High Fantasy Knights: Reviving the Classic

The year is 2020. Runaway corporate avarice is consuming Earth’s natural resources to the point of unsustainability, and not a single imposing dystopian metropolis has been built in the process. With each day, society’s rancid husk sags further upon its shattered metaphorical ribs, soon to collapse entirely. In a disappointingly functional, non-cyberpunk apartment rented at unreasonable rates, another high fantasy writer sits down to start drafting. What can they do which hasn’t been done before? They must choose carefully–this first foray might be their only one, with humanity’s doom mere years from completion.

“Aha!” they say, having read exactly zero books with similar settings to their own, “I’ll make the knights useless buffoons this time! That’s surely never been done before!”

We now jump back in time to one year prior, as an older, more seasoned fantasy writer attempts to prevent this sad excuse for a swan song. At this time I’d like to remind everyone that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released in 1975. To say the trope of bumbling or simply useless knights started there would be ludicrous, of course, because it goes back at least as far as 16-oh-fucking-4 with Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The etymology adepts among you may know this is where we get the phrase “tilting at windmills” from.

Knights make for an odd writing topic because they’re actually not that well-represented in recent high fantasy. I don’t just mean that the ones we do get are more often useless than not–there actually aren’t that many bespoke knights. What we do get in spades, even today, are barbarians or barbarian-coded characters, improbably lucky rogues, and oh shit, is that a pleasant but largely forgettable young man with no aspirations to leave his hometown? Better get out of that fucker’s way, that’s a future world-shattering protagonist for sure!

I’m being unfair, of course, because our genre has matured and progressed over the past few decades. You see, readers, now the forgettable youth-appeal protagonist with zero prior qualifications or compelling character traits might have the blandest possible take on a different gender identity–innovative!

The extreme blandness of mainline fantasy protagonists will be a topic in the near future, of course. I may refer to it a few times because, in order to accommodate it, fantasy writing has thrown many other characters and concepts under the bus. You generally have to do this to, for example, explain why your protagonist wasn’t mauled to death by the Glurvag Shredriders despite a total lack of combat experience and a stubborn refusal to wear armor for no particular reason.

Let’s start with that one, because it explains much about the venerable knight’s current treatment in high fantasy–armor doesn’t work in most fantasy worlds. It’s an aesthetic flourish, a bit of gleam and sparkle that any scraggly orc can cut right through with his ten-pound, jagged scimitar. The assumption that any given person can just pierce right through it has become so baked into our writing that we don’t even question it. That’s obviously going to hurt any class of characters whose identity might, just a teensy bit, be associated with the stuff.

This has been an overworked reference to “knight in shining armor.” Now, let’s dial it back a moment and consider where some of this doubtless comes from. Fantasy writers like to try for subversion as much as any other class of writers, and even today, many of us first encounter knights when we read snippets from or see movies based on Arthurian legends. It’s easy to imagine how, after the umpteenth variation on Lancelot and Guinevere et al., an aspiring fantasy writer would arrive at one of the two predominant approaches I see to knights:

1. No knights at all (a perfectly reasonable approach)
2. Fuck these guys I’m going to make them super lame and have peasants beat them up all the time (rapidly creates problems as we will soon discuss)

Of course, there’s an even simpler explanation for the second pattern, at least in the United States: our culture’s fanatical indoctrination in its own meritocratic mythology. In direct opposition to science fiction, which as a genre tends to be among the best at acknowledging that wealth and power actually do confer significant advantages which are difficult if not impossible to overcome, fantasy–understandably considering the genre’s very name–constantly gorges on this happy-go-lucky idea that ANYONE can achieve ANYTHING with enough Hard Work™.

Because, you know, it’s certainly not as if the assumption that anyone who fails just doesn’t work hard enough has been used by nobility to justify oppressing commoners in the past.

So yes, hard work and  six or seven prophecies plus the constant intervention of gods, other supernatural entities, and fate itself to preserve and empower the hero, which should raise far more eyebrows than it does when it comes to analyzing whether this makes sense. If Discount Fire-Jesus #37 (Model B) has to imbue your protagonist with the contained power of ten thousand infernos to let him surpass the world’s power structure, your writing isn’t sending the message about class and opportunity that you think it is.

