The Sovereignty Goddess in Robin McKinley’s Chalice

Robin McKinley has a few motifs and structures that she really likes writing. Beauty and the Beast is one that comes up frequently; Beauty (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997) are obvious adaptations, but Chalice (2008) uses the bones of that story, as well. A couple months ago, I dug into McKinley’s use of the sovereignty goddess trope in The Hero and the Crown (1984), and that also turns up in Chalice, albeit less flashily. Aerin is a warrior queen who ascends to a sort of guardian role over Damar. Mirasol, the protagonist of Chalice, is a much quieter heroine with a much smaller realm, but her role still has strong overtones of sovereignty goddess.

As discussed earlier, the sovereignty goddess is a mythological motif that binds together land and ruler. She is often the guardian of tools that symbolize this tie with the land. Frequently, there is a marriage ritual, sometimes involving a real woman, that externalizes the idea that the lord or king is bound to his land and his land to him.

The governmental structure of Chalice is vaguely feudal. Mirasol serves a Master, who rules over the demesne of Willowlands, but he in turn answers to an Overlord. The Master, Liapnir, has a traditional circle of advisors made up of people with various roles and abilities political and magical. The Chalice is both. As a role, Chalice binds and unifies land, Master, workers, and Circle through ritual and magic. But within the role is still a person, as Mirasol’s story makes abundantly clear.

Mirasol comes to power as Chalice after the old Master and Chalice die in circumstances both tragic and vague. The Master was hedonistic and irresponsible to a point that it broke the land, and his Chalice couldn’t or wouldn’t stand up to him and stop him. With no training—and, until the Circle comes to tell her the land has chosen her as the new Chalice, no idea what’s happening to her—she has to stumble her way through both the ritual role and political role of Chalice when the new Master (who has problems of his own) arrives. Unlike most Chalices, who fill their chalices and work their rituals with water or wine, Mirasol works in honey.

Her Master is also unconventional, in that he had to leave a religious calling in the priesthood of Fire very late in the process, leaving him barely human. There is a great deal of concern—from himself and Mirasol and the Circle and the people—that he might not be able to effectively take on the role of Master due to his affinity to Fire rather than the Willowlands. Between them, they find a new-ish way of being Master and Chalice, lord and sovereignty goddess.

Mirasol’s tie to the land and the way that she-as-Chalice embodies the land is much more confining and defined than Aerin’s role in The Hero and the Crown. Mirasol can’t leave the demesne, and she’s the only one of the Circle who can’t. The records she reads to try to learn how to be Chalice refer to Chalices as “the Landtied,” and attempting to cross the boundaries of the Willowlands into another demesne will literally kill her. She knows exactly where those boundaries are because of her innate connection with the “earthlines”—the ribbons of magic that run through the land and make it the Willowlands. The land and other natural forces respond to her in kind; the signs that she has become Chalice include her bees overproducing honey, her goats overproducing milk, and the mead fermenting in her basement overflowing.

The Master also has a magical connection to the land, but his is inherited through his bloodline. Liapnir describes the sense of being “called” back to the Willowlands after his brother (the old Master) dies, that in spite of having pledged himself as a priest of Fire, the Willowlands needed him so badly they helped break his bond to Fire. Yet, as I’ll get into in a minute, despite his own bond with the land, he still requires the Chalice’s support to truly rule it.

While Aerin’s sovereignty symbols are a sword and a crown, Mirasol has a collection of goblets, each designed for a specific purpose; while we never see the full set or get all their names, there’s one for binding (she uses this one the most), one for decisions, one for welcome. Chalices—indeed, any container for holding, serving, or consuming liquid—are one of the oldest symbols, a distinctly feminine one (in contrast to the masculine-coded sword that Aerin uses). Cups represent life and destiny, as seen in the numerous literary echoes of “let this cup pass from me.” Most famous is the Holy Grail, an Arthurian/Christian symbol whose origins have been argued over, with some claiming it was stolen from Celtic mythology and others insisting it’s been Christian all along. The argument is possible, though, because the cup/chalice/cauldron is so ubiquitous.

Arthur Rackham’s Elaine with the Sangreal, 1917

The ritual role of Chalice is just as binding and confining as Mirasol’s inability to leave the land. She is expected to be steady and calm, is not allowed to sit while being/bearing the Chalice, and frequently must also go hours without eating or drinking in order to preserve the mystique of the role. These expectations lead to two parallel problems: she loses all her friends, who now see her as something greater than they—as mere woodwrights—and the others in the Circle expect her to just know how to be Chalice and offer no guidance. This isolation is shown to be detrimental to Mirasol’s mental health, and she constantly frets that she’s not Chalicing right, that she’s going to do more harm to the land than good.

Ultimately, the role of Chalice is to support and reinforce the rule of the Master and bind him more closely to the land and his Circle, as well as the Circle to each other. The Chalice is the glue that holds everything together and legitimizes the Master. This is where the core conflict of the plot comes in; after the incident with the old Master and Chalice, and because the new Master left the priesthood of Fire, trust is thin in the Willowlands.

When the Overlord decides to impose an Heir on them, the politics of Mirasol’s role clash with the magic of her role, and her inexperience leads to problems. She hates the Heir, Horuld, on sight, and senses he’s a bad fit for the land. Yet her attempts to be gracious are misread as an acceptance of Horuld, even a preference for him over Liapnir, and she has to do a lot of damage control to assure the people that she’s behind Liapnir but also willing to help Horuld take his place should that be necessary.

This is where the sovereignty part of her role really comes into play. In reading the old records to figure out how to be Chalice, she discovers that an “outblood” heir can be bound to the land by marrying the Chalice and having children. Under most circumstances, the person of the Chalice is sacrosanct—she can’t marry and is actively discouraged from having children; in cases where the Chalice passes to an actively pregnant or nursing woman, it’s seen as bad luck. The Chalice belongs to the land and the Master alone.

