"In terms of western spiritual chivalry, the ideal role of the armed knight is to protect Love from violation by the World, the Flesh and the Devil, and to defend womanhood as Love’s symbolic fortress. " - "Shadow of the Rose: The Esoterism of the Romantic Tradition", Charles Upton and Jennifer D. Upton
Tales of brave knights, have for century been a part of Western literary and spiritual traditions. However, the concept of chivalry and chivalrous conduct and values exist with similar standards and ideas across cultures. I have a habit of saying, that, whenever an idea, a concept or practice exists in a more or less similar manner, across cultures, it means that there is some truth in it that transcends cultural, national even formal religious borders. But, as the intent of this text is not an anthropological investigation or comparison, the focus shall be on Western tradition. If a person has taken a literature class, that person could have had chance to hear that chivalric ideal and knightly love came to be as a child of two traditions which were destined to meet on the territory of today's Europe. It is not hard to know which traditions are those two - one being Christian tradition, which values humility, obedience, devotion and divine love, the other being the one that spread with the expansion of Germanic peoples across the continent, the tradition which values a warrior, valor, strength, battle and victory. Although seemingly contradictory, those characteristics gave birth to the ideal which even today, we love to see in our novels, films and even real life. The Anglo-Irish writer, Kenlem Henry Digby, in his work "Maxims of Christian Chivalry", brings a similar idea behind chivalry to the one expressed in the opening quote of this essay. He says: "What is Chivalry? Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic and generous actions and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world." In both cases, it is obvious, that chivalry is not just about outer, superficial heroic acts, before anything, it is a state of mind or spirit, it is nobility of a man's soul that make him a knight. One may, then ask, is there a single way to be a knight? Is there space for any individual differences, within this greater, system? It could be said that there are. Indeed, even the Knights of the Round Table are still different in character and in their unique paths. Those different knightly ideals or archetypes are clearly visible - there is often the knight who is almost a poet, another who is more of a warrior, one who is deeply religious and many others. The tarot deck, even if one does not use it for occult practices and does not believe in them, has served as a good source of exploring archetypes for many. The tarot deck has four knights - cups, pentacles, swords and wands. Reoccurring theme, seems however to be, that there is indeed not a single way to embody the knightly ideal. We shall look at different well-known knights, their individual traits and see, how almost any man, with his unique individual constitution, can find a chivalric hero who in so many ways, was exactly like him.
The Loving Knight - Lancelot
"The raging fire which urged us on was scorching us; it would have burned us had we tried to restrain it."
- Giacomo Casanova
The romantic knight is probably the one that comes to people's mind first when they hear the word "knight", as in our modern time this knightly archetype or ideal, has been merged with that of prince charming. He is the romantic who writes poems, brings roses and is ready to do just about anything for his maiden. It does not mean, however, that the romantic knight is incapable of action - indeed, he very often does act, but his acts are motivated by love, beauty, poetry, idealism, and generally romantic ideals. His struggle is that so often he may be in love with love, that he may be chasing this ideal lady for who he is to kill dragons only to be disillusioned when he finds out that his lady was either not a very noble one, or simply that she is just a human, with human flaws and qualities. In many stories of such a knight, his challenge, is to see beyond his romantic lens, to find value in himself, before searching for the external validation and confirmation of his value. Despite his wisdom and strength, he is often a little naive when it comes to love, and he has to learn how and to whom to give this generous love that he carries. It is not rare, that this knight, comes to realisation that godly, divine love is the only true love with which to love both God and other human beings. He still keeps his romantic and poetic inclinations, but he now loves with a spiritual, conscious and not egoistic, unconscious love. For the romantic knight, love is not jut an emotion or feeling, but the very meaing and purpose of his existence. He yearns tha the expansive love within him, finally finds someone who is willing to receive it. As a reader could imagine, the famous Lancelot probably is the closest to this specific knightly ideal. He is also one of the most famous knights, as I said earlier, we love to see such knights in our fiction. Lancelot, although being King Arthur's greatest companion, has an affair with Queen Guinevere, who is a wife to King Arthur. This love of his, brings about a great tragedy - a civil war and the end to Arthur's Kingdom. However, it is not only the external tragedy that his romantic ideals had brought him, on an individual and spiritual level, Lancelot suffers greatly because of his attachment - he wanders as a madman through woods, he is only allowed a glimpse of the Grail, as he was distracted by earthly pursuits. Finally, even his lady, refuses him, blaming their affair for the great tragedy that happened, taking a life of penitence. Lancelot, follows her to hermitage, where he dies, shortly after her death. Lancelot in his journey learns the virtue of selfless love, the love that exists on its own and is not anxious to consume another one in its depths. The knight of love, cannot live without love, but he has to pay great attention that his love does not turn destructive and bring his darkest nightmares of hurting those he loves, to reality. He is victorious once he learns how to inspire, motivate and build using the power of love, poetry and beauty.