At this point I want to state, because we’re looking at a pretty big mess of topics today and I think it’ll be helpful to set a goal, that I’m not trying to provide one universal approach for knights in high fantasy. This represents enough for any writer to work from, but it’s by no means authoritative and I’m not trying to make it authoritative. We’re just working through some possibilities.

So, let’s open with a fundamental statement as to what a knight is, as commonly accepted even in fantasy writing which otherwise stomps on them at every opportunity. A knight is a warrior-aristocrat trained with increasing rigor from birth. In many worlds written by the terminally-unimaginative or not-so-subtly sexist (the conscious entrenchment of sexism in made-up worlds because “it’s historically accurate!” is a topic I swear I’m getting to soon), knights will nigh-always be male. Actually, they’ll almost always be male anyway; we’ll come to that in time, don’t you doubt.

If we keep many of the historical European rituals in this fantasy context–remember, there’s no reason writers can’t change those if they want, it’s fantasy, a made-up world–knights are doing things such as eating their first bites of food from the tip of their father’s sword. This runs both on the nose and potentially quite creepy, so let’s not overthink that part. They grow up hearing certain ideas over and over and over again.

This part tends to be totally overlooked by some fantasy authors because, again, it’s very important that their story regurgitate the same “deconstructive” messages as the last 300 fantasy stories. So, forget fantasy as genre for a second. Let’s ignore the contrivances it’s come to rely on and refer to basic psychology instead. Fantasy writing still centers on humans, right? What happens when you repeat the same message to a human over, and over, and over again, no matter how insane that message might be?

They start to believe it! This is the fundamental nature of propaganda. It’s so reliable that dictatorships to this day build themselves upon it. It’s especially potent when it starts in childhood.

Let’s apply all the above to two set-in-stone examples. On the one hand, we have a conventional high fantasy protagonist: a child of no particular class or standing growing up in a remote, isolated village. Let’s call her Tamry. Tamry’s mother died when she was young because Tamry is a conventional high fantasy protagonist, leaving her stern but wise father to raise her. He spoke frankly to her about the realities of warfare, about how terrifying and pointless it is, and this reinforces Tamry’s own general good nature, which as per The Rules is her sole defining character trait.

Tamry thus believes that fighting is stupid and makes no effort to become physically stronger, faster, or hardier than she otherwise would be, nor to learn how to apply the strength, speed, and endurance she already has to combat. She also doesn’t develop a mindset useful to suppress her unhelpful emotions and function well in a combat scenario. I would like you to ask yourself whether, when choosing someone to perform a task well, you would bet on the person who did or did not train to do that task–especially if it’s high stakes, as violence tends to be.

On the reverse side, the character who in most works would be a footnote or book one, second act rival for Tamry: a lad named Janus from a knightly family of modest wealth. Janus’ father, Uroj, distinguished himself in battle and tournaments, but not to the point of rivaling their more legendary ancestors. He projects some of his own resulting sense of insufficiency onto his son, always demanding “More! Fiercer! Better!” In tandem with this, Janus is born a bit on the timid side, lacking Tamry’s innate stubbornness. He listens to what he’s told.

What Janus is told is that battle is glorious–not that it’s civilized or noble, but that it’s glorious. Uroj shows off his scars, postures and feuds with other knights. Because Uroj is not a conventional high-fantasy dad, not all the knights he calls his friends are good people, none the sort of warriors ashamed about war to the point that they won’t talk of it. No, these worthies speak frankly about battle: how unfair it can be, how gruesome, how muddy. They drive home to Janus that it’s the sheer harshness that makes it glorious for the one who masters it.

Along the way from tremulous page to uncertain squire, Janus undergoes bullying and mockery for his shyness. Is this healthy for him? No, it isn’t. But warrior culture isn’t about long-term psychological health. It’s about twisting the human psyche until it can embrace battle and perform consistently in it, or sorting out those whose minds are so ill-suited that they’ll break no matter their conditioning.