The Overlord doesn’t simply assign an Heir to the Willowlands, though; he orchestrates a duel between Horuld and Liapnir designed to remove Liapnir immediately. Mirasol fears for the continuity of the land, still unsettled from the last Master, and Horuld’s ability to merge with it the way a Master should. She also suspects that the Overlord intends to remove her once she’s married Horuld and borne a new Heir. The Overlord’s plan is fundamentally opposed to how the world is “supposed” to work, and Mirasol’s Chalice persona violently rejects it. “Any decent man would refuse to raise a sword against a Fire-priest whose strength is in Fire, not swordplay,” she thinks. “Any Heir fit to be Master of a demesne would refuse to go through with this.”

It’s Mirasol who decides the duel, again as both Mirasol and Chalice. Liapnir tries to sacrifice himself, but Mirasol screams, and the land answers—every bee in the Willowlands descends on the dueling field, killing Horuld and severing Liapnir’s ties to Fire, making him fully human again. As everything settles, Mirasol declares that she’ll marry Liapnir anyway and forge a new tradition.

McKinley balances old and new throughout Chalice; the traditions of the land, Chalice, and Master are old, the social structure dictated by the needs of the land. But Mirasol is new—a completely untrained Chalice whose power is in honey. As Farah Mendlesohn has pointed out, in the absence of an apprenticeship, Mirasol has to turn to old books and records, “with the implication that there is no new knowledge.” Mirasol’s resistance of the Overlord retains the traditions and bloodline of the land, but her choice to marry Liapnir against all tradition lays the foundations for something new—but not too new. She is still Chalice, she still binds land and Master, she still acts as the sovereignty goddess for the Willowlands.

References and Further Reading
Robin McKinley, Chalice, 2008.
Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown, 1984.
Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers, 1996.
Farah Mendlesohn, Review of Chalice by Robin McKinley, First Opinions, Second Reactions 1.3, 2009.

Death is a Mug’s Game: The Sandman’s Hob Gadling and Living History

This is the text of a plenary address I gave for the Ars Culturae Memoriae conference earlier today, so it’s a bit longer and a bit more “academic” than these posts usually get. It’s also full of Sandman spoilers, so be warned.

A 630-year-old man walks into a Ren Faire.

It’s not a joke, but the basic premise of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman issue 73, “The Wake: An Epilogue: Sunday Mourning.” Robert Gadling, nicknamed Hob, joins his girlfriend Guenevere, who is a player at a local Renfest. Over the course of the day, he wrestles with how the present views the past, his long life and what he’s done with it, and the concept of death. He is in mourning for Morpheus, King of Dreams, who granted Hob immortality in the first place, and that grief translates into a general melancholy about everything else he’s lost and how everything has changed since he renounced death in 1389. “Sunday Mourning” in particular, and Hob’s storyline in general, provides an interesting contrast between personal memory, collective memory, and cultural memory. As Anne Fuchs and Edric Caldicott explain, memory is dual, personal and cultural; “memories are not static representations of past events but ‘advancing stories’ through which individuals and communities forge their sense of identity. Or, to put it differently: memories offer heavily edited versions of the self and its world” (12-13). Through Hob’s major appearances in Sandman—issue 13, “Men of Good Fortune,” issue 53, “Hob’s Leviathan,” and “Sunday Mourning”—Gaiman explores how history is storified and how stories, both personal and cultural, shape the way we see the world and interact with each other.

Continue reading “Death is a Mug’s Game: The Sandman’s Hob Gadling and Living History”

Review: The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David Perry

Gabriele, Matthew, and David M. Perry, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, Harper, 2021, $29.99

Despite frequent complaints and explanations from medievalists, the term “Dark Ages” continues to be thrown around and used as an epithet for the medieval period or at least the early part of it. The term carries connotations of barbarism, ignorance, violence, and just plain dirtiness. In The Bright Ages, Gabriele and Perry not only push back against the idea of the medieval as dark, but also offer a different way of thinking about the Middle Ages.

The book covers European history from about 430 CE to about 1320 CE, bookending the Middle Ages with the construction of San Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna, Italy, and Dante’s exile from Florence to Ravenna. As with any book about medieval history, it’s ambitious in its scope, covering nearly 1000 years, but instead of trying to cover all of it in minute detail, the authors take the period in small bites.

Each chapter focuses on an exemplar of the period in question—an artifact, a building, an image from a story—to build a sense of time and place. They are beautiful images, sublime even, a subversion of the usual images that go along with the idea of the medieval. Likewise, the authors pull focus from war and conflict, which are usually the center of histories. This is not to say that they ignore war, but more try to balance out the usual view of medieval history as Fall of Rome – Norman Invasion – Vikings – Crusades, one era of violence and death after another. Rather, they reframe to point out that war is only part of our history, and that lots of things besides war were happening, even during the Viking Age and the Crusades.

This reframing also serves to blur the usually hard lines put around and within the period. Often, the Middle Ages is dated from “the Fall of Rome” to some marker in the early modern period—the Renaissance, or Columbus’ journey, or the beginning of the Tudor period. Gabriele and Perry argue that Rome didn’t fall so much as saunter vaguely downward, and the empire continued for far longer than we usually think it did. This serves to show that the arbitrary boundaries we put on history, the dates we use to fence off the Middle Ages and separate it from us, are arbitrary. We try to find a definitive moment when the world changed, but the world is constantly changing, and constantly the same.

The authors also make a point to refute the idea that the Middle Ages were primarily white, patriarchal, heteronormative, and Christian, pointing out where cultures blended and cooperated, where women were influential and even in charge, and how historians (both of the time and later) brought their own biases to the records.

