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Warrior Archetypes VII: Arthur - The Chivalrous Warrior

There are those who believe that there was actually a King Arthur, or something of that nature; a British chieftain who fought a losing battle against the Saxons long ago. I am not interested in arguing the point. The Arthur that we know, the one who lives in mediums as diverse as Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists Of Avalon to Disney’s cartoons, is a legend, a true myth. He wears fourteenth-century armor and fights by thirteenth-century rules. He is the embodiment of the Age of Chivalry, which happened long after any British chieftain would have died out.

This Arthur belongs to the league of Hercules and Orpheus, the magical hero-god-king, not the realm of history, and it is in this guise that we place him among their ranks. The central fact of Arthur’s reign is that he rules a country divided into warring parts, all of which he attempts to bring together not by force of arms, but by diplomacy. To do this, he recruits as many warriors as he can, and imprints upon them the code of chivalry. From the moment of their knighting, they would be expected to behave in a noble and gentle manner, even while hacking the heads off of their enemies.

This archetype is the embodiment of the chivalrous warrior. Like Arthur and his knights, he fights for justice rather than for greed or blind callousness. He has a cause, which must be weighed thoroughly on his internal Scales before he will take up a sword in its behalf. The code of chivalry reads like the Love And War value system - honor, graciousness, loyalty, courtesy, righteousness. “Not might makes right, might for right!” cries Arthur in the Broadway musical Camelot. The Arthurian knight uses diplomacy first, or at least tries to dissuade and warn his adversary before charging him. He never stabs from behind, and always gives the other man a fair chance. In his mind, winning by unjust means is as bad as losing.

He also holds women in high esteem, as well as aesthetic beauty, culture, and civilized behavior. The Arthurian knight is motivated by an ideal, a vision, a quest for what is most beautiful and desirable. He can be the archetypal knight on the white horse pursuing the Holy Grail, gallant towards all the women in his life, carrying the favor of one special female whom he puts on a pedestal and worships as his inspiration. If the lady (or lord) in question fails to live up to his ideals, he rejects them and seeks another.

Like Arthur, romance is often the Arthurian warrior’s downfall. His search for perfection can grate on a partner to the point where they seek the imperfect arms of another, as Guinevere ended up doing. They may also be defeated by lack of conviction; all that diplomacy may seem like prevarication and fatal indecision to the warring parties that they try to hold off. Arthur inherited a kingdom torn by religious differences; the older pagan faith was clashing with the newer, more aggressively spreading Christian religion and it was his job to keep the peace. He called himself a good Christian knight, but kept a pagan wizard by his side as an advisor; he married a Christian woman but had an affair with his pagan sister. By the end, not only was there no peace, but neither side trusted him due to his unwillingness to take any side at any time.

His worst mistake, of course, was to disinherit his illegitimate son Mordred, raised by his pagan priestess mother and aunt. Because he was not the child of a Christian legal marriage, Arthur felt that endorsing Mordred as an heir would lose him the support of his Christian knights, and so he refused to claim him. The rejected Mordred raised an army and eventually defeated Arthur, causing his death in battle. He died knowing that his hesitant attempt at compromise between two warring forces had failed. “Neither good Christian, nor good pagan, nor good husband to me!” bewails his wife in The Mists Of Avalon.

The Arthur archetype does not like to take sides unless he is sure that it is the side of Justice And Right. Once he has actually committed to a side, however, he is an implacable fighter, fueled by his certainty that he is doing the Right Thing. He will use diplomacy until it fails, and then will be surprisingly forceful. However, he will also have to learn that you can’t always impose peace from the top down. It is very difficult to force others to behave well, or do good, and it is almost impossible to force them to want to do good. Sometimes you just cannot get people to move your way, whether you wheedle them or push them. The chivalrous warrior doesn’t understand why people have to behave badly, since he is usually more in touch with his principles than his feelings. I can restrain myself, he thinks, so why can’t they? If they could only be made to try harder, I’m sure they’d see it my way.

The white knight may find it difficult to comprehend people’s earthier or more emotional motivations, and why it is so difficult for those people to transcend them. He needs to learn that he is more effective as an example than as an agent of forceful change. One of the qualities of chivalry was the attempt to civilize the mounted, well-armed, and brutal thugs that passed for knights in medieval Europe. Many were illiterate, few had manners, and most did not respect women at all. After the chivalrous Arthurian tales of the troubadours, suddenly these thugs were being encouraged to read poetry, dance, sing, engage in polite banter, love from afar rather than drag the woman off by her hair, and fight fairly in battle. This is the ultimate goal of the Arthurian knight; by being the chivalrous warrior, and winning, he sets an example to the other warriors that being strong is not synonymous with being coarse and brutal. His mere presence, when he is at his best, is what makes others want to behave better. He becomes the avatar of chivalry, and he will inspire those who cluster around him to new heights, new goals, and the occasional Holy Grail of conquering love.

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