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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

The Paladins: a Lexicology

The Paladins Organisation has now been in existence for two years. Over that time, a number of people have asked us what inspired the name 'The Paladins'; and many have confessed that they had no idea about the quasi-historical heritage associated with the term - that is to say, the Paladins being a group of knights who served Emperor Charlemagne just as the Knights of the Round Table served King Arthur (and indeed it is possible that the details of the two stories have been merged by history). A number of people coming to us have assumed that 'Paladins' is not a word in English at all; and they have taken to calling us 'les paladins' with a French pronunciation.

Amidst all the serious, difficult, dangerous and frequently nerve-wracking work we undertake, we are also a series of individuals and not just a label. So we thought, as a light aside, that we might take a moment out of our work to explain the etymology of our name.

'Paladin' had been a word in English but it fell into disuse over centuries. Its original historical definition was:

any of the twelve peers of Charlemagne's court, of whom the Count Palatine was the chief.

There is at least something wrong with this definition, because the most famous Paladin, Ogier the Dane, who had a talking sword called Cortain, does not appear in the contemporary literature until at the earliest 1065, some 250 years after Charlemagne's death. Ogier was Danish, as the suffix to his name might imply, also indicating that it was odd that he was a Frankish knight in the service of Charlemagne some 250 years earlier than it is documented that he actually lived. (Ogier the Dane is the figure depicted on the home page of our website.)

It seems that at some stage, English mythology-history borrowed the myth of Charlemagne's Paladins; by the mid-1100's King Arthur's twelve Knights of the Round Table emerged in English literature as a historical-mythological parallel assertion. Arthur started out with twelve knights, like Charlemagne; but they gradually grew to up to 1,600, perhaps making it difficult for them all to sit at the same Round Table.

Because English speakers' knowledge and sources over the centuries of the court of Charlemagne (a number of details of which are as we have seen likely mythical) were obscure, the term 'paladin' fell into disuse in the English language although educated French speakers would typically know who 'les paladins' used to be.

The legend of Charlemagne and his Paladins received renewed Anglophone attention in the US novelist Paul Anderson's 1961 fantasy novel Three Hearts and Three Lions. From that novel, an American called Gary Gygax, who spent the 1960's promoting 'wargaming', the recreation of battles involving fantasy warriors represented by small metallic icons moving over complex chessboard matrices, drew most or all of his initial inspiration.

Nowadays, you are much more likely to know the contemporary etymology of the word 'Paladin' if you are under 45. The reintroduction of the word 'paladin' into the English language came in the 1970's from an ostensibly most inauspicious source: a complex fantasy board game called 'Dungeons & Dragons'.

In the image above, the Paladin is the character on the far right, an enormous knight with a lizard's head and an angel resting upon his right shoulder, symbolising that he carries in his physique and weaponry the authority of God.

The game Dungeons & Dragons was designed by Gygax as a version of his prior 'wargames' but playable anywhere by anybody without the many complex chess-like pieces his prior wargames required. It turned out to be popular mostly but not exclusively with youthful players across America, then in England, and subsequently worldwide. In 'Dungeons & Dragons', the first of the so-called role-playing games, each player adopted a character (there have been many such choices over the some 50 years of the game), e.g. wizard, barbarian, cleric, monk etcetera. Yet one of the most enduring characters the game created, and that has never been shaken off although other character types have come and gone, was the Paladin.

Paladins could come in all shapes and forms; but the essence of the character was a warrior with quasi-magical skills at fighting, who in compensation for his or her enormous strength in combat was restrained by a series of holy vows the breach of which would cause the Paladin to fall into disgrace and be reduced to an ordinary warrior. In the Dungeons & Dragons game, all characters had 'alignments' (an account of the person's moral code) but Paladins were always the most restrained in this regard; they were obliged to hold the alignment known as 'lawful good', which restrained their capacity to use deceit or duplicity to achieve their ends; and so on and so forth.

Gary Gygax was the inventor of the modern Paladin, and it made him very wealthy indeed.

Dungeons & Dragons was an intriguing new sort of board game in the 1970's in which the parties would be guided through the path of the game by a 'dungeon master', a non-player who supervised the players' performance and compliance with the letter and spirit of the rules. Hence the skill in the game was a complex mix of mathematical calculation and statistics (dice would be rolled to determine things such as the outcome of the battles) and personal persuasion of the 'dungeon master' who exercised significant authority. One might never have thought that such an unusual idea would take off; but it did, and now 50 years later Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most popular board games ever, attracting hundreds of millions of players worldwide including a legion of famous people from all walks of life. (For the record, this author does not play the game.)

The development of game playing computer software suited Dungeons & Dragons perfectly, and dozens of versions and an uncountable array of spin-offs emerged, many of which are now played over the internet. In all these versions, variants, reincarnations and recreations upon an original idea, the character of the Paladin, as a holy warrior blessed with quasi-divine skills in fighting in exchange for an oath of moral purity, remained one of the most popular concepts emerging from the tradition of role playing games that captured the public imagination.

There are now various computer games with names based around the word 'paladin'; you may have found some of them if you have looked for our website on a search engine. The term has become so ubiquitous, chiefly as a result of the uncountable number of spin-offs employing the term that emerged from the Dungeons & Dragons lore, that the word 'paladin' officially re-entered the English language after having been only a French word for several centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'paladin' as:

A knight renowned for heroism and chivalry.

Moreover the idea of a Paladin doing battle as a holy warrior in the cause of the good, often overcoming horrendous odds and impossible enemies by virtue of their magical fortitude as agents of the divine, became a popular theme in contemporary art, cinema and social media, a few examples of which we have sought to provide by way of illustration in this article.

Note the similarity in names between Charlemagne's Count Palatine and George Lucas's Star Wars character Senator (later Emperor) Palpatine. It is not clear who if anyone held the position of Count Palatine during the period of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor from 800; the Electoral Palatinate, a unit of the Holy Roman Empire of which the Count Palatine would be the premier, did not come into existence until 915, well after Charlemagne's death in 814. Nevertheless the Counts Palatine subsequently struggled (ultimately unsuccessfully) for control over the Holy Roman Empire for some centuries after the creation of the Electoral Palatinate, something that might have given George Lucas a loose outline for his plot running through the Star Wars series of movies. The parallelism suggested here is that the Electoral Palatinate was equivalent to the Empire in the Star Wars movies; while the Holy Roman Empire, whose noble followers were the Paladins (i.e. Jedi), was equivalent to the Republic and the Alliance.

It is also worth observing in passing that the Paladins who (allegedly) served Emperor Charlemagne were said to have swords that were glowing various colours: like the light sabres in Star Wars.

It is entirely possible, if not provable, the the Dungeon & Dragons resurrection of the concept of the Paladins, first contained in their first edition board game in 1974, were the inspiration for George Lucas's first Star Wars movie released in 1977.

In recent cultural trends (since the 2010's), a tradition of Paladins being predominantly or substantially female seems to have prevailed. We do not speculate why this might be. While we welcome this recent correction of historical biases towards Paladins and other warriors for justice being exclusively male (in particular during the reign of Emperor Charlemagne), we at The Paladins adopt a strictly non-discriminatory policy in everything we do and we aim to keep our membership balanced as close to 50:50 between the genders as is possible.

The idea of God, or a divine authority, investing fighters with magical or semi-divine powers to be used only to fight the evil in the world remains profoundly enchanting and popular. We are pleased to be trading off a name associated with the moral, divine, decent and honest, who use their superior and even occasionally mysterious skills to fight ferociously for those who are the victims of unfair conflict, needless human misery and injustice. Those are the principles by which we aim to run our business.


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