The Bright Ages is a great introduction to or invitation to rethink the Middle Ages, presented in bite-sized pieces that makes for easy reading. The writing is clear and accessible, peppered with pop-culture references that serve almost as Easter eggs; they fit seamlessly into the prose, but stand out if you recognize the reference (for example, “Justinian did not throw away his shot”). Though the chapters themselves don’t necessarily get deep into details, the book also includes a “further reading” section for each chapter that presents primary and secondary sources and contextualizes them. This section also includes several books and articles that explore how our preconceptions about the Middle Ages have been built over the last several hundred years.

A great general history, well-written, clearly a labor of love for the period and its people, The Bright Ages is available now (just in time for Christmas!).

HarperCollins provided a copy of this book for review purposes. I received no other compensation or incentive for this review.

Robin McKinley’s Aerin and the Sovereignty Goddess

Several academic critics and popular reviewers have criticized The Hero and the Crown for not being “truly” feminist. Mostly because Aerin doesn’t take the throne for herself at the end of the book and instead marries Tor and becomes his queen. However, when taken with her role in The Blue Sword, it seems what McKinley was trying to do with Aerin went beyond a single generation and one lifetime on the throne. Instead, her position in both books lines her up rather neatly with the mythological and fantasy tradition of the sovereignty goddess.

In Western fantasy, the sovereignty goddess motif draws primarily from Irish and Welsh mythology. She was a symbol of kingship and the land, “the spirit or essence” of the realm itself, as Miranda Green puts it. The goddess’ favor, usually symbolized through a “marriage” to the land, legitimized the king and gave him the authority to rule. Of course, if his rule was bad, or if the land failed to prosper, this authority could be revoked. She is, basically, an anthropomorphized version of the land, sometimes represented by a real woman. For example, Tacitus’ documentation of Queen Cartimandua, ruler of Brigantia, whose husbands were king because they were married to her, portrays her as the “living symbol of Brigantia.”

“Caractacus, King of the Silures, Delivr’d up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Catismandua, Queen of the Brigantes” by Francesco Bartolozzi, 1788

McKinley’s Aerin, while not a direct copy of the mythological sovereignty goddess, bears definite similarities in her history and role. The royalty and nobility of Damar trace their lineage back to the North, a wild land full of magic and semi-human or non-human “demons.” In the time of the novels, the North is an active threat to Damar. The people mistrust (at best) and hate (at worst) Aerin because her mother was from the North; they call her “witch woman’s daughter” and actively keep her out of the line of succession. But as Luthe points out, the magic/kelar/Gift associated with the nobility is the only thing that lets Damar exist; without it, Damar would not be able to resist the Northern hordes. Aerin, as daughter of a Northern mage and a Damarian king, is twofold connected to the source of Damar’s power, and more closely than any living Damarian nobility.

She also demonstrates a closer tie to the land and common people through her willingness to slay dragons. Unlike many fantasy stories, in The Hero and the Crown, dragon-slaying isn’t a grand, highly chivalric act. The dragons in Damar are mostly pests, but dangerous ones that need to be gotten rid of. Aerin sees herself as a bit of a pest—an outsider in court with nothing of value to offer. When she faces Agsded, he finds that point of weakness in her self-esteem, claiming that Arlbeth allowed it because she kept herself small and quiet, and the dragon-killing made her moderately useful.

But killing the smaller dragons gives her a sense of responsibility for the people, and she goes out to face Maur when nobody else can (or will). Maur is at least an equal threat to Damar as the tribal leader Arlbeth goes to deal with instead, if not greater. While Arlbeth marches out to protect his position as king over all the small tribes that make up Damar, Aerin goes to keep Damar from ceasing to exist. Even before she becomes “no longer quite mortal,” she takes on responsibility for the whole of the country and protects it from catastrophic harm, despite the risk to herself.

In the mythology, the goddess is frequently the guardian of various symbols and tools of kingship—a sword, a goblet, a staff, etc. Aerin has two such symbols: the Hero’s Crown and Gonturan, the Blue Sword. The Crown is the most obvious, direct indication of her role as sovereignty goddess; she wins it back from Agsded and brings it to Tor, crowning him with it in the middle of battle:

Aerin shrieked: “It’s the Crown, can’t you see? PUT IT ON!” Tor looked up again; Aerin was quite near now, and then she was beside him, banging her calf painfully against his stirrup as Talat pranced and pretended to be taller. She yanked his arm down, pried his fingers loose from his sword hilt, shook the Crown free; pulled his head down toward her and jammed the Crown over his temples

The Crown has a magic of its own, giving the king the strength to defend Damar. In-universe legend has it the smith-goddess Aerinha, for whom Aerin is named, forged it to hold the strength of Damar, which could then be passed down from king to king. Thus, Aerin returns the power of Damar to its kings and crowns the next one with her own hands, bestowing the authority to rule on him.

Gonturan is a bit different, acting as a symbol of female power. It is specifically Aerin’s sword, and in The Blue Sword, several characters mention that men can’t wield it beyond their 20th birthday without consequences. Aerin uses it to fight Agsded, then to fight the battle outside the city. Most symbolically, she uses it to fling the Crown across the battlefield to Tor. This is a bit of a reversal; usually, the symbols of sovereignty are handed to the king, and a sword is a strongly phallic image usually reserved for men. But McKinley layers in implications that Damarian women used to be warriors, as well; Aerin notes that no women have gone into battle “since Aerinha, goddess of honor and flame, first taught men to forge their blades.” She also remarks that Aerinha should have known better than to hand all that power over to men.

