What the Heck is a Paladin, Anyway?


Elizabeth Moon’s series Deeds of Paksenarrion (The most recent volume – Limits of Power was released today!) features a powerful woman warrior named Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter who becomes a paladin. Pakesnarrion’s deeds of martial strength and divine take place in a high fantasy setting populated by mythical monsters and non-human peoples like dwarves and gnomes. It’s exciting, imaginative stuff, but not all of it is make-believe: The paladin has a basis in history and myth.

The term “paladin” made its first appearance in a cycle of semi-mythical stories about the early history of France, and particularly, the deeds of Roland, a vassal to King Charlemagne. The very best of Roland’s knights, a group of twelve, were led by a court official known as the Count Palatine. Because of this, the twelve knights were called “paladins”. Over the passage of years, Roland’s knights became associated with Charlemagne. Charlemagne became a King Arthur kind of figure in the popular imagination, and a series of legends similar to those associated with Arthur and his knights began to grow around him as well. These stories depicted Charlemagne’s knights as the embodiment of Christian virtue: Noble warriors of Christ who waged battle against the Saracens during the Crusades. Thus, the image of the paladin as a holy warrior of God was born.

Almost a century later, the paladin galloped into fantasy fiction with the 1961 publication of Poul Anderson’s excellent fantasy novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (Seriously, I love this book. Get it.) Anderson’s novel is the story of Holger Carlsen, a covert agent organizing the Danish resistance against the Nazis during World War II. When Holger is caught in the blast of an explosive, he wakes up in an alternative Earth where he is the legendary paladin Ogier the Dane. Holger/Ogier is enlisted in a battle against evil elements of Faerie in a world governed by the powers of Law and Chaos. Among those who read Anderson’s novel was Gary Gygax, co-creator of the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role-playing game. When it became time to create the game’s character classes, Gygax took his lead from Three Hearts and Three Lions (and probably the original myths, as well, but who knows?) and – voila – the fantasy role-playing version of the paladin was born.

Gygax made this no secret. He was always (Well, most of the time – he had a bit of a dust-up with the Tolkien Estate about his use of “halflings” and “rangers”.) upfront about his inspirations, and much to the benefit of young fans just coming into fantasy fiction, provided a bibliography in the Dungeon Masters Guide of novels that inspired the game.

Many fantasy fiction writers were inspired by their experiences with Dungeons & Dragons, among them Elizabeth Moon who cites the game as one of the inspirations for her Deeds of Paksenarrion novels:

Who inspired Paksenarrion (or how did she come about) and as her creator how hard was it for you to write her through her torturous moments, both inner and outer? (Paks is the only Paladin to date I’ve ever understood and liked/loved – You totally get what it means to be a Paladin – for better or worse).

Paksenarrion came about from several competing pressures. My husband was DM for a group of kids playing D&D (later, and briefly, other adults got involved), and naturally one kid wanted to play a paladin. When I found out how the paladin class was designed, it annoyed me. A lot. I muttered about how stupid it was until my husband said “Fine–write up a plan for a real paladin class.” So I did. Before that, a character very much like Paks (but not a paladin) had been in a science fiction story that I couldn’t get to jell. When I put that character into a fantasy context, suddenly…she turned into Paksenarrion. She has traits–both physical and personality–borrowed from a variety of friends – the traits people like) and me (the ones people don’t like.)

Just as many video game makers have taken their lead from Dungeons & Dragons by creating their own versions of the paladin. World of Warcraft, Everquest, Diablo and tons of other games feature this ancient holy warrior as a possible character class.