Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for the King and his Knights

N. C. Wyeth's Frontispiece to The Boy's King Arthur
The image of the king, and especially the ideal king, is as powerful as it is widespread.  One testimony to its power is the popular appeal of this image within modern democracies that are fundamentally anti-monarchic.  Without even turning to Walt Disney, Cartoon Network's Adventure Time provides us with an example.  While there is an abundance of princesses in the setting of the cartoon, the main king that we have seen is the Ice King, one of the major villains of the series who is a serial abductor of princesses and sworn enemy of Finn and Jake, the heroes.

{Spoiler Alert!}

In the episode, "Loyalty to the King," the Ice King shaves his beard after his latest "romance" with a princess has come to an end with her escape from the Ice Kingdom.  Without his major identifying feature, and looking presumably much younger, princesses are suddenly fawning all over him instead of fleeing his sight.  Through his quick-witted capitalization on a misunderstanding, he comes to be known as the Nice King.  Upon hearing of the arrival of a Nice King, the heroes immediately go to offer to enter his service.

{End of Spoiler}

I am sure that my gentle readers can multiple many examples of the ideal King, but in English-speaking contexts today, as well as for much of European history, the example par excellence is the legendary, perhaps semi-historical, Arthur.  He exemplified the virtues of wisdom, learnedness, justice, piety, and courage, skill at arms, and leadership.  Chosen by divine providence, and perhaps other numinous indicators, he had the gift of charisma,* like the Israelite leaders of old did.  The ideal king is worth being loyal too, and so other men of nobility and gifts are attracted to his court and his rule.  Enter the knights.

Is it because even heroes need a hero?  Is it that a bunch of gifted and testosterone-heavy, if not violent, men need an alpha male for social purposes?  Or is it a common human yearning to make a virtue of necessity: if we must have a leader, we yearn for one of nobility, of destiny, one who is worth-ship-ful?  Or is there simply a high degree of success that tended to accrue to past societies who gave immediate and radical obedience to the leader who inevitably has to make difficult and dirty-handed decisions? (A kind of social Darwinian advantage to the theory of the divine right of kings, if you will.  Cue Socrates with the Founding Lie.)  I've been reading James Branch Cabell lately, and he makes a good deal of fun of the human need for the Redeemer figure.  The ideal king can simply be a more secularized version of the Messiah: Jesus had his Twelve Apostles, Arthur had his Knights of the Round Table.  Meanwhile, mythopoets in the Lewis-Tolkien school (continuing a tradition from Christian apologists in the late Roman world) might see this as the way that all mythology reflects the truth at the heart of our world, and Jungians would search for the way that it reflects the archetypes of the Self.  But whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes, Arthur sat there on Whitsun eve with knights in his mews.**  Even Cabell's King Manuel has a Fellowship of the Silver Stallion.

Clearly we expect for knights to be champions of a virtuous king, gathering around him and then dispersing in benevolent errantry throughout the land or being sent on specific quests.  Among them there is a fellowship of loyalty, mutual interest, righteous heroism, and dangerous competition for training purposes and for renown -- tournaments.  That we still yearn for something that the King and his Knights represent, is evident in that fact that they refuse to disappear from our cinemas and television screens, video games, and comics.  To some extent, the Walt Disney empire rests on the foundations of Camelot, as seen by the presence of the storybook castle as the center of his theme parks.  But in recent decades, the multiplication of Societies for Creative Anachronism, for training in medieval martial arts, Renaissance festivals, Shakespeare companies, and even restaurants where you root as opposing factions over a faux, live medieval tournament while dining on hearty fare without knives and forks show that our need or our desire for the King and his Knights may be stronger than ever, even in the land that did away with kings and nobility.  (So, who's planning on watching William and Kate's wedding?)

Medieval Illumination of the Knights at Arthur's Round Table

Whether you build on the assumption that a group of noble, renowned, loyal warriors gather to the banner of the ideal monarch or you choose to question or even subvert it, you are trading on the expectations accrued to this well-known and well-received premise.  With the richness of the institution politically, religiously, historically, and mythically, it has a lot to offer in terms of commenting on these dimensions, building setting, developing characters, and it comes with traditional plot elements built in to it.  But trade on the desire to develop oneself in heroic directions and to belong to an ideal community are powerful, so caution should be used when taking it in non-traditional directions.

* Note that the common usage of the word (1) is actually derivative from the earlier, more technical usage (2).  We have Max Weber to thank for the reintroduction of the term in scholarly discourse outside of theology (further down in the article).

** Eat your heart out, Theodor Geisel.