Aerin refuses the throne for herself because she thinks people’s suspicion of her would make her an ineffective ruler, but she marries Tor and becomes queen:

It had not been only her doom and duty that had brought her back to the City, and to Tor, for she loved Damar, and she loved its new king, and a part of her that belonged to nothing and no one else belonged to him. She had misunderstood what her fate truly was a few days ago [. . .]; it was not that she left what she loved to go where she must, but that her destiny, like her love, like her heritage, was double. And so the choice at last was an easy one, for Tor could not wait, and the other part of her—the not quite mortal part, the part that owed no loyalty to her father’s land—might sleep peacefully for many long years.

Her life and her story extend past this one generation, but her presence and her role in protecting Damar help to legitimize Tor’s reign.

What happens to her between The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword is unclear, but she becomes a legend to the Damarians and a sort of patron goddess to Harry Crewe. Harry sees Aerin a couple of times—once as a vision in a fire, once in a dream—and feels her presence more often, guiding Harry and helping her to learn the skills she needs to be a King’s Rider at a preternatural rate. Harry is the first to carry Gonturan since Aerin herself (the actual length of time between books is also unclear), protects Damar from the North, and marries the king—just like Aerin did. Harry also echoes Aerin by healing the casualties from the battle against the Northerners (as I discussed in the last essay).

Aerin acts as a sovereignty goddess across two books in two different ways. During her own mortal lifetime, she saves Damar and crowns and marries its king. After that, as she continued to be not quite mortal, she seems to have ascended and/or become one with Damar, guiding its heroes and bestowing power and favor on the new queen-to-be, who also served as a champion and protector. There are lots of character reasons why she doesn’t take the throne for herself, but also, thematically, her duty is to the land and people in a broader sense and not limited to a single lifetime spent ruling.

References and Further Reading
Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword, 1982.
Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown, 1983.

Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin, “Women in Early Irish Myths and Sagas,” The Crane Bag 4.1, 1980.
Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers, 1996.
Roger S. Loomis, “Morgain le Fee and the Celtic Goddesses,” Speculum 20.2, 1945.
Caitlin Matthews, Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain: Kings and Goddesses in the Mabiongion, 1989.
Michelle Zeigler, “Brigantia, Cartimandua, and Gwenhwyfar,” The Heroic Age 1, 1999.

The Hero and the Crown and the Royal Gift

1987 edition

Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown (1984), written as a prequel to The Blue Sword (1982), is a fantasy novel chock full of medievalisms. It takes place in a pre-industrial society, and it has magic and dragons and princesses—all fairly standard for medievalist fantasy. What sets it apart for its time is the hero: a girl named Aerin with (apparently) no particular talents besides stubbornness. She’s an outsider in the court because her mother, the second wife of the king, was a foreigner from the North. During a long convalescence after exposure to a plant that’s deadly to anyone not of royal blood, she helps rehabilitate an old warhorse and takes up dragon-slaying. This is, of course, an incredibly simplified summation of the plot and concept, but frankly you should just go read it if you haven’t already.

One aspect of the worldbuilding that caught my attention on my latest re-read was the royal Gift, which is a major part of the plot, and the royal “healer’s hands,” which doesn’t show up until relatively late. The actual mechanics of the Gift are vague, but at the very least, Aerin is expected to be able to magically mend things she breaks and to be resistant to the poison of the surka plant. Because she can’t do the mending thing, and because she manages to nearly kill herself with surka trying to prove a point, she’s considered “lesser” than the other sols and solas in the court. It’s seen as a sign that, despite being unquestionably her father’s (the king’s) daughter, she doesn’t have “enough” royal blood to be treated as true royalty. Perlith (second in line for the throne) and his wife, Galanna, in particular use this as an excuse to treat her abominably.

2014 edition

Monarchs having special powers, especially of healing, is not an uncommon folk belief, and it’s fairly frequent in fantasy lit, as well. It’s one of the ways Aragorn is proven to be the True King of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings—“The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.” As with so many things, Tolkien borrowed this from medieval history. The “royal touch” or “king’s touch” goes back in English history at least as far as Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066), who was said to heal scrofula (a symptom of tuberculosis) by touching people. The historical record is complicated, as it so often is, but the tradition of the king or queen of England being able to heal various diseases by touch continued until at least Queen Anne in the 1700s. (And after, though less literally—Anna Whitelock points out Princess Diana’s encounters with AIDS sufferers and children injured by land mines.)

McKinley adds a small twist to this tradition in that, as Luthe the wizard explains to Aerin, “your family made themselves royalty on the strength of it, not the other way around.” The kelar/Gift is not a sign that those who have it are blessed by gods and meant to rule. Rather, the king’s ancestors ruled because they were more powerful than anyone else. Like so many royal families and nations, they’ve rewritten their history; Luthe explains that, despite their disdain for Aerin’s mother, their line originally came out of the North—from the same line that in the North became the demons that constantly threaten Damar. The Gift is the only thing that has allowed the Damarans to resist wholesale invasion by the Northern demons, he tells her, even if “they haven’t much of it left to call anything.” It’s basically down to small tricks, illusions, and some mental influence over others.

1984 edition

Aerin, on the other hand, is far more powerful than she knows. Her mother was strongly magical, something beyond a witch, not a demon, not quite human. Luthe explains that that’s the only reason Aerin survived the surka at all; royalty are resistant to it, but not completely immune to the poison. While the royal line is far removed from their Northern heritage, Aerin is an immediate descendant of both a Northern mage and the Damaran royal line.

Aerin’s heritage and her treatment at court are what ultimately drive her to become a hero. She starts dragon hunting on her own, doing research while recovering from surka, refining the recipe for a fire-resistant ointment she happens across while reading. Initially, it’s something to pass the time and prove herself—“To be doing something. To be doing something better than anyone else was doing it.” At this point in the story, most of the dragons are about the size of dogs. They’re clever and mean, but she learns how to fight them and does well.

Enter Maur.

