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Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies

Episode 9 - Death Before Dishonor

by Aeon
January 31, 2002  

I hate these filthy neutrals... With enemies you know where they stand but with neutrals, who knows? It sickens me... I have a plan. We will single handedly attack our arch-enemy, the Neutral Planet!... Once the Neutral war machine lies in ruins, I'll be a hero again... Prepare to continue the epic struggle between good and neutral!
- Zapp Brannigan, from Matt Groening's "Futurama"

You don't usually hear people ranting about the epic struggle of good against neutral. It's always good versus evil, right against wrong. On one end of the equation are monsters like the orcs, which I covered last time. At the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, are great fighters, powerful healers, devoted servants of Law and Good and champions against Chaos and Evil -- the paladins.

The word "paladin" first appears in the French language at around the end of the 16th century, meaning "a trusted military leader" (as for a medieval prince) or "a leading champion of a cause." It's derived from the Italian paladino, which in turn was derived from the Latin palatinus, which meant "courtier" or, in an earlier form, "imperial official." This is in turn related to the word "palatine," which as an adjective indicates a palace (i.e., palatial), especially that of a Holy Roman Emperor, and as a noun describes a person "possessing royal privileges" (such as a feudal lord having sovereign power within his domains). It's from this latter connotation that we derive the modern basis for the paladin archetype, by way of the 12 Peers of Charlemagne. They were also called the Palatines of Charlemagne, denoting their pseudo-royal status, and through the wonders of language they eventually became known as the Paladins of Charlemagne.

Regardless, it's clear that from the start, the word (and those terms it was derived from) had very little, if anything, to do with being a holy warrior, and everything to do with being allied with a royal army of some sort. The term designated standing within an earthly hierarchy, not a heavenly one, and in its earliest appearances (as with Charlemagne's Palatines) it didn't necessarily even suggest military skill -- depending on which version of the legend you read, Charlemagne's most trusted paladins counted amongst their ranks Archbishop Turpin, clearly a cleric of sorts, and Malagigi, an enchanter who did more summoning of demons than he did sword-swinging.

So how on earth do we get from demon-summoning to demon-smiting? Why are the paladins in D&D, Bard's Tale, Might & Magic, Diablo II, Warcraft, Everquest (and about a hundred other games that I have no time to mention) all virtual clones of one another? Let's mount up and take a look.

The Role-Playing Paladin

He sat by her, bent over, watching for the slightest breath, the slightest motion, to tell him he might be wrong, that Kazra was only wounded.
Some time later, when it became apparent even to him that the dwarf was dead, Amarynth Firehand got stiffly up from the bed and left the tent.
His commanders awaited him outside...
"Leave me." Amarynth turned back to his tent. "I am going to pray until I can find it in my heart to forgive the orcs for Kazra. Then we shall take Nin-Edin and raze it to the ground."

- Grunts, by Mary Gentile

Certainly, the idea of an armored knight vanquishing evil in the name of good existed prior to the 1970s, and the dawn of the role-playing era. Even if we look back only a decade, we find the hero named Paladin from the hit TV series "Have Gun, Will Travel," who gets his name from an apparent outlaw named Smoke who sarcastically notes of his apparently righteous assassin that "in the books, there's a name for someone like you--a paladin." (this in the first episode of the last season, titled "Genesis.")

Of course, Paladin was hardly a typical paladin; he was righteous and ethical enough, but he also had a penchant for gambling, drinking, womanizing and spending his money (he charged $1000 per head) like water, dressing in the finest clothing and living it up in hotels. A role-playing paladin wouldn't be caught dead doing such things.

But within the sphere of the role-playing game, it was Gary Gygax's 1975 Greyhawk campaign setting that introduced the character class (along with several others) for the first time. And it was in 1978 (just after the Gygax/Arneson split) that most gamers got their first glimpse of the paladin on pages 22 and 23 of the 1st Edition AD&D Player's Handbook. Most of the general capabilities and features of the paladin class have remained more or less untouched since that time.

First of all, the paladin is a type of fighter, either portrayed as a subclass of the fighter, or a subclass of another, related warrior class (cavalier, knight, crusader, etc.), or as a class of its own which stands right beside any or all of the above. As a fighter, the paladin is typically trained in all manner of arms and armor, although class restrictions typically limit what the paladin can use and carry--in some cases, a paladin must donate or discard anything that he cannot carry, and tithe part of his income to "the church." This latter notion is based on the (typically unspoken) assumption that in addition to being fighters, paladins are also a type of cleric.

As mentioned in my earlier article about clerics, the Christian concept of a "cleric" can mean any member of the clergy: not just priests, but also monks, nuns, and even members of ancient military religious orders such as the Knights Templar... and by logical extension within RPGs, paladins. Little wonder, then, that paladins are also granted powers of a clerical and holy nature--almost regardless of system, paladins have the power to detect, and protect others from, evil. The paladin is also blessed with a personal ability to resist diseases and evil influences, and typically has some degree of control over undead creatures like zombies and ghouls, and underworldly creatures such as demons and devils.

