Monday, 11 June 2012

Knightly Good Cheer

These days, the kind of environment we like to portray in fantasy is often quite dark and gritty. That’s understandable, and the tone of books obviously has more to do with the times an author lives in (or possibly just what they had for breakfast) than with any notion of conveying the essence of a time.

It’s just that, when we’re talking about vaguely medieval fantasy, don’t be too quick to dismiss notions of knights who were happy and polite, well-mannered and so on. I’m not talking about chivalry here (that’s a different matter, though possibly an important one). Instead, I’m talking about the basic need for a medieval knight to be a ‘people person’ for want of a better way of putting it.

Think about it. Most of them, if they were attached to a lord or castle (and if they weren’t, they were generally trying to be, because the rewards were better, see below), were living a more or less communal lifestyle with other knights, eating at a common table, drinking together, probably sleeping in corners of the same room. Add into that quite large quantities of alcohol and individuals brought up to do violence.

Imagine if you will a kind of never ending rugby club tour and you get the general idea. Now imagine the kind of person who fits in on a rugby tour. What it meant was that the people who did well tended to be the people who got on with other people. Who were always ready with the right joke or the encouraging word. The introverted chap towards the back… well, stories are full of loners who succeed despite winding up everyone around them, but it was probably less likely in real life. Especially when the morose chap who made the wrong comment when slightly drunk could end up stabbed.

But not just because of that. Because how you got on with people directly influenced your chances of success in life. Rewards for lower ranking knights could come through ransoms on the tournament or battle field, but they frequently also came through the largess of their bosses. Read any medieval chanson de geste, and you’ll find that the popular, successful images of lords are those who give away a lot. Indeed, with some characters, it is one of their only good points.

Take Ralf de Cambrai, eponymous villain/main character of a geste I spent some time studying. One of the weird things with him is that, although he’s a murderous psychopath, he spends a lot of time being described as a good lord and a good knight. Why? Because he was loyal to his friends, generous to his followers, very good with a sword and inclined to excel at all the things knights were meant to do.

I’m not saying that you need to change the whole way you write fantasy, of course. I’d much rather read gritty fantasy with troubled, interesting characters, but it also seems interesting sometimes to think about the faces characters would have had to present to the world, just to be sure of their place in it.


Christine Rains said...

I always believed knights needed to be personable too. I honestly don't see a successful loner knight or a mean one.

Cherie Reich said...

There's nothing wrong with dark and gritty, but some of the lighter fantasy tales probably ring more true, especially concerning knights. It's one reason I enjoyed reading Nicole Zoltack's Kingdom of Arnhem fantasy trilogy.