Who knoweth not of Paladin Girl?
|M:tG card art for Knight Exemplar, by Jason Chan (2011). Exemplary in more ways than one!|
Paladin Girl has become a cliche of modern fantasy art. She always looks the same. A young, slender woman in plate mail armour (often improbably form-fitting), no helmet, straight hair usually worn long and loose, conventionally-attractive face. On horseback, she might have a spear or lance. On foot, she usually carries a sword.
One obvious source is Joan of Arc. A sketch from her own time depicts her like this -
but by the later fifteenth century she was being painted like this -
- and by 1505 like this:
Then there's Bradamante and Clorinda, the original 'female knight' characters, who appear in Arisoto's Orlando Furioso (1532) and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), respectively. Around 1600 they were being depicted like this:
|Paolo Domenico Finoglia. Clorinda's the one on the right.|
|Antonio Tempesta, Bradamante Valorosa.|
This, in turn, is not dissimilar to the way Joan of Arc was being depicted in the early seventeenth century:
Classic Paladin Girl, right? Except the whole point of this image is that Ermina isn't a female knight: she's a princess disguised as a knight. (More specifically she's disguised as Clorinda, whose armour she's 'borrowed'.) Thus the long hair and the skirt: this is less wargear than cosplay. Clorinda, who's the real deal, wears full armour, has a more practical haircut, and carries a rather unfeminine bearded axe.
We're getting very close, now; and Walter Crane's Britomart, from his 1895-7 illustrations to The Faerie Queene, gets us even closer. Note sword, long hair, armoured skirt, and the large rondels on her chest that give the impression that her armour has breasts.
|Albert Lynch, 1903 - surely the secret inspiration for the haircuts used by 40K's Sisters of Battle!|
|Paul Antoine de la Boulaye, 1909|
Note that more form-fitting armour is becoming the norm, here, with tapered waists and armoured skirts allowing these painters to display a classically feminine 'hourglass' figure even in full armour. (Contrast this with the armour in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century images, which would mask the wearer's gender.) It's this iconography that fed into the 1948 Joan of Arc film starring Ingrid Bergman, although the need to make a costume that was actually wearable clearly led to some concessions to practicality.
|Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc, 1948.|
|Bergman again, in the 1946 play the film was based on.|
|BARGLE YOU FUCK DON'T SHOOT HER FOR SHE IS MY ONE TRUE LOVE!|
|NOW ALEENA IS DEAD AND I HAVE ONLY MY EIGHTIES HAIR TO CONSOLE ME!|
Most 'female fighter' illustrations in 1980s and 1990s fantasy media tended much more towards 'sexy' designs with lots of exposed skin, and armoured female fighters in D&D-adjacent media were more likely to look like this -
to the iconic figure of Saber from Fate / Stay Night (2004), who basically defines the type going forwards.
These Paladin Girl types grew out of the older pre-Raphaelite Joan of Arc figure reinterpreted through a manga filter, and in the early 2000s they were reimported to the West, with immediate effect. This anime-by-way-of-World-of-Warcraft style was everywhere in the fantasy art of the period. Tellingly, the 9th Edition of Magic: the Gathering (2005) saw the art for the iconic white card Serra Angel shift from this cone-bra stripper-samurai horrorshow -
And that's where we've been ever since, basically. In 2009 Pathfinder even made it quasi-official by having their actual goddess of paladins, Iomedae, look like this:
So what does it all mean? Paladin Girl, I'd suggest, represents a compromise between the sexualised 'warrior woman' designs of the 1980s and 1990s, with their loincloths and armoured bikinis, and the ideals of equal-opportunities empowerment that most modern fantasy media pays at least lip service to. She's 'empowered' - she wears full armour! She's got a sword! - but in a way that emphasises her 'good girl' femininity, rather than clashing with it. (The armour emphasises her breasts, waist, and hips rather than hiding them, she's obviously wearing make-up, and her power is clearly wielded on behalf of the existing social order, not against it.) She stands for female empowerment in its most non-threatening, least socially-disruptive form. Probably this is what led male artists to develop the type in the first place, against the backdrop of the original women's suffrage movement of 1897-1918, which presented them with much less comfortable models of what female power might look like.