On Paladins

A few months ago I found some beautifully bound tomes at Sam’s Club, of all places. One, a collection of horror stories by H. P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and the like; this was gifted to Kaiju, being right up his alley. Another volume that caught my eye was Bulfinch’s Mythology, which I’ve known to be one of the great mythology collections/translations, though to my knowledge I have never picked up a copy. I snatched it up.

Now Bulfinch’s provides a very accessible gateway into Roman and Greek mythology, as well as Arthurian lore. These are stories I’ve heard before and that fueled the imagination of my youth. Additionally, the book relates the medieval legends of Charlemagne – stories with which I confess little familiarity.

I find it curious that classic Greek/Roman myths should survive and remain so widely-known and that the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur likewise live on, and yet the stories of Charlemagne and his knights have been relegated to near-obscurity. Perhaps this is due to the common misperception of the Middle Ages as the dark times (for indeed they are often called the Dark Ages). I have heard of the Song of Roland, I’ll admit, but I was never exposed to it during my education.

So in recent days I have slowly been discovering the stories of Charlemagne and his court. They are highly reminiscent of the tales of Arthur and his knights, but also draw upon older mythologies and religious references in fascinating ways. For instance Durindana, the sword of Roland, is said in Bulfinch’s  to have been the sword of Hector of Troy. In other accounts, it was crafted by faeries. In others still, components of sword are said to have contained the relics of various saints.

Previously unbeknownst to me, what has become a base class in so many fantasy games these days – the paladin, originates from Charlemagne. Charlemagne was the head of 12 knights, sometimes called “paladins” or “peers.” Perhaps the greatest and most well-known of these was Roland (also known as Orlando, depending on the translation). Others of note include Ganelon the betrayer (who appears in Dante’s Inferno) and Malagigi the enchanter.



While the Charlemagnian stories do hold that Arthurian flavor, there are some distinctions I would note. As historically the emperor did war against the Moors, so do the legends relate his and his knights’ battles against the Muslims, oft referred to as Saracens. Most of the time, the paladins conduct themselves honorably and strive to follow the codes of chivalry, and they do fight for their faith, trying to convert rather than kill their heathen foes in some cases.

One oddity, whom I have yet to further explore, is the paladin Malagigi, whom I noted was an enchanter. In many ways he seems to parallel Merlin, as wise advisor to the King, knower of lore, caster of spells, and weaver of Fate. I find it curious, however, that he is said to have summoned demons to serve him at times; not a very holy or prudent behavior, even if used for noble purposes. I’m not quite sure if this reflects more upon the characterization of Malagigi as not necessarily being good, or upon literary style.

I may write more as I come across stories of particular interest, but for now it will suffice to have shed perhaps a new light on the popular (and nerdy) brand of holy knight.

Update: Tech and religion writer Thomas L. McDonald, formerly of the God and the Machine blog and currently of Wonderful Things (also a writer over at NC Register) provided a few thoughts on Twitter –












5 thoughts on “On Paladins

    1. I think they’ve become so mainstream in gaming and nerdom over the past few decades that it’s easy to kind of gloss over their origin as an archetype. Looking into it does give some interesting insights.


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