To Change His Stars:
William Thatcher As Joseph Campbell’s Mythic Hero
Despite what comic books, television, and movies may have you believe, the hero is not a new concept to this world. Tales of heroic characters and their exploits abound throughout history. From Homer’s ancient epic The Odyssey to the modern blockbuster movies of this very summer, the hero has always been a part of human existence. Joseph Campbell writes of this phenomenon in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell explains how every hero in every story from every culture since the beginning of time, all travel through the same mythic journey. This journey comprises three multi-step stages that Campbell names “departure,” “initiation,” and “return.” One of the more popular versions of the hero story is the “rags-to-riches” tale, wherein the hero begins the story as a simple peasant and arrives at the story’s conclusion as a man of high standing. The film A Knight’s Tale is just such a heroic story, and a wonderful example of Campbell’s mythic hero’s journey.
In the middle of a prestigious jousting championship, one of the lesser-known knights takes a breather on the sidelines while his three squires ready his horse for the next match. However, a major problem will prevent Sir Ector from competing in the final, tournament-winning match: he is dead. William Thatcher, one of the squires, decides to don his dead knight’s armor and compete in his place in order to win the money the squires need to live. This is William’s “call to adventure,” and the first step on his heroic journey. As Joseph Campbell points out, such occurrences “are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts… ripples on the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. [And] these may amount to the opening of a destiny” (51). William has indeed always suppressed the desire to be a tournament jouster, for reasons Roland, the older of the other two squires, points out as William begins to don Sir Ector’s armor. “What’s your name, William?” Roland challenges. “It’s not Sir William. It’s not count, or duke or earl William. It’s certainly not King William.” One has to be of noble birth to compete in a tournament. William ignores that for now, as he is riding under the name of Sir Ector, who is of noble birth, and proceeds to win the tournament without being found out.
Later, as the small group journeys on, William expresses his desire to go on with the charade, perhaps not under Sir Ector’s name, but he has proven himself capable with a lance, he sees no reason that “Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein,” cannot continue to win tournaments. And while his friends are not exactly supportive, they also do not leave. However, there is one essential thing “Sir Ulrich” needs in order to compete: a patent of nobility; a simple piece of parchment that outlines his supposed noble lineage. Just when it seems hopeless, William and his friends encounter the next step of his hero’s journey: a meeting with “supernatural aid.”
Campbell says of this step, “…the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure… who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass” (69). A naked man wandering alone down a deserted road may seem far from this “protective figure,” but Geoffrey Chaucer is not a normal man. He is a writer and a Herald, fully capable of drafting amulets -that is, patents of Nobility- for anyone willing to help him out. While their meeting is less than poignant, Geoffrey is more than capable of giving “Sir Ulrich” exactly what he needs to enter the next tournament; he does so in exchange for some clothes, as his were ‘stolen’ by people to whom he owed gambling debts, and the right to travel with their little band.
During this time, Roland and Wat, the other squire, are subjecting William to rigorous training. This ties-in with another step of Campbell’s hero’s journey, “crossing the first threshold.” While William at first seems to be getting worse, he is actually learning valuable skills that will serve him well later in “Sir Ulrich’s” career. As Campbell says, “And yet, it is only by advancing beyond those bounds… that the individual passes… into a new zone of experience” (82). It takes some time, but eventually William “passes into a new zone of experience” and becomes better at jousting than anyone his companions have seen before. This sets the little group up to pass seamlessly into the final step of the “departure” stage of the heroic journey, “the belly of the whale.”
It is “Sir Ulrich’s” first national competition. He has now won several small provincial titles and has become a bit sure of himself in his new status. The knights at this tournament, however, are seasoned fighters and not the amateur competitors to whom he has become accustomed. Still, William manages to hold his own against all but one: Sir Adhemar. Defeated by Adhemar, William comes in second place in the tournament. Adhemar whispers to him as he is awarded the first prize, “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting. Come back when you’re worthy.” Seething, William tells his friends that he will no longer compete in anything but the joust, as before he had also been competing in sword fighting on foot. He turns all of his attention to becoming a better jouster than Sir Adhemar. Joseph Campbell says of turning a bad situation into a good one like this, “But here, instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again” (91). William leaves this tournament having been “born again” with a new outlook on his jousting career. He will become better than Sir Adhemar, and the next time they meet on the field, William is determined to defeat him. With this realization, William and his group of friends move into the next stage of his heroic journey, which Campbell calls “initiation.”
