The Chaotic Champion – Part Seven: The King Hero
For nearly a thousand years, great authors and poets have written virtually uncountable quantities of words about King Arthur. Each has tried to sum up what was special about that heroic age, and each has focused on a different interpretation. For the early Celtic writers, it was when the Britons were beating the Saxons for a while. For Geoffrey of Monmouth, it was when Britain had been a great imperial power. For Malory, it was when (in marked contrast to his own time) the code of chivalry actually worked. For Tennyson, it was when Christian values ruled the kingdom. For T.H. White, it was when might defended right.
Out of all of those countless millions of words, the five that, in my opinion, best sum up what Arthur’s age was really about were written by Alan J. Lerner in the title song to the musical Camelot, which spoke of how things had been special for one brief, shining moment. Never mind what the moment was—the important thing is to believe it happened.
Arthur is perhaps the best known of the rarest of all types of Chaotic Champion: the King Hero. He* doesn’t wander the land seeking adventure, or let himself be recruited into causes. He doesn’t defend people from the shadows, or fight corruption in power. He isn’t even tasked with the official duty of protection. When a King Hero appears on the scene, the whole of society is transformed, if only for one brief, shining moment.
Not every Chaotic Champion who wins a crown is a King Hero. After Beowulf vanquishes Grendel and Grendel’s mother, he returns to his own land and, in time, becomes king. All that’s said of his reign is that he rules well—the poet is far too eager to get to the hero’s last fight, defending his people against the wrath of the dragon. Although he’s king, Beowulf functions in this part of the story purely as a Protector Hero.
Similarly, Conan of Cimmeria eventually wins the throne of Aquilonia, but hardly qualifies as a King Hero—his accession is a personal triumph, not a chance to serve his people. Though undoubtedly a better ruler than the previous incumbent, Conan has no great interest in creating a golden age for his subjects.
Many of the Greek heroes were kings at various points in their careers, but arguably the only true King Hero among them was Theseus. Although other types of Chaotic Champion at different times in his life, Theseus’s achievements after he inherited the throne were twofold: he united Attica into a single kingdom, and he radically reformed the laws of the realm.
Whether a late-bronze-age king called Theseus actually made these reforms is, of course, dubious in the extreme. Unifying Attica seems to belong to a later period, perhaps during the Greek Dark Age, while the legal reforms can be put down to a common feature of the ancient world—”good things” tended to be attributed as far back as possible, to tie in with the general belief that the world had gone to hell since a long-ago golden age. The Spartans, too, attributed all their laws and customs to the 9th century king Lycurgus, even though many were certainly later; while the Jewish laws credited to Moses appear to have been established gradually over many centuries.
Thus, in Athens, the reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes, both in the 6th century, were assumed to be merely a rediscovery of the principles by which Theseus had ruled. Nevertheless, there must have been something to start the legend. His hero-cult in Athens was associated with certain very limited rights for slaves, and maybe that was the kernel of his reputation as a just reformer.
Whatever the origin, Theseus admirably fulfils the criteria for a King Hero, presiding over an ancient era of justice and success which the corrupt “modern” world can only aspire to. Later achievements and failures are measured against the age of the hero who transformed his society.
With a later King Hero, Charlemagne, we’re on a much surer historical footing than with Theseus, but that only emphasises the difference between legend and history. Charlemagne was certainly a great conqueror and, to his credit, encouraged learning and the arts, but he also committed genocide against the peoples he conquered. Even his reputation as the scourge of infidels (considered a good thing by his contemporaries and immediate successors, whatever we might think of it today) was dubious. His major campaign into Moorish Spain, which ended with the disastrous defeat by the Basques at Roncevalles, was actually to support one Moorish faction against another, rather than to destroy the Muslim menace.
Nevertheless, Christendom felt it needed its King Hero, and Charlemagne fitted the bill. In legend, he became the perfect Christian king, and his Paladins—Roland, Oliver and the rest—were the ideal knights.