Janus starts to believe what he hears, and once his resistance starts to go, it goes swiftly indeed. His emotions shift. He becomes more callous and less frightful, and increasingly believes–truly believes–that death is preferable to humiliation. Ironically, because Janus is a softer soul than Tamry, he clings to ideas about honor and chivalry when they’re presented to help him handle the psychological stress of his reconditioning. These higher ideals give him a way to ascribe meaning to the ordeal he goes through in training.

And what an an ordeal–swimming, wrestling, training day after day with quarterstaves and weighted swords, running, riding, archery. He’s soon forgotten what it was like not to be sore, tired, and alone with feelings he fears to express lest he be mocked for them. That loneliness, too, hurts, and suppressing it makes him harsher yet–all as intended. All reshaping the timid boy into a killer.

After he becomes a squire Janus must naturally tend to his mentor’s needs as well. This is Sir Dymek, a fearsome specimen of knighthood and harsh taskmaster who Uroj chose precisely because he would push Janus to his breaking point. And he does–again, and again, and again. By the time he becomes a knight in his own right, Janus has become a somber, embittered young man. Defeat means little to him, for he’s met it hundreds of times in ways too cruel for him to have imagined as a child. Death means less, for he wouldn’t have to feel shame if he died.

At tournaments he’s faced off with the most vicious knights from a dozen nations. He’s already been blooded, and heavily so–Dymek would hardly tolerate a squire who couldn’t watch his back in battle. There’s no weapon Janus doesn’t have some skill with, no style of foe he hasn’t faced in sparring and few he hasn’t faced in a fight to the death.

Tamry is currently at the obligatory high fantasy protagonist coming-of-age ceremony, dancing with the childhood friend we all know she won’t actually marry as planned because that would be too common sense. Tamry is, after all, stubborn. At this point Tamry has some knowledge of craft skills. She’s not a weakling, doing her share of each day’s work as any commoner must, and she knows how to hunt. Her life has its hardships, but it’s been peaceful by and large.

You may now examine the previous few paragraphs and tell me with a straight face that you think Tamry can or ever will be able to defeat Janus barring divine intervention. You may be thinking, “well, she deserves to!”–why? Because she’s not as harsh as Janus? What does her likability have to do with her fighting skill? Why does she deserve to win? Janus was certainly born into privilege, but nothing about Tamry’s character centers on warfare. She has no investment in it. She’s put no real effort towards becoming a warrior as Janus has. She’s even had an easier life than him in her quiet village–in what twisted universe is she entitled to win because she hasn’t tried to earn it?

Naturally, Tamry is a conventional high fantasy protagonist, so when she meets Janus he brings in ten men-at-arms to beat her up and laughs at her even though the writer has been careful to tell us how unmemorable she is, and Janus would logically have seen countless lowborn women.

Later she trounces him at a tournament after training for just three months with a single forgotten mentor in some forest somewhere–but a different forest from her isolated hometown, so you see, it makes sense. Janus will now either cease to exist for the narrative’s purposes, return to try and assassinate or otherwise beat Tamry in underhanded fashion, or receive a half-hearted redemption as a throwaway character in the fight against the Dark Lord.

Tamry achieves a meaningless victory because her character was defined in opposition to violence from the start, and of course she’s a stubborn, conventional high fantasy protagonist, so ultimately we all agree it’s good that none of these events have any long-term effect on her psychology. She wins at a goal which never mattered to her and which she made only the slightest efforts to earn, but at least we made some readers happy while throwing all deeper storytelling out the window to get here.

All this sounds rather brainless now, doesn’t it? How the hell did we get to this point?

Let’s think back on that opening material about fantasy throwing out whole sets of concepts to enable underqualified protagonists. Now, there’s another, even grander overarching cause for this, but one of the primary concepts we’ve lost has been consequence. It’s something so inconsistently applied in fantasy writing that I never thought of A Song of Ice and Fire as subversive until others started referring to it that way. It didn’t strike me as a subversive fantasy series–just a fantasy series with a much stronger attachment to consequences.

