Paladins of Tortall: Heroines and Their Oaths

I’m sorry I’m on so much of a paladin kick lately – white knight, templar, knight in shining armor, whatever you want to call them. This is just what’s occupying my headspace lately, so it seemed natural to bring this train of thought to the other thing that occupies most of my brainpower most of the time – the Tortall books by Tamora Pierce. When I was trying to think of paladin-like characters I could draw inspiration from, my immediate thought was Alanna… but there’s more than one type of paladin, after all.

So, Alanna is the most obvious “classic” paladin. She’s a warrior and a mage who works in service and devotion to her goddess. It’s paladin 101. She’s the white knight, the hero who goes into dark places and brings the light. And yet, the classic Oath of Devotion – per the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook – doesn’t seem to fit quite right, for one reason or another. I was actually really struggling to place Alanna’s oath until I picked up the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide again, and found the Oath of the Crown. That, to me, seems to fit perfectly.

Alanna’s primary loyalty is to her king and kingdom. She’s the King’s Champion – that is specifically the title she is granted over the course of the story. She of course serves the ideals of justice, truth, and goodness as the Oath of Devotion does, but to me, that’s not her primary driver, especially the further into the books we go. Alanna is kind of a classic “for king and country” warrior, in the end, with the additional spin of “for my goddess”. The Oath of the Crown specifically mentions law and responsibility, which the other oaths do not.

But thinking of the Oath of Devotion and its tenets – honesty, courage, compassion, honor, and duty… well, obviously I think of Keladry of Mindelan, my personal hero and absolute life goals. Despite that she’s less of a religious icon than Alanna, I actually think that Kel is much more Classic Paladin than Alanna. The thing that makes me think that more than anything else is, in the Oath of Devotion section of the PHB, it says, “They hold themselves to the highest standards of conduct, and some, for better or worse, hold the rest of the world to the same standards.” Hell yeah she does.

Keladry is the one, to me, who sees the darkness in the world and sets out to make it right as best she can, and she works to inspire others to the same ideals. She has a way of bringing out the best in others, that I think is kind of extraordinary (which undoubtedly is why Raoul marks her as a true commander rather than an ordinary warrior – the ability to lead, and to lead well and by example, is arguably even rarer than true heroism). When I think of a paladin, I think of someone to look up to, and I think Kel makes herself that more than anyone else. She is, at all times, keenly aware of her position and her visibility and what her achievements mean to others.

That brings me to the two you wouldn’t typically think of as paladins – Daine and Beka. Yes, I know and love Aly, but she is in no way, shape, or form a paragon of virtue, she is 100% pure, undistilled rogue, and we love her for that. But Daine and Beka are a little bit trickier. They’re not classic warriors, they don’t set out to be heroes in the same way that Alanna and Kel do. But being a paladin isn’t about trying to be a hero. It’s about trying to do the right thing, even though definitions of the right thing vary.

For Daine, the most obvious D&D class to sort her into is a druid. She can shape-change into animals, she can communicate with animals, all her power pertains to animals, both natural and magical. It’s a pretty obvious choice. But then I read this snippet from the Oath of the Ancients paladin in the PHB: “paladins who swear this oath cast their lot with the side of the light in the cosmic struggle against darkness because they love the beautiful and life-giving things of the world.” And that calls up the events of Realms of the Gods, the fourth Daine book. Replace “darkness” with “chaos” and you really pretty much just summed up the entire plot of that book (minus the romantic subplot, but hey – when they invent a paladin Oath of Love, I will be all over that).

The other big thing that makes me think of Daine and the Oath of the Ancients is the ongoing subplot with Rikash and Daine’s attitude towards immortals in general. She starts out not liking any of them, then evolves to “they’re okay except Stormwings”, but over time, she grows to care for Rikash and it changes her opinions of Stormwings as a whole. She learns to see them all not as evil, but as performing an almost necessary role in society, discouraging war and bloodshed. She becomes a friend and advocate of the Stormwings among other humans. Part of the Ancient tenets include “through your acts of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness, kindle the light of hope in the world, beating back despair.” She learns to do this – she doesn’t start out perfect.

As for Beka, this ties back into the point I mentioned in my other post – is justice the protection of the innocent or the punishment of the guilty? Realistically it’s a mix of both, but there’s lines in the sand for each. I think in comparison, Keladry would define it as the protection of the innocent (her epithet is the Protector of the Small, so I don’t think that’s baseless exactly). Beka, on the other hand, is more likely to define it as the punishment of the guilty. This, obviously, is due in part to her calling as a City Guard – a police officer, effectively – as opposed to a knight or a soldier. Beka’s epithet, in contrast, is the Terrier – once she gets you in her teeth, she’s never letting you go.

To me, instinctively, this doesn’t sound terribly “paladin-ish”. Except for the Oath of Vengeance, which is not an unpopular choice when you look at people’s characters. The Oath of Vengeance is “a solemn commitment to punish those who have committed a grievous sin.” If that’s not exactly what Beka does, down to the letter, I don’t know what is. Arguably, Beka is even more of a paladin than Kel or Daine, given that she works in service to the Black God – the god of death – to avenge those who died wrongfully, before their time was up. After putting it all together, I was kind of surprised I hadn’t seen it before, to tell the truth. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many people play characters that they insist are Oath of Vengeance paladins, when they’re actually just roleplaying a blackguard or antipaladin and not wanting to admit it… but that’s none of my business.

After figuring all of this out in the span of 20 minutes or so and experiencing a complete revelation while sitting at my desk at work, it’s kind of a miracle I haven’t been obsessed with the idea of paladins long before now – or maybe I was and didn’t realize it. Because after all, it’s clear now that so many of my fictional heroes growing up were following their own oaths of righteousness, working to fight back the darkness.

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