Thursday, August 1, 2019

An Examination of The Chivalric Hero

I've been on something of a character archetype bender of late round these parts. I started with an examination of classic anti-heroes, and then moved onto the barbarian hero, but there's one more archetype that I think is worth examining. One that I think we're all familiar with, even if we know them by other names.

The Chivalric Hero.

My strength is as the strength of ten, for my heart is pure.
While we often ignore or ridicule Chivalric Heroes in the modern-day, there's a lot we could learn from them by reading between the lines. Both in terms of understanding what makes their stories work, and what makes these heroes appealing in their own, unique ways.

Classic Heroes, and The Age of Chivalry

I've talked about this in the previous installments of my explorations into heroes, but just so no one has to backtrack and we're all on the same page, a Classic Hero is not just the story's protagonist. The term refers to certain traits that were shared by characters who fulfilled the role of hero within the story in antiquity.

These traits include, but are not limited to:

- Unique Birth: The children of kings and gods, Classic Heroes are special from day one.
- Surety of Action: Classic Heroes did not doubt themselves, and they acted quickly.
- Lack of Flaws: Classic Heroes often lacked flaws, or simply had a single, Tragic flaw.
- Were Attractive: Whether charmers or not, Classic Heroes exterior beauty reflected their power.

And so on, and so forth.

So where does chivalry come into this?
As time went on, and we entered the Romantic period (that is to say, stories written in common language, which also happened to feature knights, ladies, courtly love, and other hallmarks that grew into today's idea of the romance genre), we developed the Chivalric Hero. Characters like Lancelot and Arthur, Gawain and Galahad, as well as historical figures like Charlemagne and Alexander the Great were fitted into this mold when their stories were written around the heyday of John Milton.

While there is a lot of overlap between the Chivalric Hero and the Classic Hero, there is one notable difference right off the bat. The Classic Hero (characters like Achilles or Cu Chulainn, for example) fought almost exclusively for themselves. While they could be claimed by their nation or their people after death, in life their deeds and struggles belonged only to them. Chivalric Heroes, by contrast, fought for something higher than themselves. They fought for a lord, they fought for a code, and in many cases they fought for the idea of a nation, or for a god.

That difference in cause is, in some ways, one of the most significant things about the Chivalric Hero. It also explains where they draw their power from, and why the challenges in their stories are often of a baser, and more inner-directed variety.

You Need To Build Up Your Power (And You Can Lose It)

One of the most obvious aspects of many Classic Heroes, as well as the Barbarian Hero archetype, is their raw physicality. From Conan, to Tarzan, to Enkidu, these characters draw their strength from within. Their bodies and their skills are the wellspring of their ability to affect the story, and it is through them that they triumph over those who stand in their way.

For Chivalric Heroes, though, that often isn't the case.

A vow, inside a steel shell, is strength eternal.
Chivalric Heroes are often powered by external forces that are dependent on them performing certain tasks, or avoiding certain temptations. Dedication to a code, subservience to a king, or a willingness to keep oneself pure even through great hardship, are all common themes of these characters. And it is their actions that builds layers of strength around them that helps turn them into heroes.

Heroism is not something that most Chivalric Heroes have simply by virtue of existing; it has to be prompted by something. The character has to dedicate themselves to the service of god, to their lord, or to the code. They draw symbols and protections to themselves as well, layering them on in order to gain strength from those things. And when those symbols break, it is as if a part of the Chivalric Hero has also broken.

As an example, a Chivalric Hero's sword snapping in a duel would be devastating to them, if that sword was part of the layers that built up their strength. In many cases it isn't just a tool, but rather an extension of the character. Whereas someone like Kull or Conan, infamous barbarian heroes that they are, would simply toss the broken weapon aside, and snatch up another from a fallen foe. For a Chivalric Hero, that moment of their steel breaking is often symbolic of failing a test of some sort, and of being rocked to their core.

The threat of losing their power if they make a false move is a central theme for many Chivalric Heroes. Even Marvel's Thor (at least in his early comic incarnations, and his first film), had to prove that he was worthy to wield his powers. If he became cruel, or ruthless, or gave into vanity, then his strength would desert him, and his hammer would refuse to be wielded. This is not dissimilar to how characters like Lancelot or Galahad were considered titans in battle as long as their hearts remained pure, and they upheld their vows and oaths. It's also why temptation tends to be a central theme to their stories, and how resisting it is the true act of a hero.

From Tristan and Isolde, to Lancelot and Guinevere, to one could argue Samson and Delilah, to Gawain and the Green Knight, the true test of a Chivalric Hero is rarely in how many foes they can fight, or how mighty their blows are. It's whether they can resist temptation to do what it is easy, what is pleasurable, or what is beneficial to themselves over what is right. And the point that those stories make is that it is your ability to endure these things without giving into them that underscores you as a hero.

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  1. Do you have or would be interested in doing a segment of codes of chivalry, both factual as well as fictional?

    1. I have not. Though the idea has occurred, I'd likely put that article somewhere else, as it's only of passing interest to writers, and is really more of a historical analysis.