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Knights in Modern Armour
Supernatural's Chivalrous Heroes
 
 
When I look at our beloved show, there are many things I see… There is, of course, heartbreak, gruesome adventure, love, idealism, loyalty… and, in a modern way, chivalry. I love history, and, naturally, I love to dig into these topics…

'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 territory… 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 on…
 
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 me…
 
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 Eärendil. In fiction, myths and legends, only warriors and knights of special skill were called to such a task. 
 
 
'…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.
 
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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!
 
 Despite Dean's somewhat Han-Solo-esque demeanour and sassiness, we witnessed him being a gentleman countless times. For instance in 'Dead in the Water' he stands up the moment a lady (Andrea, the sheriff's daughter) enters the room (actually both brothers do), a wonderful old fashioned gesture rarely to be found today, and he's protective of the virgin Nancy in Jus In Bello and of many other gals they meet during their adventures, like Anna in I Know What You Did Last Summer or Jamie from Monster Movie
 
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. 
 
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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.
 

Comments  

Sylvie
# Sylvie 2011-08-08 09:02
I love the idea of seeing Sam & Dean as modern day knights. I'm a lover of the Arthurian legend, I even named my cats Lancelot and Galahad, and will continue naming the next ones after the Arthurian knights. It's funny that you liken Dean to Gawain, seeing as he was later replaced by Galahad to find the Grail because he had become too much of a womanizer and only someone pure could touch the Grail! And Lancelot would disguise himself and go from town to town to help the downtrodden. How very like our Winchester boys. Sam reminded me of Lancelot in season 5 the most, always trying to make amends after his betrayal of Dean at the end of season 4, just like Lancelot would always try to redeem himself in Arthur's eyes for the ultimate betrayal of their friendship. And lets not forget the Impala being the beautiful black steed. Would that make Bobby Merlin? He certainly is wise enough.

I think (and this is my opinion) that so many women like this show because it resembles a good old knight in shining armour story. I grew up watching and reading about knights and chivalry. Alexandre Dumas's "Three Musketeers" has always been my favourite book, and God knows those boys were extremely flawed! But they would put their lives in danger to save the damsel in distress, in this case the Queen of France. And now we have George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire", you talk about chivalry, good and bad. I think the character of John Snow is the ultimate knight.

Anyway, as you can see you caught my heart with this article, sorry for going on and on with this, but when I latch on to a subject I like, and can't seem to shut up!
Jasminka
# Jasminka 2011-08-08 13:42
You know, Sylvie, some of my favourite books/legends/f ilms have always been The Three Musketeers, Lord of the Rings, The King Arthur legends, Robin Hood and the like, too.

I guess if I had an Irish Wolfhound (the kind of dog I wish I could have), I'd probably name him Lancelot (or Ragnar, since these dogs look like Vikings to me :-) ).

Bobby as Merlin? Interesting thought!
I also think that the aspect of chivalry appeals to women (apart from other reasons), I mean which woman wouldn't want to be treated in such a respectful way?

Please, don't apologize for "going on and on". It's obviously a subject I love, too!
Thank you for your comment, Sylvie. And John Snow... he is definitely a knight! I also liked Eddard Stark a lot, unfortunately, he dies too early... sniff...

Thanks again! Jas
Linda-bookdal
# Linda-bookdal 2011-08-08 09:53
Jas,

I really like this and love that you framed the idea of knighthood and chivalry as an ethos. There's also the issue of "testing" that occurs in many of the Arthurian romances, testing that is similar to much of the journey of Dean/Sam. In Chretien de Troyes's "Yvain" (which of course is a romance first) the main character gives up everything for the knighthood, which I think is similar to Dean's journey, how he can't quite quit the calling of the road, of the quest, even with home waiting for him. Whereas with Sam, who seems to be born into the quest, he reminds me more of a Lancelot-type character, one who is infinitely flawed at the same time that he is infinitely heroic.

And while I agree that chivalry has been hidden in many parts of modern culture, I do think that the fact that it still holds sway for us, both in movies and tv, shows how nostalgic we are for it. We want it to exist, to see it in the posture of the modern hero, which I think you point out in Sam/Dean. At the same time, though, I think their story also challenges the ideas of fealty to kings - I think of the abomination of the title when used by Crowley, here. How kingship becomes a placeholder for tyranny, which is always the danger of idle nobility. But I also think that this particular brand of knighthood speaks clearly to this story as an "American" story - how chivalry is spurred not by a foreclosed future, an undeniable fate, but rather fealty is a choice for choice, for free will, and all of the problems and benefits therein.

Sorry for the ramble. As you can see, I enjoyed the essay :).

-Linda
Linda-bookdal
# Linda-bookdal 2011-08-08 09:57
One more thought -

To clarify what I mean by "American" is that the show uses "kingship" as something to argue against, which I think is at the heart of the American ethos, for good or bad. The resistance to inherited royalty stands at the center of the national identity, and I think that resistance is translated in SPN as a resistance to blind fealty and allegiance. The ethos of the Winchester knighthood, then, is the question/the challenge.
Jasminka
# Jasminka 2011-08-08 13:50
Thank you for your comments, Linda! I think the credits belong to the writers and creators of Supernatural - they managed to weave in elements of classic knighthood in a modern costume.
And, of course, as you mention, the danger of tyranny.

I believe, since the United States were founded as a republic, there might be some kind of "innate" resistance to inherited royalty.
On the other hand - I notice how "crazy" many Americans are for royalty. Just look at how Princess Diana or the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were received when visiting. And when I look at how the Kennedys have been regarded, it's almost like a royal family, isn't it? Camelot...