Paladins also typically get the ability to cast spells just like full-blown clerics, albeit at a reduced rate or with some degree of limitation (at the very least, having the ability to "lay on hands" to cure people of disease). Such limitation may also apply in one way or another to magical items that a paladin might want to use--in 1st Edition AD&D, for example, a paladin could only ever own 10 magical items at a time, while in PC games like the Might and Magic and Bard's Tale series, there were magical items of holy power which could only be wielded by a paladin.

Paladins also have a range of capabilities and peculiarities that are unique to the class. First of all, and perhaps most uniquely, they have the ability to call a special mount, typically a large warhorse of unusual intelligence, but occasionally a more spectacular creature as well. The purpose of the mount is obvious--paladins are traditionally mounted warriors, and thus it's only right that they should be riding horses around. Within the confines of a fantasy game setting, it's easy to overlook the mount as nothing but another version of a wizard's familiar, but this is a more recent notion; traditionally, the mount is more a sign of the favor of the god(s), and has no special explanation. It just shows up. Spooky, eh?

Even spookier is the whole Charisma thing. Every game which features any combination of paladins and ability scores makes Charisma the paladin's "prime attribute." This was obviously an attempt to emphasize the paladin being a sort of dashing knight in shining armor, charming the ladies and galavanting across the land. In actual fact, it has generally tended to turn paladins into social annoyances, since their higher charismas tend to mean they befriend everyone and everything, including the monsters you're trying to kill.

In 1st Edition AD&D, this score had to be at least a 17 (which really put a lot of people out of the running, since the highest score possible was an 18); more recently, and in most cases, the score requirement has been dropped, and the attribute itself broadened and made more useful. Now, Charisma is not just how nice you are to other people, but a source of magnetism, leadership, and overall personal strength. This makes a lot more sense, especially when you consider what it is the paladin is supposed to be doing: spreading the faith, leading others into battle, and inspiring courage in those around him.

Paladins aren't just nice guys, however; they have a strict code of honor that they're required to adhere to, placing honor, courage, and selflessness above all else: Respect for all peers and equals; Honor to all above your station; Courtesy to all ladies; and the ever popular Death before dishonor, popularized in the Dragonlance saga as the Knight's credo, "Est Sularis oth Mithas", or "My honor is my life."

Many of these chivalric standards have actual basis in fact, coming from a variety of medieval sources including the 11th century epic Song of Roland (which will be discussed further later). Of course, in reality, knights were certainly not as noble as they're all made out to be in legend, but it was still nice to imagine people taking beliefs such as "Never tell a lie" and "Remain loyal to your friends" to heart. Indeed, the name "paladin" seems to evoke this sense of truth and honor even when removed from its RPG setting--for example, a current effort to stop cheating in Counter-Strike and other Half-Life Multiplayer Mods has been named Paladin Anticheat. Those darn paladins... always ruining everyone's fun.

Nowhere is this adherence to a strict code of laws and beliefs made more clear than in the paladin's traditional alignment requirements, the most restrictive among any class in any game system. Druids always tend to embrace neutrality, and rogues tended towards non-good, but no other class was limited as much as the Lawful Good paladin. Even among game systems which call themselves alignment-free, the code of ethics that surrounds the paladin seems to suggest all things lawful and good.

In part, this is because if the paladin sways from the path of law and goodness, he almost immediately loses all of his paladin abilities and becomes (gasp) a normal fighter. In some systems (including AD&D), a paladin could atone for a chaotic act like stealing an extra cookie after dinner by performing an act of penance, but willingly doing evil of any sort was a one-way ticket to Nonpaladinville, population you. Indeed, even associating with characters who were non-good was almost intolerable, and being in the same party with someone who was evil was unheard of.

Little wonder that paladins tend to not get played too often, or for very long; you know you'll need a rogue to pick locks and open traps, but the paladin won't stand for it, so it's either the paladin or the rogue. And I think we all know the typical result of that quandary. Just ask Diablo II players what they think of paladins, or, better yet, check out the ladders to see how infrequently paladins appear in the top rankings.

And yet despite their seeming inability to fit within the constraints of any reasonably built adventuring party, in any game system, paladins are almost always seen as the dominant characters wherever and whenever they appear. In the line of AD&D Action Figures which appeared in the 1980s, for example, the main hero was not a fighter or a ranger or a wizard, but a Lawful Good paladin named Strongheart. And in any game or movie or work of fiction where a paladin rides into the picture, they quickly establish themselves as the most powerful force for good and justice within miles. It's clear that the reason we see paladins in this light is because of the imagery associated with them. Where that imagery comes from is a somewhat more complex issue.