Let’s all take a moment to think what it says about fantasy as a genre that coherent consequences are considered subversive. Nothing else in A Song of Ice and Fire is. All Martin really did in conceptual terms–which isn’t to demean his writing skill–was to apply consequences to what was otherwise a pretty typical fantasy world with a typical balance of imported ideas and original flourishes. We’re all familiar by now with how badly HBO’s TV adaptation went awry when its writers got hung up on the subversion, which was a mere side-effect of bringing deeper consequences to a genre which frequently lacks them.

Enough–let’s refocus our scrying bowl on Janus and Tamry again. I, master of all narratives, will now rewrite this flawed universe’s rules so that cause and effect work the way they’re supposed to. We’re at the Tournament of Bellflower Heights again. Tamry, wearing her stolen armor, riding in with all of three months’ training in the knightly arts from just one disgraced trainer, faces the dour Janus in the lists.

Would you all like me to skip to the part where Tamry is on the ground trying to breathe through armor which, in addition to being ill-fitting because it’s stolen, has been warped badly enough she might not get out of it without an armorer’s aid? Of course she didn’t beat Janus! He’s killed seven other knights in open battle and gods only know how many hapless men-at-arms and peasants. Tamry’s only qualification was that people love her because she’s honest and kindly (but not in a gushy way because emoshunz bad).

So, here’s my tidy one-liner: if you want to revitalize fantasy knights, I’d say let a reasonable number of knightly characters be what they were meant to be: hardened killers shaped from childhood to serve as their liege-lord’s elite. Obviously some knights will still be incompetent garbage, but let’s all consider just how heavily the scale has been weighted on that side and for how long–at this point the most subversive thing we can do is to bring back the hardasses.

So, yes, Tamry loses to Janus the first time. She loses to Janus the second. She’ll keep losing to Janus over and over again because Janus is a perfectionist who’s been learning from his failures since he could speak. Tamry’s never attempted the knightly arts before this. If she trains to the limits of human capability, analyzes Janus’ fighting style and psychology, and seeks as many sparring partners and knowledge sources as she can, then maybe, MAYBE, Tamry can catch up and beat him on his own terms.

Or she can have her thief friend knife him in the middle of the night. In the long run that might actually be healthier. To me, at least, EITHER option is more compelling than our protagonist just getting an unjustified power bump and winning a fight she’s clearly doomed to lose. Here’s the other side of it–let’s say we kept the old method, where some ill-trained lowborn person could defeat a hardened knight with minimal training. I now have to turn this around and put Tamry at risk of losing to every random person she meets if we’re being honest.

Look, I know it’s not pleasant that a character like Janus can reliably beat a character like Tamry in this new consequence-driven world. Janus, saddening past or not, isn’t the greatest guy anymore. Not in moral or likability terms, that is–but he’s just got too many advantages. That’s what knighthood is! It’s a way for warrior families who got the upper hand early in history to not only inflate their starting gains, but bake them into society and culture to further unbalance the odds. Letting Tamry bypass all that may provide a brief feel-good moment, but “underdog win make me happy!” isn’t inherently good storytelling. If it throws out all sense of worldbuilding and consequence, it instead becomes bad storytelling.

Knights, as a class of warriors and martial artists, ought to be an easy way to set the upper non-arcane power limits of your world. I say let them do that! There’s a whole body of knowledge we’ll have to rework, of course, and once we start doing that many, many tropes will start dying with alarming speed. Oh, dear, sounds like fantasy writers might actually have to dream up some new possibilities to stock our lore-shelves. What’s the other term for that? Oh, right–fantasizing! 

Here are some other facts about knights in this world when we bring back the consequences which are supposed to make the very concept of knighthood meaningful:
1. Plate armor is hardened steel just as weapons are, so it’s actually impossible to pierce without specialized weapons or extreme physical power. Unarmored warriors fighting armored knights are no longer brave, but instead are abject morons attempting to commit suicide without having the courtesy to do it in private. This will be bad for the northern barbarians–however, you needn’t worry, because the return of consequence means they have all frozen to death from exposed skin before they can be slaughtered by the knighthood.
2. Battles now require underlying logic and consequences as demonstrated by the whole Tamry-Janus mess. This will be bad for most of the main characters, who were explicitly written to be relatable rather than capable of not dying. That their lack of any training or meaningful advantages is part of said relatability will not help.
3. Martial arts now exist in countries other than the Asian rip-off ones. This is bad for the characters from the Asian rip-off countries who have been coasting up to now, as other people now know how to fight and can therefore be better at it than they are.
4. Knights as heavy cavalry, combining lances longer than any standard infantry spear, training in tournaments, warrior indoctrination from childhood, and that lovely plate-armor-that-works from point 1, are now among the most terrifying sights on any battlefield. If you are on foot, even if you have a polearm, your survival odds in open ground become pitiable. Pikemen now serve a purpose as a result.