For me, being a child of the 'old world', the idea of having a king/queen (without absolute power, of course) holds a notion of security. I understand why many monarchies wouldn't dream of losing their king. It can be a symbol to hold the identity of a nation. Personally, I wish the country my parents came from, had one... But that's just me.

Again: Thank you! Jas
BagginsDVM
# BagginsDVM 2011-08-08 22:53
Great article, Jas! I've always been drawn to those stories of knights & chivalry & that quest for goodness as well. I don't think any other work of literature or film will surpass my love for The Lord of the Rings or for Supernatural. There are many other wonderful ones out there, but these two works, with their flawed heroes & magnificent stories, are perfection for me. They really do inspire me to try to be a better person.
Jas
# Jas 2011-08-09 03:10
Hi Dawn, I am glad you liked what I had to offer here, thank you!

It's perfectly clear that you love Lord of the Rings ( ;-) , Miss Baggins...), and its appeal is so... ah, beautiful.

For me stories of that kind have also been very inspiring, always, and with my dad's example I hope to be an honorable person. A decent one.

Blessed be, Jas
Brynhild
# Brynhild 2011-08-09 16:28
Thank you for this essay, Jas! Very interesting take on the brothers and their mission.

Since I first started to watch this series, it felt like a fresh breeze blowing on my TV. And I realized that until that point, almost all of the recent tv shows didn't have real "heroes", the ones who fight to save the world, to establish justice, for other people, not minding their own needs and desires. HOW I was missing such thing!

I agree, we need heroes. And NOT "super" heroes (of which we have even too many, in fiction), but "normal" men and women who defy fear and despair and their own limits to bring some good to this world, to do the right thing, to right the wrongs, to help people in need. Knights in (not so) shining armour.

No "anti-hero", no gangster-based story, no "realistic" fictions can erase this need from our hearts. We need to be showed that courage and faith and hope are possible, even in the most hopeless situation.
Jasminka
# Jasminka 2011-08-10 04:01
Thank you, Brynhild! I can't disagree - this kind of heroism has always held an appeal I couldn't resist.
Though I like the occasional super-hero, but we find 'real' heroes in real life, and those teach us about courage, wouldn't you say? Be it the firefighter, the doctor who saves a life in the ER, the guy who stands up when he sees others harrassed... or, in a more unspectacular way - everyone who fights the odds of their own lives, which is often painful.

As long as Supernatural is on air, you (and I) won't have to miss this on our television screens.

Cheers, Jas
Far Away Eyes
# Far Away Eyes 2011-08-09 18:22
I love your analogy here, Jas. They ARE the Knights of our day, modern yet throwback. They embody a lot of our modern tendencies and behaviors, they carry themselves in manners to an extent that might not be appreciated by some, and yet their values are those found in romanticized views of the past.

I love how you've shown us Sam and Dean here, ever the reluctant heroes, and yet they wear it so very well.

This story resonates because it touches upon the fundamentals of the human condition. Anything that does this and does it well is a successful story. It's what we learn about ourselves THROUGH the characters that remain with us long after the story has ended (or in this case thus far, goes on hellatus). I know I've learned a lot about myself and humanity while watching. Courage is only one of those gifts I've been grateful to receive. There are so many more that I could list.
Jasminka
# Jasminka 2011-08-10 04:11
Thank you, Far Away Eyes for your comment. You know, I never really understood why the values these guys hold might not be appreciated by some... I've noticed that, too.

It's wonderful that these characters are able to serve as inspiration and examples of how to embody important human values - and still be a person of today.

Personally, I try to live according to that code (if you like) which was shown to me by my father. He was everything I find in stories like this, a simple, good human being. All I can do is try to be that, too.
Thanks! Jas
Far Away Eyes
# Far Away Eyes 2011-08-10 06:38
Well, they both do have some "bad" habits, as we all know.

It is a nice code to live by, though, this honor code to help those less fortunate around you.
Julie
# Julie 2011-08-10 04:19
Jas,
Sorry I am late commenting here. I just loved this, for me it is the classic `Jas article` written with heart, warmth, but mostly, with love.
I think it is no coincidence that we all seem to love LOTR and The Three Musketeers around here, we need to escape to these wonderfully chivalrous heroes who represent and remind us of the best of humanity, something sorely needed at the moment.
Sam and Dean Winchester more than fit this bill and I just love the perfect comparisons you draw with Knights of old.
Love Ju
Jasminka
# Jasminka 2011-08-10 05:39
Oh, thank you, Julie!
This story, indeed, provides the perfect escapism!
I can imagine the writers even thinking about the idea of modern chivalry... well, if "the Krip" looked at it as a Luke-Han story... there we go. One became a Jedi Knight, the other was also a knightly companion...

Again, my heartfelt thanks! love, Jas
Karen
# Karen 2011-08-10 10:34
Hi Jasminka
A wonderful article.
I too see our Winchester brothers as modern day Knights.
They are both hero’s in my book, flaws and all.
Jasminka
# Jasminka 2011-08-10 13:07
Yes, they are, aren't they, Karen? Thank you so much for your comment!
Love, Jas
Marilyn
# Marilyn 2011-08-13 23:45
Jasminka,

Thank you for a wonderful article. I also see Sam and Dean as heroic. They are always willing to sacrifice their lives and their dreams to help others. I think we have never gotten over our dreams and hopes of knights in shining armor and Camelot. This mundane world at times gets one down and I think we need something to aspire to.
I love the idea of Dean as Gawain; wouldn't you love to see how he would handle the "Loathely Lady" or "Green Knight" scenarios?
I am not as familiar with the Lancelot stories, except for the fact that he betrayed Arthur with Guinevere and tried to atone. I can definitely see Sam atoning in Season 5. His jumping into the Pit was the ultimate act of atonement, wasn't it?

Supernatural has so many delicious layers and it is so much fun peeling away at them. :-)