The American Democratic Epic
A Knight's Tale and the American Style of Storytelling
A Knight’s Tale, 2001
While the United States has a fairly long list of talented artists at this point—the idea that America has no actual epic tradition has been a constant source of criticism from some crowds.
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Those who make this charge usually forget things like Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, or The Great Gatsby, not to mention scores of other examples I could give, for a piece of literature that represents some form of primordial national character. However, I think all has more to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what the American epic style is.
From America’s inception, we’ve had a very consciously democratic sense of self—setting aside the Southern planter class who preferred to see themselves as European noblemen.
I don’t think it’s overly controversial to say that the United States represents a break from the European States that had centuries of aristocratic influence on their literary and cultural creations. This in turn means that America being so self-consciously democratic necessitates a reconstruction of the epic tradition in a democratic style.
Now to get this out of the way—A Knight’s Tale is probably the single worst example I could have chosen since Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is in most ways a proto-postmodernist literary work that parodies aristocratic tropes. The Knight’s Tale of Chaucer being the most self-serious story of the entire collection is immediately followed by The Miller making fun of romantic love.
So Chaucer himself doesn’t exactly endorse the sort of idealistic romantic heroism that features in aristocratic arts.
However, I like this film, and I like Chaucer, so it’s what I’m going with.
All of this being said: the Chaucerian Knight’s Tale taken in isolation against A Knight’s Tale does serve the purpose of being a good example of what I’m getting at in terms of a particular American epic style. The actual Knight’s Tale upon which the film takes its name is a fairly standard romance tale in which two knights—Palamon and Arcite—engage in a rivalry over a woman (Emelye), which culminates in a duel in which Arcite dies after falling off his horse causing Emelye to marry Emelye.
Although there’s more going on than just that (Theseus is there for some reason) it will suffice to provide a summary of what I will uncontroversially assert is the worst tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Which gets me to A Knight’s Tale.
The inverse of all of this—and what I will assert is the fundamental archetype of American Epics—is William of Thatcher. Like Ishmael, Jay Gatsby, or Huckleberry Finn, he’s a common man from a common background. He has no special blood that entitles him to a certain station in life. He is at his core just a guy that wants to joust.
His entire character arc is bound up in the tension of an innate desire to participate in knightly games the requisite background. The American mythos is tightly wound up in the exact idea that everything is possible—nobody in America needs special blood blessed by God that allows them to do particular things. If you want to joust, you can joust and all it takes is the desire to do so.
Put differently, it has been a recurring motif in American literature that the United States is fundamentally a land of unlimited opportunities.
There is no start that someone could have that condemns them to a set path in life—there is always a new frontier or journey that a person can embark upon. True or not, the central mythos of a democratic America is that for all of us, the only thing that could truly limit our ability to achieve our wildest dreams is our self-determination to do so.
I’d also argue that great American works of literature that critically deal with this myth like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury are more fundamentally concerned with the corrosive influence that our collective history plays on our psyche than they do with the idea that the myth itself isn’t a core aspect of the American identity.
In Pynchon’s case, it’s the overbearing paranoia that comes with this myth being manipulated in a conspiracy against us. For William Gaddis, it’s that this myth is dying under a ceaseless parade of consumerism. But the myth remains.
It is also almost an essential element to every great American tale that the central character could always be us. Our national character almost instinctive reacts with revulsion at the suggestion that anything otherwise could be true.
There are no special characteristics inherent in anyone that caused them to end up where they did in life. William Thatcher wasn’t born with any sort of innate talent for jousting—he is just a guy from a regular background who dreams of being the medieval equivalent of an NFL star.
Rather than a man like Achilles who is born with the gifts of the Gods, his eventual triumph at the end of the film is nothing more than grit and the result of tireless practice. It’s the world that we want to see wherein a person is nothing more than their character, and that is all that determines their outcome.
Even the one sympathetic lord of the film that we’re meant to like is made likable by the fact that he doesn’t want to be identified by his lordship. His active camouflaging of his real status as Edward the Black Prince, and desire to simply be a competitor like anyone else on the field is what sets him apart as just another guy. He’s also played by Mark Antony which helps.
Don’t forget all the violence. We also really love quite a bit of spectator sport violence.