Historical Precedent -- The Paladin as Knight in Shining Armor

"Shining mail, on a shining horse, so bright that anyone would follow. I don't claim to be that sort of paladin yet, Kolya. I do say that something--and I believe it to be the High Lord, or Gird his servant--has called me here for a purpose. I sensed, in the inn, some evil thing--and felt in myself the answering call: this is what I came for."
- Oath of Gold, by Elizabeth Moon

The obvious place to look for the paladin is beside the very real historical knight. After all, medieval knights are where we get our notion of the noble "knight in shining armor"--albeit indirectly.

The professional solider known as the knight really first made his appearance only after the invention of the stirrup in the 8th Century, which made it possible for armies to realistically support larger numbers of more heavily armored and armed soldiers who wouldn't immediately fall off their horses in the middle of a lance charge. Prior to this, anyone mounted on a horse would probably have been holding a light weapon, and/or wearing light armor, and/or using a bow instead of a lance. In short, the stirrup transformed cavalry from scouts into tanks, and made possible the imagery that we now associate with the paladin. However, while knights may have looked the part of the paladin, the reality was that they were far from paladin-like in many other respects.

First of all, being a knight was darn expensive, and most people barely had enough money to feed themselves and their families. Thus, most knights came from well-to-do families of one sort or another, since that was the only way they could possibly afford the horse, armor, weaponry and training that came along with the package. Of course, there are two sides to this coin that need to be considered; while it took money to become a knight, this also meant that all it took to become a knight was money. Anyone who could afford the training and equipment could pretty much call themselves a knight.

Throughout the 10th and 11th centuries, when we first truly started to see people resembling knights, many came from the families of wealthy land-owners or craftsmen. It was only throughout the 12th century when knighthood and nobility started to go hand-in-gauntlet, and by the 13th century heredity entered the picture; the son of a knight was automatically made a squire, making him eligible for knighthood. Over time, this became the norm, and the notion that just anyone could become a knight soon became a distant memory.

At about the same time, the concept of a knight following a specific code of ethics began to enter the picture, courtesy of the Cluny monks, who were determined to make warfare somewhat more civilized. As the 12th century pushed its way into the 13th, this code transformed itself into the concept we know as chivalry, which is from whence we also get the notion of a knight as a chevalier, or more familiar to role-players, the cavalier.

But as far as role-playing is concerned, moving towards the cavalier in search of the paladin is looking in the wrong direction. While paladins were actually turned into a subclass of cavalier in the old Unearthed Arcana rulebook for 1st Edition AD&D, overall the shoes never quite fit. Cavaliers, in reality and in role-playing, tended to be more the swaggering braggadocio types, charging into battle for self-glory and looking down on those of a lesser station than themselves.

Understandable, really, when you consider that they were typically of noble birth. Who wants to be protecting filthy peasants when one can be polishing his armor and riding in tournaments? No, cavaliers and their cousins were more interested in earthly glory, and our role-playing paladin is definitely more interested in more spiritual matters.

If forward is the wrong direction then, it would seem that moving backwards is the proper thing to do. And when we push backwards from the 12th and 13th centuries we find ourselves smack in the middle of the Crusades, a perfect breeding ground for the paradox that is the paladin. After all, the Crusades were nothing less than an attempt to spread the good will of Christianity by annihilating the enemy; heal with one hand, kill with the other. Perhaps not what Pope Urban II had in mind when he called for war, but certainly what he got.

Much has already been said about the brutality that many crusaders carried with them into battle--allegations of rape, murder of children and even cannibalism were levied against numerous groups of "noble" knights, and as with anything half of it's probably true. War is hell, after all.

But amongst the thousands who fought and died on the field of battle in the name of their chosen God, three groups of knights stand out as being paladin-like in one way or another. Perhaps most easily distinguished by what they wore, they are the Knights Templar, or Templars (who wore a red cross on white), the Hospitallers (who wore a white cross on either black or red) and the Teutonic Order (who wore a black cross on white). None of these orders gives us the paladin we know today in one neat package, but all are worth looking at for the little bits they do offer.

Most well known for many reasons are the Knights Templar, whose beginnings are certainly paladin-like, and the stuff of legend. After the First Crusade had come to an end, and most people were packing up and heading home, a small group of nine knights, led by Hugues de Payens, vowed to the King of Jerusalem (Baldwin II) to remain behind and protect travellers to and from the Holy City. Baldwin accepted, and in return gave them a portion of his palace to use as their headquarters, adjoining the former Jewish Temple.