The Lone Knight - Parzival
If the ideal of romantic knight is the one that stands behind the character of prince charming, then the individualistic, justice - seeking, slightly detached knight is behind much of heroes of the contemporary films. The lone knight faces many challenges, as he, very often has to learn the knightly ways on his own. He often possesses a great desire to move forward, to create a change, to do something good and just, but sometimes has a hardship identifying the direction of his movement. However, once he does understand the direction, he is focused and persistent and very few things can keep him away from his path - when he sets his eye onto the goal or target he is the one to take it. Because of his often, alienated and lone existence, this knight has to learn many things on his own - he is not just the one who moves towards the target, he's very intelligent with many original thoughts and ideas. Because of his many struggles, persistence and bravery, he is rewarded by transformation, which usually in knightly stories, ends with true love and marriage. The one who comes to mind as an embodiment of this specific set of challenges and virtues, is the knight Parzival, especially the one in the German version of the story. Parzival is born to a very protective mother - she takes him to the wilderness in order to protect him from the world around him, the result of it being that Parzival never had an opportunity to learn anything of chivalry or the ways of men. His mother's love, although noble and beautiful is an obstacle towards his individuation. When Parzival hears of the King Arthur's court, he is faced with a great challenge - of having to disappoint, even hurt his mother in order to pursue his fate. As this knight is characterised by , as mentioned, desire to move, without exceptions, towards his target, Parzival leaves his mother and joins the knights of King Arthur. His mother, in final attempt to prevent him, even dresses him in fool's clothes, hoping that he would be rejected because of them. She eventually dies soon after his departure. Parzival finally learns the knightly ways, experiences fights, meets maidens and even leaves the court once his honor was insulted. In almost all the experiences, he shows the power of his mind and ability to stay detached, but also his strong sense of self. Parzival is dedicated in doing good and always giving a brave fight for the good, however, he experiences a crisis of faith. It is a very special horse who takes him to a holy man who teaches him about meaning of life, God and Grail. This new, spiritual understanding diminish the passion for Arthur's Court and ignite his desire for spiritual understanding. Many great things follow as a result of his spiritual growth. Just like the romantic knight, through trial, challenge, experience and hardship, but also through patience and accountability, the lone knight comes to understand the spiritual truths of life. The often lonely path he has, is the greatest challenge he faces, and he may easily become frustrated or give in to despair as a result of those.
The Passionate Knight - Galahad
"Never shall man take me hence but only he by whose side I ought to hang; and he shall be the best knight of the world."
The youth, the desire for action, for proving himself, for leadership and change are just some of the characteristics of what could be seen in the proactive, extroverted, passionate and risk-taking knight. The lone knight previously mentioned is often the hero of contemporary stories, as many of the young men specifically, can relate. But the passionate knight is the hero of the old stories - he is passionate, charismatic and simply a natural leader. For him it seems natural to attract people into his circle. His passionate desire, his youthful glow, his deep conviction and willingness to take leaps others do not take are so magnetic that very few can resist their influence. This knight also, loves the adventure, he pursues the adventure and motivates others to join him. It is not rare that many are suspicious of his sometimes, unreasonably brave pursuits, but once he proves himself able to almost perform a miracle, he gains the trust. It is typical for this type of knight, that once he completes his adventures, he settles down into calmer life, becomes a king who rules with the same charisma and fire but with more maturity in his veins. He is often a generous and kind father figure. His retreat into calmer life may also be expressed through his dedication to religion and God, as it is the case in the knightly stories of previous times. When thinking of an example for this inspiring hero, the first to come to my mind was Galahad. Galahad, the son of Lancelot is tested from his very young age. Upon his arrival in the Court of King Arthur, an elderly knight points at an empty chair. It was prophesied that only the one who is to succeed in the quest of Holy Grail, would be able to sit there without any terrible consequences. The young Galahad passes the test. There is yet another test for the young knight - he has to take a sword on which the words from the beginning of this chapter are inscribed. Galahad is once again, successful. Brave and empowered by his skill and ability, he takes the initiative to begin the search for the Grail. The other knights accept his leadership, many of who have lost their earthly lives in pursuit of a spiritual end. Finally, Galahad is able to see the Holy Grail. Upon seeing the Grail and experiencing glorious rapture, he is taken into heaven, and it is said that no other knight will ever be capable of taking the Grail. While life for this knight may seem easier than that of others, it is not without challenges. This knight has to go through many tests to prove his worth, to prove that he is able of being a leader. His ambition, charisma and leadership skills are his natural gifts, but he also has to assert great amount of self-control, which in case of knightly stories, is possible only through devotion to something greater than himself - it is this which keeps this passionate knight from burning everything around him and becoming a destructive force. He often has to be careful of not becoming a vain show-off or an aggressive tyrant. He, in his own way, has to defeat many outer and inner demons on his path to true meaning of life.
