By Susan Butvin Sainato
The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy, edited by Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray (McFarland and Co, 2004)
Introduction: Sean Connery epitomizes the strong, handsome, aristocratic, athletic, valiant, and virtuous (almost picture-perfect) medieval knight of the movies whose nobility is shown in scene after scene. This hero is the gentle yet powerful leader who protects and helps those in need and, despite the great odds against him, wins because he represents justice. Over the last two decades or so, depictions of on-screen heroic medieval knights have shifted to include a variety of alternatives. These characterizations range from the aristocratic, almost pristine Lancelot of Excalibur (1981), to the disinherited Robin, his foreign friend Azeem, and, briefly, an armored Marian of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the mercenary Lancelot of First Knight (1995), William Thatcher, the peasant squire and would-be knight of A Knight’s Tale (2002), an ogre, fighting princess, and tallung donkey in the animated tale Shrek (2001), and finally the modern medieval “knights” Buffy, Giles, Xander, and Willow of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series (1997 through 2003). These changing portrayals of knights and heroes show us on-screen defenders who rarely fit the picture of traditional medieval knights and thus challenge our definitions of what constitutes a knight or hero.
The on-screen traditional medieval hero derlves from heroes of medieval literature such as King Arthur, Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, and Sir Galahad. The medieval heroes are set apart from their enemies by their brawny physiques, their devotions to God, king, and lady, and their fightlng abilities – which are used to promote justlce. In Excalibur, King Arthur’s and Sir Lancelot’s good looks and acuons define them as heroes. (Mordred, although he is good-looking, wages an unjust war against his rightful king, murders knights, and murders his own mother, eliminating him from the hero category; heroes must at least try to behave righteously in addition to “looking good” in order to be true knights.) These heroes follow a chivalric code that echoes expectations expressed in medieval writings. Sir Thomas Malory’s King Arthur requires his knights to take the following oath:
Never to do outerage nothir mourthir, and allwayes to fle treson, and to gyffmercy unto hym that askith mercy … and allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes socour: strength hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man rake no batayles in a wrongfull quarell for no love no worldis goodis.