1986 edition

Maur is an ancient threat, a great dragon hundreds of years old who’s been hiding or hibernating or something until the evil from the North wakes him. It’s worth mentioning that the first time he’s named, it’s in an old history book with archaic spelling and word use—Aerin has to work to read it the same way a modern student might have to work to read something in late Middle English or early modern English. She takes responsibility for fighting him because she’s already been fighting the dragons and because the men can’t do it—they’ve gone off to war. Her battle with Maur and her extensive injuries afterward are what push her into going to Luthe and learning the truth of her heritage.

As part of her healing, Luthe fully awakens the magic inside her, leaving her “no longer quite mortal.” He tells her about her family and the prophecy (because of course there’s a prophecy) that led her mother to marry her father: to produce a child (she was hoping for a boy) who could kill Agsded, the true threat to Damar. Luthe argues that because of her magical strength and heritage, she should be queen rather than her cousin Tor taking the throne. But Aerin recognizes that it takes more than a bloodline to make a good ruler, and that she wouldn’t be very good at it—both because of her own temperament and because the people still don’t trust her.

Just because she doesn’t want to rule Damar doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to protect it. With her new not-quite-mortal status, some training in magic, and her magic sword Gonturan, Aerin defeats the ultimate evil and returns to Damar with the Hero’s Crown, a relic that strengthens the king, and in turn the land.

Her return, into a siege on the City, is where we get into the specific “healing hands” magic. Aerin gives the Crown to Tor, the crown prince, and they go to work putting the City back together.

Aerin and Tor were among those still whole, and they helped as they could. No one noticed particularly at the time, but later it was remembered that most of those who had felt the hands of the first sol, her blue sword still hanging at her side, or of the first sola, the Hero’s Crown still set over his forehead, its dull grey still shadowed with red, recovered, however grave their wounds. At the time all those fortunate enough to feel their hands noticed was that their touch brought unexpected surcease of pain; and at the time that was all any could think of or appreciate.

The parallels to Aragorn in the Houses of Healing are apparent even just in this short passage. After the Battle of the Pellennor Fields, Aragorn likewise tends to the wounded, first Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, but afterwards many others, at the behest of his people. Though he doesn’t yet feel ready to be king, just as Aerin isn’t ready to be queen, the truth of who he is comes out because he can’t not help his people.

Aragorn and Eowyn in the Houses of Healing in The Return of the King (2003)

Tom Shippey argues that Aragorn’s healing hands were specifically Tolkien’s “reproach” of Shakespeare and Macbeth, a reinforcement of the argument made elsewhere in LOTR that stewards do not become kings regardless of how much time has passed. But absent a direct reference, all that remains is the idea that kings—true kings, of a specific bloodline—have certain powers. That idea trickles over into The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, one of those medievalisms that has become unmoored from its original meaning and intention. But that’s how medievalism often works; the particular situation of a symbol may no longer be applicable or no longer resonate with an audience, so they take what they need—royal healing hands, for example—and abandon the rest.

Thanks to Dr. Dimitra Fimi, Dr. Luke Shelton, Dr. Thijs Porck, and Twitter user @FontesMedicorum for help with researching the “king’s touch.” Thanks also to Julie Beth for beta-reading and fangirling with me.

References and Further Reading
Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown, 1984.
Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword, 1982.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 1955.

Nicole Marafioti, The King’s Body: Burial and Succession in Late Anglo-Saxon England, 2014.
Robin McKinley, Newbery Award Acceptance Speech, 1985.
Thijs Porck, “The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings,” 2016.
Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology, 2003.
Anna Whitelock, “The King’s Touch: A History of ‘Magical Royalty,” Brewminate, 2019.

“Role-Playing Rejects”: Buffy’s Knights of Byzantium

As discussed last month, the Knights of Byzantium are one of the most overt and purposeful examples of medievalism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Their imagery as Crusader knights is only one part of a veritable slurry of medievalism and medievalist tropes, plus a dash of outright confusion. Specifically, why do they need to be medieval, why do they need to be knights, and what exactly were the writers trying to do with them at all?

The Knights first appear in “Checkpoint” (5.12), one more attack on Buffy after an incredibly bad day. The Council have arrived and are holding hostage the information Buffy needs to protect Dawn; Buffy’s history professor gets incredibly (unprofessionally) snarky with her; Glory comes to her house and threatens her; and she’s already running late for yet another Council trial when the Knights ambush her. This also serves as Buffy’s moment of clarity: “Power. I have it. They don’t. This bothers them.”

Buffy explains why she won’t be hoop-jumping in “Checkpoint” (5.12)

Season five, more than any other season, puts Buffy in the middle of an ancient war between multiple factions. (Even season seven, despite having a much older and more powerful Big Bad, doesn’t have this many different groups involved.) Glory wants the Key so she can go home; the monks of the Order of Dagon wanted to protect the Key to use it for good; and the Knights want to destroy the Key before it can do any harm. The Key itself, before it was Dawn, seems to have been non-sentient and thus had no say in any of this. Like so many of Buffy’s conflicts, rules and traditions established hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago intrude on Buffy’s modern life, forcing her into terrible situations.

The Knights of Byzantium and Order of Dagon both fall into recognizable tropes of an ancient or medieval order protecting artifacts from misuse while another order or group seeks them to misuse them. We see this trope in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword; the Brotherhood protects the Grail, the Nazis want the Grail. It’s also the central conceit of the Assassin’s Creed video game series, in which the Assassins collect and hide artifacts from an ancient, advanced civilization, keeping them safe from the Templars, who want to use those artifacts to rule the world. The order in this trope is usually the Templars, or Templar-inspired, as they—like so many medieval things—were reinterpreted by the Romantics (looking at you, Sir Walter Scott), and gathered extra meanings and interpretations in the popular imagination over the next couple hundred years.