In the first step of this stage, the “road of trials,” Campbell says the hero “…moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials” (97). William Thatcher’s trials consist of winning more and more prestigious tournaments. When he finally enters another tournament in which Sir Adhemar is entered, he feels ready to compete. However, when Adhemar comes up against another opponent, Sir Thomas Colville, Adhemar suddenly withdraws from the competition, for Sir Colville is none other than Prince Edward, looking to get some action under an alias. William and “Colville” end up the only two jousters left in the tournament, as everyone who recognizes Prince Edward quickly withdraws rather than endanger a member of the royal family. Everyone, that is, except “Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein,” an oddly kindred spirit to “Sir Colville.” When William comes up against Prince Edward, he stops Roland from withdrawing him and instead asks for his lance. Roland thinks him insane, asking, “Are you mad? You knowingly endanger a member of the royal family?” William counters this with, “He knowingly endangers himself.” And the opponents ride toward each other. Their joust ends in a draw. Prince Edward lifts his mask and reveals his identity to William after the joust, complementing him on his style. When he mentions that William knew who he was up against and still chose to ride, William smiles and says, “It’s not in me to withdraw.” Prince Edward responds, “No. Nor me. Though it happens.” And the two part ways amicably.
It is during this series of tournaments that William encounters the next step in his heroic journey, a “meeting with the goddess.” Despite being on horseback, he follows a beautiful woman into a cathedral, desperate for her name. She playfully calls him a hunter to her fox, and even as the priests shoo him and his horse out of the holy building, he shouts, “Your name, my lady! I still need to hear it!” She smiles. “Sir hunter, you persist.” And as William is ejected from the church, he says, “Well, perhaps angels have no names. Only beautiful faces!” But this angel does have a name, and it is Lady Joscelyn. As Campbell says in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is one who comes to know.” (116). William does indeed come to know Joscelyn’s name, as they attend a ball together after a tournament. William is very much in love, which sets him up for the next phase of his heroic journey, “woman as the temptress.”
After watching William win several tournaments, Joscelyn confronts him with her desire for him to prove his love for her. “To prove your love, you should do your worst,” she says. “Act against your normal character, and do badly. Lose.” Shocked, William replies, “I will not lose.” Joscelyn, hurt, whispers, “Then you do not love me.” She leaves. The next day, William’s friends watch in shock as their capable, commanding “Sir Ulrich” sits atop his horse and does not even make a move to tilt at his opponent, taking hit after hit as he drops lower and lower in the rakings. Outraged and confused, Roland asks him what he’s doing. William replies in a monotone, “Losing.” “I don’t understand!” Roland shouts, and William mutters as he takes another hit, “Neither do I.” As Campbell says in Hero, “Where this… revulsion remains to beset the soul, there the world, the body, and woman above all, become the symbols no longer of victory but of defeat” (123). However, during the break midway through the tournament, Joscelyn’s servant girl comes to deliver a message to “Sir Ulrich.” “If you love her,” the girl says. “You will not lose another match. If you love her, you will win this tournament.” Frustrated beyond belief, but relieved at the same time, William does go on to win the tournament in his most spectacular come-from-behind victory yet. And while he is annoyed at Joscelyn, his annoyance does not last long and soon they are together again. Having reconciled with his lover, there is only one other person in William’s life that he feels a need to prove himself to: his father, the man who gave William to Sir Ector as a child so that he might have a chance at a better life than the one his father has as a roof thatcher. This desire to show what he has become to his father leads him into the final step of the “initiation” phase, the literal “atonement with the father.”
As Campbell says, “…the father is the initiating priest through whom the young being passes into the larger world” (136). William’s final tournament of the season, and the one in which he will finally face Sir Adhemar again, takes place in the stadium a “stone’s throw” away from the very place he was born. Believing his father to be dead but needing to know for sure, he seeks out the place he was born and is surprised to find that his father is still alive, though now blind. Tapping on the door to his father’s room, William introduces himself as “Sir Ulrich,” saying he has brought a message from John Thatcher’s son, William. After assuring the old man that his son is well, he delivers the message, “And he wanted you to know that… he changed his stars after all.” John Thatcher seems to suspect that this “Sir Ulrich” is not what he seems and says in a hopeful whisper, “And has he followed his feet? Has he found his way home?” And on William’s whispered, “Yes,” father and son are reunited in a tight hug, and William spends the next few hours of the rainy night telling his father all about his adventures and his friends. Near the end of their conversation, William notices a leak in the roof and offers to fix it. “It won’t do for a thatcher to have a leaky roof,” he says playfully to John. However, while he is up on the roof fixing the leak, he is seen and identified by Sir Adhemar’s men who have been looking for a reason to disqualify him. Adhemar reveals William’s true name and humble background, disqualifying him from the tournament and causing him to be arrested for impersonating a knight. Thrown into the stocks and feeling as if all is lost, William passes into the final stage of his heroic journey, “the return.”
