What Makes a King? – A Concept Overview & Analysis

By: Peggy Sue Wood | @peggyseditorial​​

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Above is my favorite scene from the manhwa King’s Maker (from Season 1 Episode/chapter 14). 

I love this scene because it perfectly embodies the ideal of what it takes to be a just or good leader in the fictional world of this particular story (not just seen as one publicly, but actually being one). It’s an idea that relies heavily on the concept of noblesse oblige, which tends to pop-up in stories featuring nobles, royalty, or something similar. While also expanding on this idea of the necessity for chivalry that draws its definition and history from stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round. In modern-day stories, I would argue that much of our current interpretations and ideas of knightly/chivalric qualities come from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s stories of the king and his knights as well as the tales’ later retellings. [For those that don’t know noblesse oblige is the idea of inferred responsibility from privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged and chivalry is defined as a knightly system with its religious, moral, and social code. Geoffrey of Monmouth is the author of the first narrative account of King Arthur’s life that we know of.]

You see, as someone who has studied literature in school, particularly Classical Antiquity and where we’ve gone from since, I’ve always been really interested in this idea of what makes a King, particularly in stories where we see a fight for the throne because it’s hard to maintain these ideal qualities in what is often a bloody battle for power among people who have little to no qualms about committing vile acts to maintain what they have or gain more power, money, etc. This question of what makes a King? is a one I find myself asking often when I read fantasy stories that involve any question of a throne or it’s inheritance. However, I use the term “king” loosely to encompass the concept of a rightful ruler as defined by the set up an author gives in their individual stories.  

In popular works like Game of Thrones, in which we see much of the darker sides to knighthood, oaths, nobility, royalty, and so on–we see the grim reality of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s time. In fact, some argue that Geoffrey’s account and the focus on the knighthood and Arthur’s reign amid war and beyond was a subversive aim to inspire real change among the dark abuses of power that many members of the knightly class, nobility, and above, held. In a movie like The Knight’s Tale, we see this too in which it is the common man that depicts the embodiment of a true knight’s spirit–one that is loyal, protective, chivalrous, deserving of love and admiration, and so on–rather than the majority of the knights born to their status. Shakespeare, who features many noble and royal families in his tales, also marks some of these qualities–showing audiences both redeeming features and cruelty among the classes (a rare depiction that landed him, at times, in the hot seat). 

These stories draw me in, as they do many others, and I think we can draw a conclusion on the trials a good or just king, knight, noble, or other must embody to achieve their “throne” by the end–one that is a bit more clear than The King Maker‘s summary above. 

Each potential “king” must succeed in a trail depicting one or more of the seven knightly virtues (defined here: http://marktoci.weebly.com/7-knightly-virtues.html), those being: 

  • “Courage.  More than bravado or bluster, a knight must have the courage of the heart necessary to undertake tasks which are difficult, tedious or unglamorous, and to graciously accept the sacrifices involved.
  • Justice.  A knight holds him- or herself to the highest standard of behavior, and knows that “fudging” on the little rules weakens the fabric of society for everyone.
  • Mercy.  Words and attitudes can be painful weapons, which is why a knight exercises mercy in his or her dealings with others, creating a sense of peace and community, rather than engendering hostility and antagonism.
  • Generosity.  Sharing what’s valuable in life means not just giving away material goods, but also time, attention, wisdom and energy – the things that create a strong, rich and diverse community.
  • Faith.  In the code of chivalry, “faith” means trust and integrity, and a knight is always faithful to his or her promises, no matter how big or small they may be.
  • Nobility.  Although this word is sometimes confused with “entitlement” or “snobbishness,” in the code of chivalry it conveys the importance of upholding one’s convictions at all times, especially when no one else is watching.
  • Hope.  More than just a safety net in times of tragedy, hope is present every day in a knight’s positive outlook and cheerful demeanor – the ‘shining armor’ that shields him or her, and inspires people all around.”

Suppose one were to look to the code of chivalry defined in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In that case, those virtuous qualities might instead be represented as friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety/humility. 

Failing to pass such trails, the potential “king” would instead display a knightly sin (defined here: https://chivalrytoday.com/knightly-sins/), and often, if not always, in a story suffers karma for such actions. 

The idea of a Hero’s Journey, a story form I’m sure everyone has heard defined many times before, includes these trails even though they are rarely explicitly spelled out in a summary of the form. This may be because many heroes rising, of which these “kings” are, already embody these virtues and only struggle with or require a trial against one of them.

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As it stands, we can often see in advance a potential king’s tragedy by understanding this idea. For example, we know that Wolfgang Goldenleonard, the prince seen above in The King’s Maker excerpt I’ve provided, is going to be the King, birth order be damned. Will there be trails? Of course. And he passes them securing his crown at the end of Season 1; and continues to pass them thus maintaining his throne, which we can see currently in Season 2.

By extension, we can see the character’s whose stories will end in failure based on how long it takes them to pass the knightly trails, if they even can pass them. For example, Richard III in Requiem of the Rose King, which is sure to end in tragedy–not simply because the Shakespearean plays the work draws on tend to end that way but because Richard’s character has changed from the loyal son/brother. 

King, in this sense, could probably easily be replaced by the word hero or knight… but the idea stands that to make them worthy of their title they seem to need one or more of these qualities.

So as you read the next chapter of your favorite knight’s tale, or a battle for the throne, or a rise to power–consider whether or not your hero/protagonist is capable of achieving these virtues. You will probably find that even the characters that seem villainous, like the self-ish Seo Joo-Heon from Tomb Raider King or Naofumi Iwatani from The Rising of The Shield Hero, pass the test we’ve defined here.

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