Supernatural’s Chivalrous Heroes
When I look at our beloved show, there are many things I seeâ€¦ There is, of course, heartbreak, gruesome adventure, love, idealism, loyaltyâ€¦ and, in a modern way, chivalry. I love history, and, naturally, I love to dig into these topicsâ€¦
‘A true knight is fuller of bravery in the midst, than in the beginning of danger.’ Philip Sidney
For me, our heroes of Supernatural, and in particular Sam and Dean Winchester, are knights in modern armour. In a former article I called them Warriors of Light, and, well, to that I hold to this day. Even though their story changed over the seasons, for me, the core of what they have stood for remained the same.
They are warriors. Always have been, from childhood on. At first it wasn’t really their choice, but as they grew older, a part of them wanted to be what they had become. For Dean it was a part of his personal identity – probably from the moment he carried baby Sam out of the burning house. Sam, on the other hand, needed more time to adjust to what seemed to be his calling. Papa Winchester tried to protect his youngest son from the horrors looming over their family and Sam hadn’t known for a long time what their lives were about. But, just as Dean, he absorbed the ethos John Winchester taught his sons. A life lived in protection of those in need of help and refuge.
Deep down, it’s a very sad story, too. Sometimes I wonder how their lives would have looked like, had they not been put on the quest that bound them to ‘the life’, as hunters call it. We’ve had glimpses of the possibilities in some episodes, and it saddens me because their choice had to be such a hard, painful one.
We always choose. There is hardly a thing we actually have to do. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon wonderfully puts it in a nutshell: ‘We have to take in nourishment, expel waste, and inhale enough oxygen to keep our cells from dying. Everything else is optional.’
That is actually true. We often feel that we don’t have a choice when we have to come to a decision, but we do. We are driven to choices by our history, by what we feel is right or has to be done, by fear of risking anger from those close to us, because we don’t want to lose our present status or are too afraid to venture into unknown territoryâ€¦ There are many reasons, probably as many as there are individuals, why we feel we don’t have a choice. And thereby our notion of a situation becomes truth to us.
I am sure that Sam and Dean stood at various turning points and felt they didn’t have another choice but do what they, then, did. Sam leaving home, Dean sticking to dad, eventually seeking out his brother, Sam agreeing to go with Dean and then, after Jessica’s untimely end, remaining at Dean’s side, and so onâ€¦
But, also, during their journey (which began the moment Mary found her terrible death on their home’s ceiling) they acquired an ethos that reminds me a lot of the knights of old. I’m a romantic soul, it seems, so please, kind readers, bear with meâ€¦
In the Middle Ages, knights were members of a distinctive warrior class. I have always found it interesting that the term knight originates in the German word Knecht, meaning servant, vassal or bondsman. Basically denoting that this warrior serves. On a formal basis they served their superior, often a member of the nobility higher in rank (only members of the nobility were entitled to become knights, but there is still a debate among historians about that), from baron to duke to king or emperor. On a more idealistic note, knights served a certain ethos. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Sam and Dean also serve. Their superior, if you like, used to be their father, and in many ways he is still there, in their minds and hearts. They couldn’t bury everything that John stood for, particularly since they met their father even after his death – as a young man, in love with Mary. His legacy has remained an important factor in their lives. And the ideal the two young men serve is simply: save lives. ‘Saving people, hunting things.’ The credo they were raised into and that became so much a part of their personal faith that they are ready to sacrifice themselves to save others. One of the most prominent examples of that we found in an early episode, Wendigo. The Winchesters risked their own lives to save an unknown family. Wounded Dean went after the wendigo (in best Han Solo style) and Sam put his life between the monster and the defenceless teens. There are countless examples like that.
Knights were the cavalry in the Middle Ages. They were, mostly, mounted warriors. And this is where the term chivalry stems from – originally from Latin caballus, workhorse, (still to be found in the Italian cavaliere or Spanish caballero) which, over time, became the French chevalier – direct father to the English term chivalry which is not only a description of the knight’s trade, but also the definition of a particular set of mind – knightly virtues.
When I look at our show, I find this kind of virtues in abundance. And, in a very humorous way, chivalry was touched on in Supernatural in the wonderfully hilarious episode Like a Virgin. And, just like that, the Winchesters became dragon slayers. Following in the footsteps of St. George, Sigurd, Bard the Bowman, Tristan or EÃ¤rendil. In fiction, myths and legends, only warriors and knights of special skill were called to such a task.
‘â€¦as for the knights who gave their lives, their deaths were cause for neither mourning nor sadness. For they live forever, their names and deeds handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, in the legends of King Arthur and his knights.’
Lancelot, in King Arthur (2004)
The Winchesters are, I’d say, today’s knights errant. On the road, with their trusty horse, ahem, horse powered Impala (and sometimes even a tandem bike), somewhat vigilantes and protectors of those in need, and always embarked on a specific quest, fulfilling a particular duty.
The most famous knights errant are perhaps Gawain and Lancelot from the Arthurian legends. In certain ways I find Gawain echoed in Dean and Lancelot in Sam.
Gawain, one of the most esteemed knights of the Round Table (his name is often interpreted as a symbol of purity and patience), a sometimes cheeky, but fiercely loyal warrior (in particular to his family and king), a friend to young knights, defender of women, famed for his courteousness and often regarded as a model for his chivalric attitude. In some adventures his character is tested and tempted, but he emerges, eventually, honourable, passing the tests (for instance when Dean was tempted to actually say yes to Michael, but successfully resisted). Gawain is often regarded the perfect knight as a fighter, lover, devotee to his quest. And in one 13th century German tale, he was even depicted as the knight to find the Holy Grail. I have loved Gawain. What an extraordinary guy!
And Lancelot, ah, the flawed one! In the Arthurian legends he is the most trusted of Arthur’s knights, but also the one who falls in love with Guinevere, his king’s wife, and thereby the one who betrays Arthur, in some ways the epitome of the tragedy of chance and human failing that eventually brings about the downfall of the round table. The Beauty and the Beast’s Vincent once described Lancelot like this: ‘Lancelot was flawed, but still he was the greatest knight of all.’ Personally, I have always been very attracted to this ‘flawed’, very human, sometimes broken knight. Well, I have a thing for the imperfect, they are dear to my heart.
Due to sad events, Lancelot is at one point rejected by the Queen and loses his mind, because he believes to have lost the one he loves, subsequently wandering the wilderness until he is shown the Holy Grail through a veil which cures his madness, though later, upon the quest for the Holy Grail, he is not allowed to see it again, because of his human flaws. But, his son Galahad, a ‘sinless’ man, will find the Grail and thereby redeem his father.
Sam’s ‘flaw’, if you like, is his early contamination with demon blood. There is a driving force within him that makes him take a dangerous road. He is, from his childhood days, not ‘pure’ anymore, though the truth about that emerges late in his young life. He receives an answer to his early suspicions that something is terribly wrong with him. And this answer also makes him embark on a journey that results in many tragic events, his own death included.
I’d like to read an analogy into Lancelot’s healing by being given a glimpse of the Holy Grail and Sam’s victory over Lucifer in Swan Song. When Dean, beaten to the brink of death, managed to reach out to Sam, and memories of their childhood, their lives, emerged from the light reflected from the Impala, the veil that enveloped Sam lifted long enough for him to remember who he was. His ‘madness’, meaning in this context: possession by Lucifer, was cured for a precious moment, and he managed to cast Lucifer down into the pit from where he had risen (and himself with him). Perhaps the ‘Holy Grail’ in this moment was the love that connected the brothers. The love that I continuously found there, in various faces, but always there.