From this (not because they were defending the temple, but because that's where they were sleeping), they derived their name--"Pauvres Chevaliers du Temple" (Poor Knights of the Temple), or the Knights Templar. Poor indeed-- the nine knights actually spent more time begging for alms and handouts than they did performing the duties they'd sworn themselves to, which mostly involved providing armed escorts between Jerusalem and the Jordan River. At least to start with.

Realizing that there was little that nine knights could do alone, de Payens attended the Council of Troyes in 1128 in hopes of acquiring more recruits. In order to more closely ally his order with the Church, de Payens had the Templars take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and adopted Cistercian's white habit, adding a red cross. His efforts were immensely successful, and recruits gathered by the hundreds, necessitating the creation of a class structure within the Templar ranks. Recruits were now divided into one of four groups, consisting basically of the knights (heavy cavalry), sergeants (light cavalry), non-militant chaplains and general servants. Before very long, they had gone from a mere nine knights to a full-blown army of over 20 thousand.

Of course, this had other consequences. The Templars were renowned for being leonine warriors on the battlefield, and pious clerics elsewhere, smiting their enemies while gladly and tenderly helping their comrades. Having taken vows that basically removed all worldly pleasures from the picture, they charged into battle without fear, always the first to attack and the last to leave the field of war.

This attitude towards war meant that they knew nothing of surrender, ransom or prisoners-of-war, and in one instance where 80 of them were taken prisoner, they all died together rather than submit to freedom if they would simply deny their faith. Over a 200-year span, almost 20 thousand lost their lives in war... almost as many as they had altogether at their height of fame and power.

An interesting anecdote--the Knights Templar not only fought beside Richard the Lionheart, but at one point also fought alongside Moslem Assassins. Paladins and assassins fighting together... truth is, indeed, stranger than Dungeons and Dragons.

At any rate, the constant attrition of their ranks meant that it soon became necessary to adjust the admissions process in order to keep the order alive, and it wasn't long before probationary periods were ignored, and even excommunicated "sinners" were allowed to join up provided they merely declared total obedience to the order, vows or no vows. At the same time, the organization was becoming financially larger, as episcopal and secular authorities eagerly heaped upon them wealth and riches to support the cause.

Before long, the Templar "vow of poverty" was something of a joke, and at one point the order owned some nine thousand estates, much of their wealth stored in temples in Paris and London. The knights ultimately grew so wealthy and powerful that they not only began to directly govern Jerusalem, but actually started up the first banking system in Europe, turning what had initially been a military order into an economic powerhouse. This rise was their downfall.

Their inability to properly govern Jerusalem ultimately meant the fall of that city to Saladin in 1187, even though many Templars died valiantly in her defense. This, coupled with an increasing shift away from pure military might and towards economic might made them many enemies across Europe. The Templars eventually raised the ire of King Philip, who in 1307 found himself in financial debt to them. Rather than bothering to try and pay back what he owed, he opted (with the blessing of Pope Clement V) instead to accuse them of heresy and immorality, at which point many of the Templars were rounded up, tortured and forced to confess to false crimes.

Veiled in secrecy, their own initiation rites were called heretical and blasphemous, and the Templars were accused (and ultimately confessed to) everything from spitting on the cross, to homosexuality (always a favorite accusation in those days), to worshipping a huge bearded head called Baphomet. All very bad for the Templars, but good for the king; since they were heretics, he not only erased his own debt, but was able to quietly transfer all of their assets to his own pocketbook while they were burning at the stake.

Within seven short years, the Knights Templar were completely wiped out, not by war, but by greed, and on March 19th, 1314, the order officially came to an end with the public burning of Jacques de Molay, the last Templar Grand Master.

Of course, not all 20 thousand Templars were executed; most were ultimately cleared of guilt, and allowed to join another military order. Many would flock to join the once-rival Order of Hospitallers, which had ultimately received much of the Templars' property by papal decree; the newly combined group changed its name to the Knights of Rhodes after 1309 (and are today known as the Knights of Malta).

Prior to 1309, the Hospitallers were arguably more important and well known than their cousins the Templars (infamy having much to do with the more widespread Templar renown today). Rather than operate specifically out of and in defense of Jerusalem, this order instead sprang up between Italy and the Holy Land as a series of hostels and hospitals (hence the name) dedicated to caring for and curing wounded travellers.

Originally patients of these hostels, many Knights eventually gave their financial and physical support, and gradually the Hospitallers grew in fame and power, expanding the services of these shelters for the wounded to also provide armed escort and defense of those moving between them. By the end of the 12th century, the Hospitallers had become truly paladin-like, providing very real (albeit non-magical) healing while also waging war at the same time.

In most un-paladin-like fashion, the Hospitallers were exempt from Church authority, and exempt even from tithing (one of the most common requirements of the role-playing paladin), and amassed their own widespread collection of property, including at least seven strongholds, 144 estates and over 19 thousand manors. This, along with their constant bickering with the Templars over who was the more predominant military order, ultimately led to the fall of Jerusalem, the loss of most of their possessions, and the near disintegration of the order.

