does not even necessarily have to be a soldier. There is much more to being a knight than simply wielding a sword, as the following quote from the film Dragonheart makes clear: “A knight is sworn to valour. His heart knows only virtue. His blade defends the helpless. His might upholds the weak. His word speaks only truth. His wrath undoes the wicked.”
Fantasy stories of all kinds are full of examples of Knights. The brave horsemen of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings, although they appear to come from a barbarian culture, share many of the ‘knightly’ qualities described above. From folklore, both the seven dwarfs who raised Snow White and the fabled attorney Daniel Webster, who sued the Devil and won, would qualify as Knights, although neither raised a blade. The Knight’s Tale, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, introduces many typical aspects of knighthood such as courtly love and ethical dilemmas, while in the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of King Arthur’s knights confronts a mysterious figure that emerges from the woods like a force of nature.
Modern Knight’s tales are full of police officers with silver bullets, parents who journey to the perilous realm to save their lost children, plucky reporters who will not be frightened off by stories of elves and aliens, and any number of other possibilities. Three things define the Knight: someone to defend, the skill to do so, and a determination that will not fail. The Knight symbolises guardianship and honour. Sometimes aggressive, even ruthless, he or she is utterly dedicated to their cause. Their road is never an easy one but it certainly isn’t boring either. Although they are suited to almost any type of adventure, they appear by nature to be attracted to deeds and callings of a martial bent. Almost by definition, adventures involve danger and usually foes as well, so any Knight worth the name will invariably know how to cope with all types of threats and enemies. Their strong arms, iron wills and bold attitudes often make Knights ideal leaders. They tend to get along well with most other types of adventurers, although they may sometimes question the shady methods of rogues or the importance of wizards and their magic in particular…
Turning away from fantasy to history, in the Middle Ages the Knight was a warrior who had made certain vows about how he would behave, who was granted lands in return for giving military service, and who fought in armour and on horseback. His long and severe training, first as a page and then as a squire, ensured that he was worthy for knighthood. There were many knightly orders in antiquity. The Knights of the Bath went through a complicated anointment ceremony which involved, among other things, sitting in a bath with their hair shaved – the idea being that they should come from the bath purified of all unworthiness. The Knights Banneret were distinguished by the large square banners that they carried into battle. At the time of the Crusades some knights formed themselves into religious orders in order to fight to recover the Holy Land and protect pilgrims, as well as a number of other, somewhat less laudable, goals. It was in this way that the Knights Hospitaller, the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights grew up.
Later other orders of knighthood were started, such as the Order of the Garter in England (founded about 1346) and many similar ones in other parts of Europe. Some of these orders, such as the Scottish Order of the Thistle (founded in 1687), grew up after the end of age of chivalry. The most recent one in Great Britain is the Order of the British Empire, founded in 1917. These orders are different from the knightly orders of earlier times. Membership is given as a reward for service to one’s country and both men and women can receive it. However, the ideals of chivalry are preserved in these orders, and knighthood continues to be a high honour conferred by the sovereign. Similarly, the popularity of the knightly ideal is well illustrated in fantasy by creations such as the Jedi Knights of the Star Wars universe, David Eddings’ Pandion Knight Sparhawk, Sturm Brightblade in the Dragonlance Chronicles, Warhammer 40K’s futuristic knights – the Space Marines – and, most recently, the Radiant Knights of Roshar in The Stormlight Archive. The Knight’s Tale, it would seem, is far from over.