The Forgotten Origins of D&D’s Alignments and Paladins

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The noble Paladin, a holy crusader who fights for good against vicious evils. A hero that has the healing powers of a cleric and the strength of a fighter mixed into one behemoth hero who uses both to bring light into the darkness.

You don’t have to even play D&D to know what a Paladin is because there are examples of them everywhere from Runescape to WoW to countless movies and TV shows. This idea of a holy knight that squashes evil, usually while wearing a really shiny suit of golden armor and wielding a mighty sword. But where did this idea come from in the first place?

Well, it’s safe to say that the Paladin rose to fantasy stardom by being included as a playable character in D&D. However, Gary Gygax was not the first person to conceive of such a hero.

In fact, to create a game as expansive as D&D, Gary Gygax had to draw from numerous aspects of fantasy literature and real-life legends, which he then transformed to create the Monster Manual and RuleBook for players to use for their campaigns.

So, the real question here is: where the heck did Gygax draw that inspiration from? As it turns out, the idea for Paladins and the ‘Law’ and ‘Chaos’ alignments came about from the very same source; a fantasy novel written in 1961 by Poul Anderson entitled Three Hearts and Three Lions.

In the book, an engineer named Holger Carlsen is fighting Nazi’s during World War II – as heroes do – and is suddenly transported into a parallel world after being shot smuggling a scientist across a border in Denmark.

Inside this “Middle World” – a place full of faeries and other fantasy elements like dwarfs and elves – he finds a suit of armor and a sword. The Middle World is also divided between the forces of Law and the forces of Chaos, probably a thinly-veiled nod to the real world Carlsen just came from. This new, fantasy-filled realm looks much like the era of Charlemagne, who was King of the Franks back in the late-700s AD.

The story basically follows the same arch as The Wizard of Oz from this point on. Carlsen takes up his armor and shield, which has three hearts and three lions on it (hence the title), and teams up with a cast of characters to find his way out of this parallel world and back to reality because he still has Nazis to kill and scientists-in-distress to save.

With the help of his posse, a swan maiden named Alianora and a dwarf named Hugi; Carlsen battles the forces of Chaos using a legendary sword named Cortana. These adventures include fighting loads of monsters – such as a troll, a dragon, a werewolf, and a giant – and escaping numerous pitfalls along the way. It’s a pretty action-packed novel that’s filled to brim with monsters. In a way, it resembles a D&D campaign all on its own.

Eventually, the Chaos forces are defeated and Carlsen is transported out of Middle World and back into reality where he is able to defeat the Nazis and rescue the scientist who, by the way, was actually Neils Bohr, a prominent member of the Manhattan Project.

Throughout the novel, Carlsen performed actions in the name of Law and Good. They are the driving forces behind everything the man does. So, when Gygax was creating D&D he drew inspiration from Carlsen’s character and combined it with other legendary figures who fought against evil in a medieval setting, such as King Arthur and real-life Palatine Guards.

He also decided to use the alignment system to easily allow players to show where they stand.

So, in the end, you have fantasy writer Poul Anderson to thank for quite a bit. Not only did his work set the guidelines for what became the D&D Paladin, but it also influenced a fundamental part of the game.

But wait, there’s more. If you dig even deeper into the past, you’ll find that Anderson got much of his inspiration from The Chanson de Geste, which means “Song of Heroic Deeds” in Old French. This poem, which took place in the era of Charlemagne, the same time period Carlsen gets sucked into in Middle World, was epic in scope and dealt with many of the same issues Anderson used in his writing.

If you wrapped all this up nicely into a succinct factoid, you could say that the idea of the Paladin came about roughly 1500 years ago by some unknown author. Of course, it took until around the 1950s – plus a whole heap of Arthurian Legend crossover – before it became the holy warrior we known and love today.

What’s your favorite Paladin story? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast

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