However, partly due to the fact that they didn't fall prey to the machinations of a bitter king, the Hospitallers were able to survive, shifting their military might from land to sea and changing their focus over time. The order survived, but their time as "paladins" had come to an end.

In much the same way, the Teutonic Order, modeled on the Hospitallers, survived the collapse of the Holy Land by shifting with the times. They, too, were much more involved in healing than the Templars, but were also renowned warriors, albeit of a different sort (their numbers never reaching anywhere near the tens of thousands that the Templars boasted.) But by the end of the 13th century, their usefulness in Jerusalem had nearly come to an end, and they wisely moved on to wage war against the pagans of Eastern Europe. Their battles here were mostly successful, and throughout the 14th century they saw much action and a rapid increase in military and financial power in the region.

But having succeeded in driving "paganism" from the area, they once again lost their purpose, and fell into disarray, squabbling with kings and gradually losing territory and knights in defeat after defeat. Throughout the remainder of their history, they gradually vanished from sight, and while the order still exists today, the fact that they faded away instead of burning out like the Templars means that they are far less well known.

In all three cases (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Order) we have a fairly interesting mix of service to God and war declared on other men, and plenty of indication that part of the concept of the role-playing paladin comes from their contributions to history (both famous and infamous). But all three groups suffered from various degrees of internal strife, greed and pride, and were torn apart at the seams at the height of their power.

And all, while they were at least nominally devoted to lawfulness, good and the service of God and man, at times found themselves concerned with more earthly and financial matters. Certainly, there's much more to paladins than we can find in history, and so it's to fiction and mythology that we must look to find the missing pieces of our paladin puzzle.

Mythology and Legend -- The Paladin as Holy Warrior

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
- The Bible, Ephesians 6:12-13

It's somewhat difficult to sort out the truth about some of the best-known paladins (and knights in general) because of the complex tangle of fact and fantasy that surrounds them. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and Charlemagne and his 12 Peers, were all very real (well, maybe not the dragon), but for the most part, the stories and legends we "know" about them are mostly fantasy and myth, and for that reason it's safest and easiest to treat them in that light. Their being mythical in most respects doesn't diminish their importance one bit.

It's perhaps important to note that in order to move towards these legendary knights and paladins, we're once again moving backwards in time. This may not make sense to some people, who were raised on 1980s fantasy films like Excalibur which feature Arthur and his knights all dressed up in shiny silver full plate armor straight out of the 15th and 16th centuries. This Hollywood fallacy has much to do with the fact that the most popular version of the legend came to us from Sir Thomas Malory, whose Morte D'Arthur was penned while he was imprisoned between 1468 and 1471, and published in 1485.

Of course, Malory was working off of a whole slew of earlier legends from various sources, probably most notably from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae (written around 1135). In reality, the historical Arthur was most likely a guy named Arturius who did his thing nearly a millennium earlier, rising to power in the first quarter of the 6th century and dying in battle near Glastonbury in 538.

Of course, any half-wit will be able to tell you that Arthur and most of his knights were far from paladin-like in their behavior. Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere had that whole love triangle thing going, Perceval was generally portrayed as being a whiny, immature and uncouth brat (despite being the hero and keeper of the Holy Grail in some of the legends), and most of the other knights were squabbling, bickering brutes. Monty Python's Holy Grail is, in this respect, more or less dead on--there was little noble or chivalrous about most of the "knights."

But amongst all the bad apples was one shining star who very much resembles a true paladin--Galahad, who in a variety of stories (including Malory's version) is the only knight considered chaste and pure enough to actually succeed in the quest for the Holy Grail. To top it off, he's also the son of Lancelot, which in some tales makes him a direct descendent of King David of Israel (and thus a blood relative, in a sense, of Jesus Christ). Forget serving God; he's very nearly related to God.

Galahad's story is told in a variety of different ways, but typically begins with the paladin showing up, sans sword or shield, at Camelot somewhere around the year 450, just in time to join in the Grail quest. He's revealed to be Lancelot's son, and turns out to be the only knight who can pull a magical sword out of a slab of marble that happens to be floating around in the river. A few days into his quest for the grail, he's also bestowed with a magical white shield bearing a red cross (obviously meant to portray a Templar shield), and somewhat later on, he's also approached by a white knight who just happens to have an extra mount for him. Throughout his journeys, he even banishes evil demons, cures disease and heals the sick in a very paladin-like fashion. All does not go well on the quest, however; Galahad manages to get into a few battles in which he kills seven evil brothers and accidentally wounds his father Lancelot, Perceval, Gawain and Hector at various points in his quest, never recognizing them for who they are (perhaps somewhat blinded by the light of his own quest). Eventually, however, Galahad succeeds in finding the Grail, typically accompanied by Perceval and Bors, who while not quite as chaste as Galahad, are at least good enough to ride alongside him.