The Knights themselves are very clearly inspired by the Templars (with hints of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword); they wear Templar crosses, they have matching face tattoos, and they run around in armor carrying swords (more on those swords in a minute). Unlike the Templars of Assassin’s Creed, they haven’t bothered to modernize at all—they still use medieval (inspired) armor, weaponry, and tactics, including horses. There’s almost no attempt to blend in with modern society; we only see Knights in plainclothes once, when they’re getting Orlando out of the psych ward, and they’re deeply awkward about it. This version of the Templar myth skews negative; they are violent, dogmatic, and allergic to actually having a conversation before attacking. Like most versions of a warrior brotherhood (there are no women in the Knights), they have a sense of honor, and like most honor codes, it’s prickly and rigid, with no room for discussion or the opinions of outsiders.

“Heckle and Jeckel” try to bring down Willow’s protection spell in “Spiral” (5.20)

Spike calls the Knights “role-playing rejects,” which is funnier than maybe it’s supposed to be mostly because the Knights’ entourage includes “clerics” who are also magic-users. Medieval clerics were low-level clergy and in no way associated with anything magical or mystical. Dungeons & Dragons clerics, on the other hand, are magic-users, channeling the power of their gods. D&D and other fantasy roleplaying games, both tabletop and video, lean heavily on medievalist tropes and imagery, so it’s no surprise that the parlance would sneak into the writing for a group of medievalist warriors and their support staff. While the Knights threaten Buffy physically, the clerics are the answer to Willow, working to undo her protection spell. They refer to the Scoobies as “infidels” and declare that their god is stronger than any witch. Yet they still struggle for hours to take down Willow’s spell—and can’t, before Glory shows up and murders everyone.

The swords they carry are also fascinatingly layered in their medievalism. First of all, they carry swords, which are traditionally considered “medieval” despite having been used for thousands of years. I’ve discussed the medievalist connotations of swords and their use in Buffy before. But these swords in particular carry an extra layer of medievalism because the props are the Singing Sword, the sword of Prince Valiant. Yes, the comic strip character. Prince Valiant was interpolated into King Arthur’s Court in the 1930s, and his story is full of anachronisms—Valiant’s opponents include Vikings, Huns, and Saxons, and he eventually sails to the Americas. The Singing Sword is a unique weapon, forged by the same smith who forged Excalibur. Like many named fantasy swords, it has special powers: making its wielder undefeatable as long as their cause is just. But here, every Knight carries a copy of it, and it doesn’t appear to be special at all, probably just a quirk of the prop-buying process.

The Knights ride down the Winnebago while Buffy fights them on the roof in “Spiral” (5.20)

Another quirk, this time of bringing medieval knights into a modern world, is that we end up with a scene that’s far more of the genre of Westerns than anything medieval. When Glory discovers who Dawn is, Buffy gathers up her friends and allies and runs, loading everyone into a Winnebago and leaving Sunnydale. On the way, the Knights attack—on horseback, with bows and spears, in a chase-and-combat scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Stagecoach (1939). This adds some interesting tangles, placing the knights in the position usually occupied by Native Americans in these types of scenes. While knights are usually a symbol of a high romantic Middle Ages, in Buffy they are used to denote backwardness, a rigidness of thought, and in this scene, explicitly “barbaric,” as Westerns used Native Americans to denote primitiveness and savagery. It is yet another way that Buffy uses the Middle Ages as a “barbaric age” that threatens Buffy and her desire for a regular, modern life.

The purpose of the Knights in the narrative is clear: they are a counterpoint to Buffy and the Scoobies, as well as a threat that Buffy can fight, since she can’t fight Glory. While they remain steadfast in their creed—“The Key is the link, the link must be severed, such is the will of God”—Buffy struggles with life, death, morality, and what to do with and about Dawn. While Dante Chevalier (have I mentioned the Buffy writers aren’t subtle) kills Orlando to keep him from joining Glory’s other victims at the tower, Willow takes care of Tara and finds a way to cure her. They also, through Gregor, provide much-needed exposition regarding Glory, Ben, and the Key—information key (ha) to both Buffy’s ultimate decision to sacrifice herself and Giles’ decision to sacrifice Ben.

Glory’s aftermath in “Spiral” (5.20)

What’s less clear is—why?

Any digging beneath the surface raises questions about the Knight’s backstory and the timeline of everything. The Key is ageless, eternal, just a bit younger than Glory herself. Gregor claims that “countless generations” of his people have fought and died to find it and destroy it. The Order of Dagon, per Giles’ notes, was formed in the 12th century to protect the Key. And Glory’s rebellion that led to her being exiled to a human body happened sometime in the 1970s; she wouldn’t have been interested in the Key before that. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense that an order that has been seeking the Key for possibly all of human history would have gotten hung up in the Middle Ages and not continued to update their technology and tactics beyond then—especially when the search got complicated by the presence and interference of a hell god seeking to actually use the Key.

Of course, a coherent backstory isn’t the point; the writers would have been more concerned with providing Buffy with compelling villains now, not so much about how they got there. The medievalism of the Knights isn’t about actual medieval history so much as what they represent—the militant, dogmatic arm of the patriarchy, a tradition stretching back hundreds of years, the past rising up to threaten Buffy’s present. It’s not a mistake that they were introduced in the same episode that the Council reappeared in the narrative; the Council also represents a patriarchal force trying to control Buffy, a group that sees her not as a person, but the Slayer, a disposable weapon that belongs to them. Season five brings more pressure to bear on Buffy than she’s ever had to deal with before, and much of that pressure is from ancient, outside forces. The Order of Dagon, while appearing benevolent, disrupts her life in much the same way Jonathan did in “Superstar” (4.17), but this time in a permanent, irreversible way. Glory is the most powerful Big Bad to that point, second only in the series to the First. And the Knights of Byzantium utilize medievalist shorthand to denote the kind of religious fervor, militarism, and rigid thinking we like to pretend we left behind in the past.

