Currently, it seems to me that Samurai are more popular than their Western Counterparts, at least in popular culture. It is an interesting comparison, considering that both are feudal warrior classes, with similar societal roles. It seems to me that aspiring authors and game creators could learn a great deal from the comparison between these two and apply it when creating and writing about their own warrior cultures.
The Archetypal Knight
- The Archetypal Knight was a man in very heavy plate armour, wielding a broadsword, and carrying a large shield of some sort.
- Knights, when portrayed sympathetically adhere to the code of chivalry. This code is based around the ideas of feudalism, but in popular culture, rightly or wrongly, it has a strong emphasis on romantic life.
- Knights might be loyal to their lord, but they are often more loyal to their god. Their is a strong religious association with knights, even in the modern day. This carries over into games and books with the most popular form of the subgroup of knight, the paladin, being a holy warrior.
- Knights are often portrayed in a mixed fashion, evil knights are certainly not unknown.
- Knights often fought mounted, the lance being portrayed as important for this. (In fact knights were well versed in a variety of weapons, and the arsenal of the late middle ages included some creative and unusual devices.) The Joust is an incredible sports-like activity that has a strong place in knightly fantasy.
- Knights engaged in a number of secondary activities, but the only ones that show up in popular culture these days are hunting and falconry.
The Archetypal Samurai
- The Samurai, although fully armoured, was not nearly as well protected at the knight. Most importantly they have no tradition of shield use, especially in popular conception.
- Although the Samurai (like the knight) used a bewildering variety of weapons, and many preferred the spear in battle, in popular culture the Samurai are famed for their use of the Katana. The Katana is by far and away the favourite sword of current popular culture.
- Samurai were also portrayed as a mixed bunch. Some were heroic, others were downright nasty. Because the zenith of the age of the Samurai came long after the end of the Knight, they seem fresher in our imagination.
- Samurai also fought mounted. They did not really have a jousting culture, however.
- The Samurai followed the Bushido code. The Bushido code is a feudal code that stresses self-perfection/mastery. It is portrayed as being a little more philosophical and contemplative than Chivalry.
- Although this is very likely faulty, Samurai are rarely portrayed as exceptionally religious in pop culture. This might have something to do with people not being able to grok shintoism, but could also have to do with time period. Knights were long gone by the time of the industrial revolution and modern religious/political ideas, while Samurai were not. Instead they are seen as loyal to the emperor, which is confused in modern day as being loyal to the state of Japan (when in fact it could be confused with a religious thing)
- The Samurai had no compunction about using ranged weapons (except guns), whereas knights were often portrayed as noting that archery in battle was for cowards.
The keys to this analysis are the religion, chivalry, and the shield.
I suspect that religion played a strong role in the lives of both Knights and Samurai, but while you will often see good Knights in popular fiction beseeching god or evil knights using god to justify their acts, Samurai are more varied.
Knights are associated with Christianity a religion that still has a very string presence in world affairs. Shintoism does not, especially in pop culture. Much of this has to do with popular ignorance of eastern religions though.
More interestingly, I think Samurai are portrayed as less religious because their Zenith and denouement came at a time when Japan was reaching modern statehood. In Europe when Knighthood was at its strongest, the church was the unifying power. In Japan, when Samurai fantasies are at their strongest, we start to see hints of nationalism. Nationalism and patriotism are very modern ideals and currently less contentious than religion, which I think adds to the popularity of the Samurai as more of a patriotic warrior than a religious warrior in popular fantasy.
Somewhere along the lines the code of Chivalry picked up strong associations with romantic love. The knight is often seen as a romantic figure in popular culture, While romance is a massively popular genre, it has a difficult relationship with Fantasy fiction (this will change over time), and the romantic association does not help the knight in popular culture right now. Bushido on the other hand is seen as a strict code, with nasty consequences like seppuku. Bushido also has a strong philosophical component, carried by books like Musashi’s Five Rings, which helps the Samurai come of as a little cooler, at least as a warrior. The philosophical aspects play into the growing influence of geek culture as well.
Shields and Plate Armour vs the Katana
The arms associated with the Knight and Samurai demonstrate a great deal about what we think about how they fought. The arms most strongly associated with the knight are defensive in nature and often portrayed as clumsy and clanking, making the knight more of a medieval tank than a masterful warrior. The shield, especially, is misunderstood. Shields just aren’t sexy you see, and few people outside of the history class, gamers,the sca, or boffer larps seem to understand the offensive capabilities of shields or how to make them seem more interesting.
Plate Armour, as well, gets a bad rap. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, plate clad warriors are often portrayed as clumsy and perhaps even cowardly. While this is changing, heavy armour still has a serious image problem. Taken together the armour and the shield make use think that the knight was mostly a defensive warrior, especially when not mounted. The turtle would be an appropriate comparison for the popular view of knightly combat. Malory doesn’t help here with his portrayals of knightly battles lasting days. That sounds boring to modern audiences.
The Katana, on the other hand, is pure pop-culture fodder. It is the deadliest blade around, bar none, in the eyes of movie goers and fan boys. It is swift and lethal. If the Knight is a turtle, the Samurai is a tiger. It helps that the most famous form of Samurai duel in pop culture is the Iajutsu duel, the quickdraw stare-down that is resolved with a single stroke. This form of fighting is seen as more dynamic to modern audiences. If fantasy most protagonists are portrayed as swift and deadly — assassin types, often. The Samurai is much closer to this ideal than the knight (in concept at least).
In conclusion while these two warrior classes were actually similar in many ways, it is easy to see why the Samurai grabs more attention in popular culture than you would expect. The emphasis on quick, graceful fighting, with immediate bloodshed simply makes for a better action scene in the modern view. The same can be said with the Samurai’s code and his emphasis on duty instead of religion, these are simply easier fits with modern audiences. You could argue that the Samurai is more popular in western pop culture because it is exotic — however a good fantasy writer can make anything seem exotic, so I’ll duck that point. Naturally it would be very easy to rehabilitate the image of the knight be emphasizing more modern qualities, but you would be working against Mallory instead of having Musashi in your corner. The key takeaway for designing your own warrior cultures is to make sure sure that you emphasize traits that play well with your audience. For example if you are writing for fans of swift and deadly action you would do well to go for Katanas over shields…