Arthur, like Theseus, has the advantage of leaving no reliable historical records to contradict the glowing legend. The stories are probably about a genuine 5th-6th century British war-leader, who may or may not have been called Arthur, although some historians believe he was a composite figure. Whichever is true, he certainly wasn’t followed by knights in suits of armour, dedicated to uphold the laws of chivalry.
As I noted at the start of this piece, there’s a great variety of interpretations of Arthur, forming an arc from the Celtic stories of Nennius and the Mabinogion to the neo-Celtic versions of authors like Marion Zimmer Bradley, which have much more to do with modern attitudes than with ancient Celtic tradition. The version which concerns us most for the present discussion, though, is the ideal mediaeval king, upholding justice and presiding over a chivalrous court. And, most of all, pledged to return at his people’s need.
The revenant aspect is characteristic of many King Heroes—Theseus too was said to have returned to lead the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon, where they were outnumbered by the Persians. There are many revenant heroes, not all of them kings: Sir Francis Drake, for instance, is said to be pledged to return at the time of England’s greatest need—though specifically against the Spanish, so he’s more likely to turn up at a football match than a battle.
Still, there’s a particular comfort at the thought that an ancient ruler, whose age was golden, could come back in our time to complete his work. Arthur certainly left his work undone on the field of Camlan, but that’s all right. He’s sleeping somewhere—on the Isle of Avalon, or in one of various hollow hills—until we need him. What more can you ask from a Chaotic Champion?
The King Hero is perhaps one of the least convenient for modern settings, certainly in the West. The story works better, perhaps, in a context where a strong, autocratic ruler can be viewed as a good thing; no doubt some people viewed (and may still view) Hitler as a King Hero. In a democracy, though, it’s usually assassinated leaders who are treated in this way, and then only to a limited extent. U.S. presidents such as Lincoln and Kennedy are safely out of the way and so can be idealised; but still, we tend to be too politically cynical for that to last.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that King Heroes can’t be created by modern authors, if the setting’s right. Perhaps the best-known King Hero of 20th century fiction is King Elessar Telcontar—Aragorn to his friends. He’s had an impeccable history as a Chaotic Champion, albeit without much darkness in his nature, before ascending the throne of the Reunited Kingdom: an Outsider Hero as Strider the Ranger, a Protector Hero as leader of the Fellowship and victor of the Pelannor Field.
Aragorn came out of obscurity, like both Theseus and Arthur, to create a golden age for his people, but Tolkien doesn’t portray his subsequent reign in Chaotic Champion terms. He doesn’t suffer defeat in the end, or depart once his work is done. Instead, he lives to a ripe old age (two hundred or so) and leaves a peaceful kingdom to his son. In this respect, he’s more like Charlemagne, though it doesn’t really matter, since little is told of his reign after its start.
There’s one other category of King Hero, the most controversial to write about, so I’d like to stress that I’m speaking of these figures purely in the context of their stories, and I make no judgement, one way or the other, about either historical reality or theological validity. I’m talking about the founders of major religions, notably Jesus and Muhammad.
It could be argued that neither of these ever had a chaotic element; but nor did they belong to the established order, which both overturned to some extent. Jesus certainly functioned as an Outsider Hero initially in his capacity as a wandering preacher, while Muhammad was forced to flee from his home city. His eventual triumph and establishment of a kingdom was literal as well as spiritual, creating of an empire that lasted many centuries and whose rulers claimed to be heirs of the Prophet. Jesus’s kingdom wasn’t as literal, but is certainly real to his followers.
Both fit most of the criteria for a King Hero—in particular, both departed to remain incorruptible in memory, leaving their legacies for lesser humans to carry on. And the “kingdoms” they left number, between them, nearly four billion people. Theseus, Arthur and Charlemagne between them could only muster a fraction of that.
In the past six articles, I’ve followed the restless figure of the Chaotic Champion from wandering gunfighter to founder of a world-wide religion. In the final two pieces, I’ll be looking at how the Chaotic Champion can fill many roles in the course of his story, and speculating about the meaning of his existence.
*Chaotic Champions can be male or female, of course, but for the vast majority of human story they’ve tended to be male, so I refer to the generic figure as “he”. This isn’t meant to devalue any female characters.