Thanks to Rhiannon and Merry for beta-reading!

References and Further Reading
“Blood Ties,” season 5, episode 13, 2001.
“Checkpoint,” season 5, episode 12, 2001.
“Spiral,” season 5, episode 20, 2001.
“Superstar,” season 4, episode 17, 2000.

Assassin’s Creed series, 2007-present.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989.
Stagecoach, 1939.
Jes Batis, “Medievalist Spectrums: Diversity and Pop Culture Medievalisms in the Classroom,” Out of the Cloister: Lone Medievalists Making the Middle Ages Matter, forthcoming.
Danièle Cybulskie, “The Afterlife of the Templars,” Medieval Warfare vol. 6, no. 5, 2016.
“Get to Know Prince Valiant and His Singing Sword,” CriticsRant.

“We’ve Got Company, and They Brought a Crusade”: Buffy and the Medievalist Crusades

Periodically throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Crusades are invoked as a specifically medieval historical marker. They’re one of the few such real historical markers used, and the only one to come up multiple times. The use of them is twofold: to indicate that something is really old, and to invoke meaningless or gratuitous violence toward an end doomed to failure. But at one point, the Crusades stop being a quick touchpoint for history, violence, and futility and become a whole thing, and it’s not a good thing.

The Crusades, broadly, were a series of conflicts across Europe and the Middle East that involved warriors and/or pilgrims traveling to other areas to “reclaim” territory—usually violently. We’ve numbered them, named them “the Crusades” as though they were all the same or a unified thing, but they really were just a great big splat of conflict against multiple targets—not always Islamic—over hundreds of years.

The medievalism around the Crusades is historically not great. Like a lot of medieval things, they’ve been kind of mythologized and usurped for various biases and purposes—18th century French philosophers used them as examples of how religion leads to ignorance, superstition, and violence, while the Romantics like Sir Walter Scott had a tendency to use them as backdrops for tales of high chivalry. The rhetoric about Crusades has been used as a shorthand for clashes between “Western” and “Middle Eastern” cultures since at least as far back as World War I, possibly longer. We’re still doing it today. And, of course, modern white supremacists have a tendency to use symbolism associated with the Crusades for their own purposes.

While Buffy mostly doesn’t get that bad, it is super easy to accidentally slide into kinda problematic medievalism, as the show does when it gets to the Knights of Byzantium in season five.

Like much of Buffy’s medievalism, the use of the Crusades as the sole historical marker for the Middle Ages begins in the movie. Annoyed at Amilyn and his recent injury (losing an arm), Lothos scolds him: “Honestly, I don’t know how you made it through the Crusades.” Amilyn, we’re told, is 1200 years old, which puts his birth around 790 CE and his vamping probably around 820 CE (assuming he was about 30 years old at the time). The Crusade remark, then, serves two purposes: for Lothos to imply he’s too incompetent to have survived more than about 200 years (the First Crusade started in 1096), and to introduce some irony in the fact that Amilyn did live through the Crusades without the kind of traumatic injury he suffered in a car accident while attacking Pike. It also implies that the Crusades were so encompassing and violent that Amilyn being able to escape, avoid, or survive them is a miracle.

Jenny tells Giles he really needs to read something written after 1066 in “School Hard” (2.3)

The Crusades first come up in the show early in season two, when Spike arrives just in time for the rituals of St. Vigeous, who Giles tells Buffy led a vampire crusade through the Middle East. When is left a bit fuzzy—the core Crusades spanned about 200 years. We aren’t told a lot about what exactly St. Vigeous’ crusade was about (besides vampiric mayhem), or who decided he got to be a saint and how that even works for vampires. That’s not the point, obviously; the point is to establish the Order of Aurelius as a religious, pseudo-Catholic organization that has rituals and traditions dating back to the Middle Ages. Since the writers have glommed on to the Crusades as the Only Thing That Happened in the Middle Ages (besides the Black Death, mentioned in passing in the first episode), of course a vampire “saint” would have been involved in them.

A few other references to the Crusades or crusading come up that reinforce the idea of crusades as violent and doomed to failure, or as a vague medieval historical time-marker. In “Faith, Hope, and Trick,” Trick decries “vengeance crusades” as “going out of style” and says that modern vampires “see the big picture”—as he abandons Kakistos to his fate at the hands of Buffy and Faith. They’re played for irony in “The Replacement” when Buffy agrees to stop studying to watch Duel of the Iron Fist with Riley, Xander, and Anya. “It has been a long day with the Crusades,” she says. “I can take a little break from the violence for some . . . ooh, fighting.” They’re also used a couple more times as historical markers; in “Beneath You,” Anya turns Ronnie into a Sloggoth demon, which Spike identifies as a “nasty natural predator who died out around the Crusades.” And in “End of Days,” as they’re trying to identify the Scythe, one possibility is the Axe of Dekeron, which was used to slaughter children during the Children’s Crusade.

Willow researches the Scythe on a totally legit website in “End of Days” (7.21)

Generally speaking, these references strip the Crusades of much of their historical context—other than “medieval”—and mash them into one great big vague event. The only crusade that’s mentioned with any specificity is the Children’s Crusade, and it’s used mostly for a macabre joke. “Maybe it’s the Axe of Dekeron, said to have been forged in hell itself,” Willow says. “Lost since the Children’s Crusade, where it was said to have killed . . . oh. Children. I hope that’s not it.”