When he does attain his goal, the story gets a little weirder (if that's possible). Sometimes the son of Joseph of Arimathea shows up with the grail, and other times Jesus himself appears, allowing the twelve Knights of the Round Table who are now there to partake of food and drink from the grail (the Christian symbolism is blindingly obvious, of course.) Galahad performs some more miraculous healings, is given a few holy visions, and then asks to die after accomplishing his mission. His wish is granted, and he ascends to heaven along with the grail.

Malory's version makes his motivations a bit more clear: "I have longed for the death of my body since we beheld the miracle of the Holy Grail, for then I knew such joy as no man on earth may know, and my soul craves for the Holy Trinity, and every day to behold the majesty of our Lord." In short, while Galahad is the best knight on earth, capable of defeating even his father Lancelot in combat, he's got other priorities. As a paladin, not a knight, he's more interested in higher spiritual matters, and is quite willing to die for what he believes in--his God.

Christianity played a great role for Charlemagne's 12 Paladins as well. Much like Arthur, King Charles I, aka Charlemagne (from Carolus Magnus, or Charles the Great), was the master of his domain, being (most notably) the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, having achieved dominion over most of present day Europe through a 30-year military campaign and the promotion of Christianity. On Christmas Day in the year 800, this was all made official when Pope Leo III "snuck up" behind Charlemagne as he prayed in Saint Peter's in Rome and stuck a golden crown on his head.

For this and other reasons, Charlemagne himself is an interesting character, being not only a great conqueror and king, but a man who was devoted not only to his religion but to the betterment of his subjects. He established a central government, built roads, established schools, and generally drove out barbaric tendencies all across Europe, pretty much paving the way for the medieval era to begin and ushering in the true spread of Christianity across all corners of the known world. But much more important for our purposes are his 12 Peers, who are the first actual "named" Paladins we come across.

As mentioned earlier, the term "paladin" had absolutely nothing to do with the physical capabilities of these 12 individuals--at least, not in the legends which surround them. It's probably the case that these Peers were considered the equal of King Charlemagne in privilege and martial capability in reality; after all, they served as his personal bodyguard, and the king would have been daft not to surround himself with warriors capable of fending off attacks on his person.

And even in the legends, most of the paladins seem to be of the traditional sort: consider Astolpho, descended from Charles "the Hammer" Martel (and thus related to Charlemagne); Rinaldo of Montalban, son of Duke Aymon; Namo, Duke of Bavaria; and Salomon, King of Brittany, all Paladins, and all ferocious warriors as well as Peers. But the Paladins also contained within their ranks some unlikely candidates for paladinhood, including: Archbishop Turpin (who is clearly not a warrior, but a priest); Ganelon, the traitor who would ultimately betray them all; and the strangest of the bunch, Malagigi the Enchanter.

Also known as Maugris or Mangis, Malagigi was, according to the stories, raised by a fairy named Oriande, and thus learned to become a great wizard. On various occasions, he summons up demons and compels them to give him information, pulls out his spellbook and charms giants into sleep, and flies through the air on magical creatures. It's unsurprising to find a magician in these stories, which also contain giants, hobgoblins, hippogriffs and an Orc (the nautical kind, not the Tolkienesque kind).

It's not even surprising to discover that Malagigi is responsible for the story's token magical sword, named Durandal, when you consider that Arthurian myth has such a person in Merlin, the half-demon enchanter. What is unique in this case is that the magician doesn't just sit at the Round Table with the other knights; he is actually considered one of them.

Of course, Malagigi bears little resemblance to the traditional role-playing paladin; the true holy warrior in this story is obviously Roland, also known as Orlando. Being Charlemagne's nephew, he already had great things going for him, but still saw fit to prove himself in battle, quickly becoming the equivalent of Galahad in the Carolingian mythos. Like Galahad, he performs seemingly magical feats, easily vanquishing not only human foes, but supernatural ones as well... all in non-traditional and quite paladin-like ways.

In one instance, he defeats a giant named Ferragus, not by mere force of arms, but by being so nice and charismatic to his foe that the giant willingly tells Roland where his weak spot is. In another, he engages in fierce battle with his rival Oliver, the two shattering lances, destroying shields, and otherwise wrecking the scenery without either paladin discovering a way to win the battle. Ultimately, Roland wins only after his sword is taken from him, and he and his opponent remove their helmets to stare face to face. Roland wins not by defeating his opponent, but by yielding; the two share defeat, neither claiming victory, but by proving himself more humble, Roland obviously takes the spiritual prize.