The Contriving Knight - Gawain
He is resourceful, formidable, grounded, skilled, enduring, practical and reliable. Those would be the characteristics of the knight who is an ambitious builder, who builds with steadiness, clear path ahead of him and without taking too many risks. He is the one to who probably, all others go for advice when they need a practical, grounded and realistic advice that will allow and help them to see their dreams become reality. He is the provider and builder, he provides both materialistically but also spiritually by being, like already mentioned, grounded and realistic. He calmly creates the opportunities for others to step in. He is private, introverted and dutiful. He may not see anything particularly heroic in his acts - he is simply doing his duty. He is often more concerned with material world and practical matters, he is not the one to take risks or fight but will go to the battle when duty demands him to do. He is practical, ambitious, consistent and often conservative. His challenges are that he can often be too stubborn, materialistic, greedy, selfish, controlling and power hungry. He may appear to be an enemy, a father, or a teacher that a young hero must "overthrow" in order to strive as in his conservativism he may not be willing to allow any kind of change to happen. There are many versions and different accounts of his character, but perhaps, Gawain is a good example of this type of knight. Most commonly, Gawain is the defender of those in his community, friend of the younger knights and a protector. In a version by Geoffrey of Monmouth, he prefers courtliness to battle. In some other sources, especially the French, he is known for his dutifulness and conduct. He does not provoke or seek recognition, he does it out of pure sense of duty. However, some French romances of Vulgate Cycles portray his flaws, they seem to be exactly the potential drawbacks of an unconscious dutiful knight. Lancelot is often praised as a better knight, since Lancelot follows the spirit of knighthood, while Gawain only follows the rules blindly, without spirit. In many of these romances, he is portrayed as practical, dutiful, proud, but his neglect of spirit happen to be his failure. Constantly not just attached, but unable to see beyond worldly matters, he is unable to use God's grace, despite his noble, charitable and virtuous intentions. The lack of openness to anything beyond material pursuits is this knight's biggest challenge to overcome. He can be so attached to material matters, to following rules and being dutiful, that he often cannot see and wishes not to see beyond that. He is content as such. However, when he begins to see and finally sees beyond the material meanings of the world, he becomes the much-needed advisor, defender, opportunity creator and provider - the way he remained in Scottish and English version of his story.
There could probably be many more examples of the knightly archetypes, but I have found four to be enough as they to a degree, align with standard masculine archetypes of magician, warrior, lover and king, as well as tarot's knights archetypes.
While knightly virtues preside over all over them - those of courage, protection, devotion and provision, they each have their own paths, struggles, challenges and issues. It does show however, that in order to embody the knightly virtues, it is not necessary to fit a very narrow mold, but rather to adopt the generals, the framework which later allows not only individual path but a path towards individuation, towards heroism. Literature and myths do not only offer symbolic meanings to our existence, they so often serve as a mirror. In form of fictional characters, to show us their strengths and flaws so that we may we become aware of our own.
Links "Shadow of the Rose: The Esoterism of Romantic Tradition, Charles Upton & Jennifer D. Upton "Maxims of Christian Chivalry", Kenlem Henry Digby "Tarot and the Archetypal Journey: The Jungian Path from Darkness to Light", Sallie Nichols "King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of Mature Masculine", Robert Moore