The Children’s Crusade is, itself, an event that’s been medievalized and mythologized. The popular understanding is that around 1212 CE, a couple of boys claimed to have been visited by Jesus, who gave them a mission to convert Muslims to Christianity. They ended up with about 30,000 followers, nearly all of whom were sold into slavery or died in a shipwreck. Modern historians and medieval chroniclers alike debate whether very many children were actually involved at all, or whether it can be officially called a Crusade, having never been endorsed by the Pope, or whether any of it ever happened in the first place.

The writers don’t dig in that much, though. Their use of the Children’s Crusade specifically, rather than the Crusades more generally, is there only so that Willow can make that remark about killing children and hope that their Scythe wasn’t used for something so horrible. It is, again, a surface-level understanding of history, the knowledge that something called the Children’s Crusade happened, but without any historical contextualizing detail. It indicates that the Axe is old and that it was involved in violence—both ways that the show sees the Middle Ages in general and the Crusades in particular.

And then, of course, we have the Knights of Byzantium.

Buffy tells Orlando to get lost in “Checkpoint” (5.12)

The Knights are deeply and purposefully medievalist in a way that the show doesn’t usually do. Sure, there are references to and mentions of medieval history or vague ideas about the Middle Ages—or, as we’ve seen, passing references. But the Knights of Byzantium directly and purposefully invoke the Middle Ages and the Crusades. I’ll do another piece on them next month, because there’s way more medievalist what-the-fuckery going on with them than just Crusades imagery, but they are the most direct, overt, and continuous Crusades reference in the entire show.

The Knights have one purpose: to find and destroy the Key in order to save the world. They have one method: violence. They are single-minded, driven, and dogmatic. They have a with-us-or-against-us mentality that does not allow for any shades of grey; they attack Buffy because she’s protecting the Key, deciding that means she’s aligned with Glory (who they call the Beast). That Buffy is trying to keep the Key away from Glory doesn’t mean anything. That the Key is in the form of a 14-year-old girl who has no intention of destroying the world doesn’t mean anything, either. Buffy won’t let them kill Dawn, so Buffy is the enemy. The enemy must be destroyed. There is no room in their mindset for anything else.

Anchoring the Knights and their mindset in the Middle Ages also leans on the idea of the medieval period as violent and dogmatic. It shoves their sort-of-Catholic, narrow-minded, attack-first-ask-questions-never tendencies onto the Middle Ages rather than situating them in the present (as though we don’t have those types of people now). They’re contrasted with Buffy’s modernism, her ability to see the shades of gray and take each situation as it comes rather than having a blanket script for how she acts. This has been her strength since season one, when she listens to Angel’s story rather than staking him the second she knows he’s a vampire. It’s another way the past rises up to threaten Buffy, as it does over and over.

General Gregor explains the Key to Buffy in “Spiral” (5.20)

Unfortunately, their choice to use medievalesque Crusader knights probably without fully understanding a lot of the rhetoric led to some super problematic symbolism. The Knights wear Templar crosses, for example; the Templars are a major cultural focus for conspiracy theories and the Crusades in general, as well as a favorite among white supremacists. Their mantra, as well—“The Key is the link. The link must be severed. Such is the will of God”—echoes a frequent translation of “Deus Vult”: “It is the will of God.” Commonly understood to come from Pope Urban II’s speech kicking off the First Crusade, “Deus Vult” has been heavily co-opted by white supremacists as a rallying cry.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that the writers (and directors, and costumers, and prop people) knew exactly what they were doing and intended to use these symbols to cast the Knights as Bad. They are, after all, a minor obstacle for Buffy in protecting Dawn and are shown to be Bad Guys—a different flavor of Bad Guy than Glory, more in a grey area, but still Bad Guys. They’re there partly to point out to Buffy that her choice is one life—Dawn’s life—against the entirety of existence. (Buffy, of course, finds a way around that by sacrificing her own life instead of Dawn’s.) But it’s just as possible that by reaching for medievalist symbols, making the Knights “feel” medieval without worrying about history, that they accidentally ended up with symbols that are also frequently used by white supremacists. I’m not in any way suggesting that the writers intended the Knights to be white supremacists or anything similar—they’re definitely not genocidal, they don’t seem to be all that sexist, and they’re not even all that interested in anything but destroying the Key. It’s just worth being aware of the modern use/misuse of these symbols and how using them in pop culture texts might add unintended subtext.

Usually, Buffy’s medievalism is harmless, if annoying to any medieval historian who might stumble across it. Most of the references to the Crusades fall into this harmless-if-annoying category, Knights of Byzantium notwithstanding. And there’s more medievalism to the Knights than “just” their Crusader imagery, and I’ll get into all of that next month.

Big thanks to Amy for thought-provoking and fact-correcting beta reading! Screencaps from kissthemgoodbye.net.

References and Further Reading
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992.
“Beneath You,” season 7, episode 2, 2002.
“End of Days,” season 7, episode 21, 2003.
“Faith, Hope, and Trick,” season 3, episode 3, 1998.
“The Replacement,” season 5, episode 3, 2000.
“School Hard,” season 2, episode 3, 1997.
“Spiral,” season 5, episode 20, 2001.
“Welcome to the Hellmouth,” season 1, episode 1, 1997.

Jes Batis, “Medievalist Spectrums: Diversity and Pop Culture Medievalisms in the Classroom,” Out of the Cloister: Lone Medievalists Making the Middle Ages Matter, forthcoming.
Adam Bishop, “#DeusVult,” Whose Middle Ages, 2019.
Gary Dickson, The Children’s Crusade: Medieval History, Modern Mythistory, 2008.
Bruce Holsinger, Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, 2007.
Andrew Holt, The World of the Crusades: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, 2019.
Amy Kaufman & Paul Sturtevant, The Devil’s Historians, 2020.
Nicholas Paul, “Modern Intolerance and the Medieval Crusades,” Whose Middle Ages, 2019.

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