Campbell says of the first step of this stage, “refusal of the return,” that “When the hero quest has been accomplished… the adventurer still must return with his life transmuting trophy… But the responsibility has been frequently refused” (193). William, believing that all is lost, has given up hope. He is kneeling; his head and hands are trapped in the stocks as the peasants pitch vegetables at him. To his surprise, his friends climb up onto the “stage” around him, each armed with some sort of weapon to defend the man they still think of as noble despite his ignominious background. “God love you, William,” Roland says, brandishing a blunt stick at the crowd. “And so do I.” William seems to be regaining a bit of his hope, but his situation is still rather hopeless. That is, until an old comrade returns to push him into the next stage of his journey, “rescue from without.”
A man with a cloak over his head, flanked by two other similarly dressed men, approach the stage. At almost the same moment, they drop their cloaks, silencing the crowd as they reveal themselves to be Prince Edward and two guarding knights of the crown. As Campbell says, “The hero may have to be brought back from his… adventure by assistance from without” (207). Prince Edward provides that assistance as he stands upon the stage and announces, “He may appear to be of humble origin, but my personal historians have discovered that he is descended from an ancient royal line. This is my word, and as such, is beyond contestation. Release him.” The knights quickly do as their prince commands, and back away as Prince Edward approaches William, saying quietly, “Your men love you. If I knew nothing else about you, that would be enough. But you also tilt when you should withdraw… And that is knightly, too.” The prince then says he wishes to return the kindness William once showed him, and asks the tired man to take a knee. Right there, in front of all the spectators, Prince Edward officially knights William, renaming him Sir William Thatcher. He then asks if William is fit to compete, as there is still a tournament to be won. William says that he is, and with a smirk Prince Edward says William’s opponent will be informed of it. As the crowd cheers and Sir William returns to the stadium to be outfitted to compete, he enters the final stage of his heroic journey, crossing “the return threshold.”
Campbell says of this final step, “The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world” (226). In the case of Sir William Thatcher, he must survive the literal impact of the lance. Sir Adhemar is in a panic. His opponent, who he is absolutely certain he cannot beat again, is back in the competition. To make matters worse, they are now the only two left to compete in the final joust. Desperate to keep his champion title, Adhemar sinks to the lowest trick in the jousting book and sharpens his lance to a point, hiding the point behind a blunter made from spun sugar. Upon impact, the blunter shatters and the point embeds itself in his opponent, Sir William. This leaves William in excruciating pain, but as neither opponent has been unhorsed, the battle will continue. Roland removes the wooden spear from his knight and tries to encourage William to withdraw, but William refuses. On the next run, Sir William is unable to hold onto his lance and drops it, taking another hit from Adhemar’s lance, though this one is thankfully a normal blunt lance. Unable to hold the lance, and realizing that the only way he can win this tournament now is to unhorse or kill Sir Adhemar, William asks Wat to lash the lance to his arm so he can’t drop it. Reluctantly, his friend does as he is asked. While he is doing this, he tells William that Joscelyn has made it to the match… and she has brought John Thatcher. With his father and his girlfriend watching, William launches into his final joust, shouting his own name and confirming that he is indeed Sir William Thatcher. Caught off-guard by his opponent’s ferocity, Sir Adhemar’s lance never even touches William, and Adhemar is knocked flying off his horse by the impact of Sir William Thatcher’s lance. In the moment before Adhemar hits the ground and is announced the loser, he has a vision of Sir William and his friends surrounding him. “You have been weighed,” says Wat. “You have been measured,” says Roland. “And you have absolutely been found wanting,” says a smug Geoffrey Chaucer. “Welcome to the New World,” Sir William finishes. “God save you, if it is right that he should do so.” And with that, Sir Adhemar hits the ground, and the championship goes to Sir William Thatcher. This is the prize William has fought for, and now he has obtained it under his own name and the watchful eyes of those he loves. Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein is no more. Sir William Thatcher, son of John Thatcher, is the champion.
From lowly peasant to knight with multiple jousting championships under his belt, Sir William Thatcher has indeed changed his stars. With the help of his friends and the support of his father, he has transformed his life from rags to riches, continually proving himself to be a prime example of Joseph Campbell’s mythic hero.
A Knight’s Tale Dir. Brian Helgeland. Perfs. Heath Ledger, Paul Bettany. DVD. Universal Pictures, 2001.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1973.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDB). A Knight’s Tale