The best known tale of Roland is, as is typically the case with most paladins, the story of his death (along with all of the other Paladins) at Roncesvalles in 778. Historical record tells us only that after a campaign in Spain by Charlemagne (on the plain?), the French army's rearguard was decimated, leading to the death of, among thousands of others, "Hruodland, Prefect of the Breton Marches." The 4,000 line poem Song of Roland goes into much more detail, and demonstrates quite clearly why it is that Roland is, along with Galahad, the progenitor of the modern role-playing paladin.

The story begins with Charlemagne trying desperately to wind up a military campaign against the Saracens in Spain. Ganelon betrays the army, and tricks Charlemagne into placing all of his Paladins in the rearguard, which consists of some 20 thousand knights and warriors altogether. When the rearguard heads through the pass at Roncesvalles, they are ambushed by a force of more than 100 thousand Saracens, and despite being outnumbered five to one, and losing almost all of their men in the process, Roland and the paladins slay all the Saracens.

At one point, Roland the paladin fights so fiercely that he causes almost all of the opposing army to flee at once. Victory seems to be at hand, but before the four dozen remaining "good guys" can celebrate, 50 thousand Saracen reinforcements arrive. Now, with odds of a thousand to one, Roland and his men realize that the end is near, and although they fight valiantly to the end, ultimately only two are left standing: Archbishop Turpin, and Roland himself.

Surrounded by the enemy, in a truly heroic fashion (which would later be emulated by Boromir in Lord of the Rings) Roland grabs his enchanted horn Olivant and blows with all his might, in order to signal to Charlemagne and the rest of the army, now too far away to help, that Roland and his men have been vanquished, and must be avenged. His third blast is so loud that the horn splits in half, birds fall dead from the air, Roland's head bursts open, and all the enemy is thrown into panic and flees.

But alas, it is too late; the Archbishop, dying, asks Roland to bring the bodies of the other 12 Paladins to his side, so he can absolve them of their sins before he, too, collapses and dies. Left all alone, Roland can do nothing but wait for certain death, pounding his magical sword Durandal against a rock in hopes of smashing the holy blade so that the evil Saracens cannot take it from him after he passes away. Ultimately, he is unable to do so, as the blade is too strong, so in a nod to Arthurian myth he throws the sword into the water to hide it from evil eyes forever. Then he confesses his sins, pledges his allegiance to God, and dies, facing the enemy.

And the interesting thing is, the poem's only half over at this point.

Being a pure and courageous warrior, Roland is escorted directly to heaven by a host of angels and saints, and is thereafter avenged in the most bloody manner possible when Charlemagne returns with the rest of the army to kick some Saracen butt. In the end, it wasn't Roland's heroic feats which mattered; after all, there's still 2 thousand lines of poem to go. What matters is that Roland sacrificed himself for his fellow warriors, and died bravely. And most importantly, he went of his own accord, without any enemy delivering the fatal blow.

Just like Galahad, Roland is responsible for his own death, having inflicted his own mortal wound by blowing the distress call on his horn (much as Galahad willingly chose death after having fulfilled his quest). And it's this notion of willingly choosing to sacrifice himself which gets to the very heart of what the paladin is all about.

Closing Comments -- The Paladin as Martyr

Sturm got hold of himself. Everything else was gone: his ideals, his hopes, his dreams. The Knighthood was collapsing. The Measure had been found wanting. Everything in his life was meaningless. His death must not be so. He would buy Laurana time, buy it with his life, since that was all he had to give. And he would die according to the Code, since that was all he had to cling to.
- Dragons of Winter Night, by Margaret Weis & Tracey Hickman

On page 23 of the 1st Edition AD&D Player's Handbook, we find an image by David Sutherland (who also did the original DM's Guide cover), which depicts a paladin in full plate armor attacking a half-dozen demons. It would be silly to overstate the importance of any single work of fantasy art, but it would also be shortsighted to understate the impact that this image had on the development of the role-playing paladin. It's noteworthy for several reasons.

First of all, it's one of only two full-page illustrations in the entire book, and stands out for that reason alone. Secondly, it's one of only two illustrations of the main character classes (the other being a tiny 1/8 page picture of a thief), not only giving it more space than any other character class, but making it the most noticeable. And thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, it's the only image in the book that's apparently worthy of a caption - "A Paladin in Hell". This is not merely a photo to be admired and then passed by. This is a paladin. And he's in hell.

This is important.

The paladin is not merely a warrior who can cast spells. He's a holy warrior, a warrior serving a higher power of goodness. His opponent is not just another warring nation, but evil itself, and his mission on earth is to serve the greater good, even if it means putting himself in harm's way. Even if it means walking straight into hell. Even if it means dying. Especially if it means dying.

Show me a paladin, and I'll show you someone who's got a date with the business end of a dragon, or a destiny that involves leading a charge straight into the mouth of hell, or a quest that will give him at least a half dozen opportunities to lay down his life for his fellow companions, his god, his country, his king, his horse, his pet ferret, and just about anyone else he happened to come across since breakfast.

