Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Traditionally a youth of gentle birth, usually as featured in a ballad and usually awaiting knighthood. When capitalized, as Childe, the word serves as a title. The term appears frequently in the 14th and 15th centuries, and was picked up – already with an effect of the archaic – by Edmund Spenser, who used it in The Faerie Queene (1590-1596), and by William Shakespeare in a famous line given to the Fool in King Lear (1607): "Childe Rowland to the darke Tower came." Lord Byron made significant use of the term in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818), a book-length poem written in Spenserian stanzas; Childe Harold himself, cruising across the chasms and pitfalls of a "haunted, holy" Europe, became a model of the self-exiled, melancholy, romantic aristocrat (see Knight of the Doleful Countenance) who gazes to the past and future from various riven aeries. But Robert Browning's use of the term has more directly contributed to the iconography of fantasy. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (1855) superbly and unforgettably describes a knightly Quest which leads, almost certainly, deathwards. In Alan Garner's Elidor (1965) young Roland's loyal solitary quest for hidden Talismans necessary to heal the Land is clearly based as much on "Childe Roland" as on the Scots ballad "Childe Roland and Burd Helen"; and Tom, the central male figure in Garner's Red Shift (1973), conveys some sense of the derangement often associated with the Childe figure, who can in this context be seen as a Western equivalent of the Shaman. Stephen King's Dark Tower Far-Future fantasy sequence is based directly on Browning; and David A Gemmell's Jon Shannow – whose solitary haunted quest for a long-lost Jerusalem dominates The Complete Chronicles of the Jerusalem Man (omni 1995) – is a Childe nonpareil, down to the near-lunatic obsessiveness of his quest.

In the several sf/fantasy novels which valorize Billy the Kid, the image of the hero as a doomed solitary Childe in a wind-torn landscape is pervasive. Somewhat less fortunately, the figure takes on a Childe Rimbaud coloration in the work of Samuel R Delany, whose Kid protagonists – streetwise, druggy, artistically precocious and sexually alluring – represent the incursion of what might seem an insufficiently examined sentimentality into otherwise hard-edged texts. The protagonist of Bruce Sterling's The Artificial Kid (1980) is one of several successor Kids.

As an Icon, the Childe is potentially of great use, for he combines aspects of the Hero, the Fisher King and the Fool, conveys a sense of inbuilt Time Abyss, and travels onwards to the Dark Tower where the answers lie. The object of his quest is likely to be some sort of Grail, whose attainment or recovery will have a Healing function for the world. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.