Aristocratic arts tend to place a certain emphasis on a proper order of things, the idea that there is a just and beautiful structure that all of life must work within to obtain something akin to the Good Life. Like a well-ordered play, every actor moves within their assigned role, and the whole produces a sort of dance that is greater than what any one individual could create.
The proper aristocratic version of A Knight’s Tale ends about 30 seconds into the film in which William of Thatcher refuses to put on his deceased lord’s armor because that’s just simply not what a commoner does.
It breaks with custom, and it upsets the balance of things. Too much straining and pulling against the social order makes everyone unhappy, and it gets in the way of the anointed lord getting his deserved moment in the sun. Peasants are of course much happier to be tilling the fields enjoying the paternalistic relationship with their lord who looks after them like good children. When their lord succeeds, so does everyone.
However, we’re Americans, and that’s a bunch of European nonsense. Our heroes relentlessly kick and grate against the social orders of the day. We could never imagine a version of Huckleberry Finn that simply decided to just stay in St. Petersburg, Missouri—nor would we expect him to simply sit aside and accept the customs of his day regarding slavery.
The United States being inseparable from these ideals of democracy in turn also makes us a country that is overwhelmingly infatuated with popular culture, again much to the annoyance of people who take themselves overly seriously.
Much to the chagrin of people like Adorno who saw Jazz music as being a herald of the end times, Americans have endlessly iterated on and changed popular music since the 20th century.
A Knight’s Tale embraces the sort of youthful democratic flux that comes with the continuous permutations inherent in popular music by injecting the anachronism of a crowd chanting Queen at a jousting match. It’s the life and energy of a modern football game, rather than a dour score consisting of nothing but trumpets.
It’s also not all that particularly different from Thomas Pynchon’s adoration for popular culture leading to his characters breaking out into songs that parody The Beatles in the middle of his novels.
We simply do not take ourselves seriously enough to not enjoy our art. Someone like Tarkovsky elicits more eye-rolls than he does genuine enthusiasm outside of a NYC art studio. We’re a nation of Tarantinos and Kubricks.
This isn’t to say I think everything is just sarcasm all the way down where sincerity dies underneath a suffocating blanket of everything being humor and parody. It is possible to both parody social customs while maintaining a genuine tone that makes us genuinely identify with and like a character.
I think it’s important to mention here that A Knight’s Tale captures that democratic sense of art that it’s the people that we’re meant to find endearing. It’s not the titles, the churches, or the rituals that form the central emotional core of the film, but rather the heroic journey of the individuals against these restrictions.
The romance of the film is also entirely written to be against the aristocratic mold. In contravention of the original Chaucer Knight’s Tale, the central love of the story isn’t decided by prayers to the gods or trial by combat, but despite it. Jocelyn—his love interest—has little to no interest in knightly heroism and is more than happy to run off and live in poverty.
William of Thatcher in turn isn’t required to fight his final duel to win the princess but does so purely for a sense of personal pride. It’s again the person and their self-defined sense of the world that drives action in an American epic. It’s a heroic moment not because it was required by an abstract custom, it’s heroic because it comes from our own free will.
This here is really the point I’m trying to get at when I talk about what creates an American epic, it’s about the individual and free will. Every American at their core sees themselves as the person who chooses to ride against some aristocrat with nothing but a lance strapped to their arm out of nothing but their sense of what’s right in the world. Preferable with fun music on in the background.
American art is defined almost singularly by the creative and youthful energy that can only be found in individuals with a sincere belief in their ability to venture into the world and see their creations come to fruition. It’s not about selfless death on a battlefield for immortal life, endless suffering, or some interaction with the Divine.
It’s about setting sail upriver on the Mississippi, embarking on the Peqoud, breaking our way into the old money of New York, traveling across Europe looking for a harmonica, telling a crowd of onlookers to add more weight, or just laying out an uptight lord on horseback, the individual and his youthful self-determined creative pursuit is—and will always be—what defines an American epic.
Now all of this might be enough to send someone like Nietzsche into a complete meltdown about how the Last Man has finally triumphed, but I’m an American, and quite frankly I’ve never particularly cared about all that European nonsense.
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