This is clear even in post-Dungeons and Dragons fiction. For example, in her Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor novel, author Carrie Bebris creates a fairly realistic "role-playing paladin" in Corran D'Arcey, Defender of Tyr the Even-Handed, and third son of Baron Ethelred D'Arcey of Sarshel. Corran vigorously defends law and good, fights honorably and then dies horribly on page 308, choosing his fate (like all paladins eventually do) by riding a dracolich into the aforementioned Pool.

As her heroine puts it, "In the end, Corran had proven himself a man of integrity. A man who not only spoke about honor but lived it -- and died for it to preserve what he held dear. A man worthy of the title 'paladin.'" Alas, in this case, Bebris goes and rescues him from certain death two pages later (like some Tolkienesque giant eagle) in order to wrap up the novel on a high note. He dies nobly, and leaves the moral plane to reside peacefully in the heavens with his god, and then some meddling elf maiden has to go and bring him back to life, making his sacrifice meaningless. If I were Corran, I would have been pissed.

Regardless, the scene repeats again and again. In Elizabeth Moon's Oath of Gold, the paladin Paksenarrion willingly gives herself up to the enemy to be mutilated, abused, humiliated, raped and tortured, steadfastly remaining devoted to her god and her mission throughout it all (and ultimately being reborn on the other side because she remained true). In the Dragonlance series of novels, the Solamnic Knight (and arguably paladin-like) Sturm Brightblade willingly places himself in front of a dragon, knowing that he will die, because it will mean remaining true to his oath and will give his friends some more time to prepare a necessary trap. In Lord of the Rings, the very paladin-like Frodo Baggins willingly accepts the call to carry the One Ring into the Hellish underworld of Mordor, repeatedly shaking off evil and temptation, knowing very well that he will probably die in the process, but realizing that he must follow through, because he has vowed to do so. And so on.

Suffice to say that the key to understanding the paladin is not knowing how to fight, or how to heal, or how to ride a magical horse. The key is understanding the concept of sacrifice. The real-life paladins, and their mythological counterparts, weren't worshipping the god of the sun, or the god of vengeance and justice, or Pelor or Heironeous or any of the other of the dozens and dozens of fantasy gods which have appeared throughout the past few decades. They were Christians, and a major part of their belief system involved the notion that their God allowed himself to be captured, abused, humiliated, tortured and then crucified in order to save those he loved. And it was in willingly repeating that sacrifice, throwing themselves in harm's way in order to protect and serve others, that the paladin truly found his calling, and his place in the world.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons which I won't get into here, discussing Christianity at the same time as one mentions Role-Playing Games like Dungeons & Dragons is considered at best unwelcome and uncomfortable, and at worst heretical and blasphemous. And many role-playing paladins undoubtedly suffer because of that. It's quite easy to lose the necessary sense of willing heroic fatalism that surrounds and defines a paladin when one is essentially trying to portray a class that evolved around a monotheistic belief system within the confines of a typically polytheistic fantasy universe.

And it's all too easy to look at that picture of "A Paladin in Hell" and see a 10th level paladin attacking a bunch of Type 17 demons with 120 hit points each, and to ignore the fact that what's really going on is that a paladin has willingly put himself in harm's way not because he enjoys killing demons during his lunch break, but because he's following the example of his god.

So how does one willingly sacrifice his life to his god of choice when there are fifty other gods who'll be happy to hand out free passes to Elysium in exchange for a few coins in the donation box? How does one march boldly into the final battle when he knows that the cleric is waiting out back with a resurrection scroll handy? How does one not turn into a Lawful Stupid tank with a portable first aid kit in a world where there are fifteen different kinds of paladins, each vehemently defending the beliefs of their own particular god? How does one avoid becoming just another Lawful Annoying fighter/cleric with a fancy magical horse?

It's not easy. But then, nobody ever said that role-playing a paladin was going to be easy.

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All Archetypology 1010 columns by Aeon

  • Episode 11 - In Closing... April 30, 2002
  • Episode 10 - Human, All Too Human March 19, 2002
  • Episode 9 -- Death Before Dishonor January 31, 2002
  • Episode 8 - To Be Orc Not To Be December 21, 2001
  • Episode 7 - Roll up for the magical mystery tour November 27, 2001
  • Episode 6 - Kings under the mountain October 18, 2001
  • Episode 5 - Rebel without a CAWS September 18, 2001
  • Episode 4 - In a hole in the ground... August 17, 2001
  • Episode 3 - Thick as Thieves July 13, 2001
  • Episode 2 - Elves Have Left The Building June 15, 2001
  • Episode 1 - Holy Rollers May 23, 2001
  • Who Are You? April 20, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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