25 July 2008

Poetry Friday: The Original Dark Knights

Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the recent Boys of Steel, wrote about his disappointment that the new movie The Dark Knight didn’t credit Bill Finger with having first applied that title phrase to the Batman in Detective Comics, #40. Finger had created the character with artist Bob Kane a few months before, and wrote many Batman scripts from the 1930s through the 1960s, almost always uncredited.

Marc’s posting made me curious about where the phrase “dark knight” originally came from. Finger was obviously trying to evoke our cultural memories of the Middle Ages, just as one of the supposed inspirations for Robin was Robin Hood. A little searching for “dark knight” in Google Books’s “Full Texts” database led me to the British literary scene of the early 1800s, a time of medieval revivalism. So for Poetry Friday here are the two earliest examples of the “dark knight” that I could find.

The Anglo-Irish writer Charles Maturin (1782-1824) used the phrase in his play Bertram; or The Castle of St. Aldobrand (1816). A prior describes an off-stage character this way:

The dark knight of the forest,
So from his armour named and sable helm,
Whose unbarred vizor mortal never saw.
He dwells alone; no earthly thing lives near him,
Save the hoarse raven croaking o’er his towers,
And the dank weeds muffling his stagnant moat.
It turns out this dark knight is a personification of the devil, who corrupts Bertram. Walter Scott, Byron, and other top writers of the day admired Maturin's play. (In fact, it’s easier to find Scott’s review quoting this scene than to find a copy of the play itself.) Maturin knew that he had a good thing because he also used the phrase “dark knight” in his 1824 novel The Albigenses.

Maturin was never able to match the quality of Bertram, however. He overspent his income, got into quarrels with critics, and died (possibly a suicide) after a literary career of less than a decade.

Later, a Scottish poet named Henry Glassford Bell (1803-1874) wrote a ballad named “The Dark Knight” in pseudo-medieval style. It was first published in 1830 in The Edinburgh Literary Review, which Bell happened to edit. The poem is more easily read here in Bell’s collection Summer and Winter Hours.

Here’s the story in a nutshell:
There came a dark knight from a far countrie,
And no one ever saw his face, for he
Wore his black vizor down continuallie.

He came to a gay bridal, where the bride
Stood, in rich robes, her destined lord beside,
Who gazed upon her with a joyful pride.
...
Yet ever and anon her look would fall
On the dark knight who stood apart from all,
Dark as his shadow, moveless on the wall.
...
The hour grows late, and one by one depart
The guests, with bounding step and merry heart,--
Methought I saw that new wed ladie start.

None in her father’s hall are left but she
And her young bridegroom, who, as none may see,
Hath twined his arm around her lovinglie.

Yes, there is still a third,--the vizor’d knight,--
...
A shriek was heard at midnight, such as broke
On every ear, like the first pealing stroke
Of the alarm bell, and the sleepers woke!

In the old hall, where fitful moonlight shone,
There lay the bridegroom and the bride alone,
Pale, dead, and cold as monumental stone,--
A vizor’d helm was near, but the dark knight was gone.
Obviously, both Maturin’s and Bell’s dark knights are villains. Finger and Kane created the Batman as either a hero or an anti-hero, depending on the editorial direction. Nonetheless, Bell’s poem provides interesting commentary on the new movie’s love triangle among Bruce Wayne, his childhood friend Rachel Dawes (who has no equivalent in the comics), and district attorney Harvey Dent.

(The thumbnail above shows the determined Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as rendered in “plush with removeable limbs,” courtesy of Geek Venue's Monty Python Toys collection.)

1 comment:

Chaucerian said...

It is discouraging to realize how much of one's image of medieval times is actually an image of Victorian romanticism. Sir Walter Scott and his generation of writers have a lot to answer for.