Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The medieval knight of Romance reaches his apogee in the Arthurian cycle (> Arthur; >>> Galahad; Gawain; Lancelot; Perceval); as the wildly overdrawn hero of innumerable Spanish Romances of chivalry, particularly popular in the 16th century, he reaches his nadir.

It is this ludicrous figure of the knight errant that Miguel de Cervantes mocks (and cherishes) in Don Quixote (1605-15). As a warrior and representative of the Lords Temporal (> Estates Satire) the knight was by this time a figure of the past. As one of an organized society of warriors – the Knights Hospitalers, the Knights Templar or the Teutonic Knights – he was feared and hated. And as an Icon of the chivalric submission of the Hero to an honourable code of conduct, he was a figure of fun. All in all, the idea of the knight was too tied to circumstance and history to seem very usable by writers of anything but historical fiction.

In a sense, the situation remains the same in the worlds of fantasy. If the special case of the Arthurian cycle be put aside – along with the Matter of various other countries – there is little direct carry-over of the armoured knight, or the order of chivalry he espouses, into fantasy. But there is much indirect carry-over. Lewis Carroll's White Knight is somewhat outwith our current discussion (> Knight of the Doleful Countenance). The figure of the chivalrous knight as Lord Temporal, suitably distanced from courtierhood, becomes a hero, or a Companion; many such figures appear in Heroic Fantasy. As the member of a quasi-religious order he will be found in Fantasies of History, and in Dynastic Fantasies where the presence of Secret Masters or a Pariah Elite is required for the sake of continuity over troubled centuries. As a solitary man of honour, he becomes a Childe.

If there is a paucity of knightly tales in 20th-century written fantasy, however, the situation is almost the opposite in the cinema, where the figure of the knight remains a powerful Icon, with even popular entertainments like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989; > Indiana Jones) recognizing the emotional force of the image; Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) and The Fisher King (1991) both use a riding knight not as a character in any real sense but as a symbol that brings great emotive impact. Comedies like the various Connecticut Yankee movies and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) of course ridicule the chivalric pose; but in the latter, and in Jabberwocky (1977) – again directed by Gilliam – there is much respect for the notion. Arthurian movies – examples are Lancelot and Guinevere (1962), Excalibur (1981) and the Gawain and the Green Knight movies, but there are many others – obviously often have the whole basis of chivalric knighthood as the focus of their concern; the same could be said even of fairly pedestrian movies like Prince Valiant (1954). But the true tragedy of the knight as a figure out of his time – which is perhaps today the knight's most potent iconic characteristic – is best expressed in two utterly dissimilar movies: Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1956), set in a Land-of-Fable Middle Ages, and George A Romero's Knightriders (1981), which captures a similar sense of loss among modern "knights" who joust on motorbikes. [JC/JG]

see also: Dragons.

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.