Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Knight of the Doleful Countenance

In Chapter 19 of Part One of Don Quixote (1605-1615) by Miguel de Cervantes, Sancho Panza describes the Don as "El Caballero de la Triste Figura", which can be translated as "Knight of the Doleful Countenance". The phrase has a complex effect on many readers, partly because Don Quixote's response is itself complex. Panza has so dubbed him (he says) because the author of the Story which is being told about them needed a soubriquet at this point, and so wrote it in. This metafictional sophistication certainly makes it natural to assign to post-Cervantes versions of the KOTDC a high degree of selfconsciousness about being entrapped in a told story.

More immediately, the phrase clearly describes the comical half-crazed gaunt simpleton Knight of Part One, the quixotic old gentleman who believes he has been called upon to redress wrongs and who, in a world far more mundane than his chivalric romances have depicted, finds himself tilting against windmills in the belief that they are Giants. In the behaviour of this wasted ectomorph – whom illustrators have been wont to picture as hyperactive and praying-mantis-like – there is no glimmer of consciousness that he occupies an embarrassing position in a world which he takes to be Twice-Told but which – in fact, despite his assumption that he is being written – is without Story.

The KOTDC is also the saddened old man who, at the end of Part Two, now understands that the world he has been attempting to defend is nothing but a play of Shadows, and that secular reality was far harsher – and immeasurably less interesting – than the world of his dreams, the world he thought was being told. He has come to the end of his book. He turns his face and dies.

But what if he had lived on? As the term is used in this encyclopedia, the KOTDC is a figure of sustained, selfconscious Belatedness, a figure caught in a Thinning world who has not only failed to pass through any knot of Recognition into Eucatastrophe (see also Healing) but who has set his face against attempting to do so. He lives, therefore, in the aftermath of a profound disappointment in the nature of the world, and bears his nature as a kind of wound – Fisher-King imagery tends to suffuse descriptions of the KOTDC, even though he may be defined, like King Fisher in Michael Tippett's Opera The Midsummer Marriage (1955) or King Haggard in Peter S Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968), as one who in fact refuses the role – which necessitates his attempts to recline within an aesthetic posture of world-weariness, or to rule a world he blights through his refusal to permit growth. He is an aristocrat who feigns to abjure a world whose contempt he has not actually earned. He remains quixotic, in the sense that he tends to retain an inveterate (though mournful) interest in the minutiae of science and in contriving aesthetic solutions to the problems of getting through the day; but the moment of truth for him is always something sunk deep into the past (see Stemma), and the formulae which give shape to his day-to-day existence are entered into with a profound sigh.

The KOTDC re-entered literature in the first decades of the 19th century as a kind of Twin to Accursed Wanderers like the protagonist of Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820); he also very closely resembles the first literary Vampires – figures like Lord Ruthven (based on Lord Byron) in John Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale (1819 chap). But the KOTDC reached full flower as an Icon in the form of the White Knight in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), through his Bondage to the progress of the Chess match whose rules shape the text (and cause him constantly to fall off his horse in a parody of the Knight's Move), because of the unavailing fertility of his mind (for none of his inventions work) and through his romantic melancholy. The White Knight, as portrayed by Sir John Tenniel (who was closely briefed by Carroll), is clearly modelled on Don Quixote.

KOTDC figures surface intermittently in the literature of Decadence: in Joris-Karl Huysmans's À rebours (1884; trans as Against the Grain 1922), whose hero, Des Esseintes, attempts to seek aesthetic release; or in Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's Axel (1890; trans 1925), whose eponymous hero wards off the secular world from within the Polder of an impregnable castle, inside which he engages in arcane dilettantism – he is famous for his closing utterance: "Live? Our servants will do that for us." He is parodied – as Axel Heist – in Victory (1915) by Joseph Conrad. The elderly aristocrat known as the Penguin in Gustav Meyrink's Walpurgisnacht (1916; trans 1993), dancing like a spastic water spider over the ruins of his past life, is clearly a KOTDC, as are the marquises of Carabas (see Puss-In-Boots) in Sylvia Townsend Warner's "The Castle of Carabas" (in The Cat's Cradle Book coll 1940 US), for the original Marquise's guilt at betraying Puss has locked his descendants into a state of paralysed refusal – whenever one of them sees a cat, for instance, he swoons. A far more comprehensive figure is Lord Sepulchrave, the father of Titus in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast sequence (1946-1959). Sepulchrave's profound bondage to ritual, the enormously complicated pattern of his daily life, his posture, his distance, his haunted weariness: all amounts to a definitive portrait of the type.

Sepulchrave has almost certainly been a central influence – along with the White Knight – in the creation of many fantasy lords and mages at whose hearts despair gnaws, like King Haggard (see above), whose woundedness creates a genuine Waste Land; and of numerous Dying-Earth characters in the works of writers like Michael Moorcock, whose Dancers at the End of Time sequence is rich in such figures, as are M John Harrison's Viriconium books and Elizabeth Hand's Winterlong sequence. The quixotism of Caesar Grailly, in The Knight on the Bridge (1982) by William Watson (1931-    ), devolves under the pressure of history into a "sane" refusal of transcendental gesture. The guilt-ridden protagonists of Tanith Lee's "Bite-Me-Not or Fleur de Fur" (1984), of Richard Grant's (1952-    ) Rumors of Spring (1987), of Alexander Jablokov's sf Carve the Sky (1991) and of Paul Hazel's The Wealdwife's Tale (1993) all show evidence of a continuing (and evolving) image. [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.