There’s a lot more, obviously, but we’ve got a pretty good start. What does this mean for the world? Well, aside from the northern barbarians, the Archetypal Fantasy Nomads are also all dead. In their giant brainless horde invasion a few decades ago, their four-foot spears and irrational hatred of armor, combined with suicidal courage for its own sake, led them to be exterminated in three battles as they repeatedly tried to stop knightly lance charges with their stoic, hardy faces and oddly-flaccid war chants. This did not work.

Look, isolated nomad cultures are all well and good, but if you want to have a pet faction, you better have a reason for why they’re the coolest and strongest. “Arghlblarghl harsh living” doesn’t cut it–how is being malnourished as well as lacking combat experience against other cultures going to save horseless you from psycho Janus and his five hundred armored, lance-wielding friends? Did I mention every fourth knight is also a mage, because arcane talent is hereditary and the nobility have been marrying it in like crazy? Seriously, you’d have to be an idiot not to want “literal fireballs on a whim” as a combat advantage in your bloodline!

Every fourth is just a random number, don’t take it as writ. But hey, you know what this means? Enchanted armor! Enchanted weapons! Arcane genetic enhancement–every knightly family worth a damn will have at least a few of these power-ups! Is all this starting to feel a little dystopian? A little, perhaps… knightmarish? No, I won’t apologize for that. You’ll just have to deal with it. But you can feel this fantasy world’s basic nature shifting now, can’t you? We’re looking at a brutal society where those with advantage scramble to consolidate it and add further advantages, while the lower classes are pushed further and further down from the peak of power.

Oh, wait, that’s just feudalism. You know, that thing knights were an integral part of?

Yet, we’ve also built in some prospects for upward mobility (or upward nobility–okay fine I’ll stop). If our protagonist–again, if there’s magic involved it’s not Tamry, that poor girl just isn’t meant for such stories–happens to be born with mage-talent, all manner of interesting questions open up. Do they sell out and try to marry into a noble family, or stay true to their roots? Do they abandon this horribly-imbalanced class war entirely and seek one of the world’s lost corners to horde that talent for themselves? Are there knights specially tasked and equipped to seek out children with arcane potential and kidnap them to be forcibly added to noble families? Well, yes to the last for sure. It’s a cruel world we’ve built here.

There’s a further, implicit directive in all this: if you want knights to be interesting in high fantasy again, then let them walk outside the artificial concept-box the genre keeps them in. Integrate them thoughtfully with the world you’ve actually built. Rather than writing a pseudo-RPG style system where knights are always non-magic, blur that line a little. Let them explore the world more and have more knowledge of it rather than defaulting to the, frankly, stale-as-stone notion that they must be puffed-up and blind to the world because that’s how the last 20 authors handled them.

You won’t always be happy with the results this approach gives you, but I promise you you’ll appreciate them. It’s going to hurt when a faction you’re rooting for has to lose because there’s no way to explain how five thousand peasants with no real training can defeat a thousand fully-armored, mounted Imperial knights, but those consequences will be powerful. Let’s come back to Tamry. In most stories the conventional fantasy protagonist will have some mischievous friend who leads them to run out on the peasant levies before the inevitable massacre.

Let’s put that character aside; if you need to know what happened, let’s say Krindy got herself killed pulling a prank on a samurai who passed through–the knights see these foreign warriors as quite similar to themselves, and regarded the prompt beheading as the samurai’s right. They’ve used that right a few times themselves! Again, knighthood is meant to concentrate advantages on warriors–what greater legal advantage than being able to murder commoners with impunity?

So, back to the battle. If you want to establish much of what I’ve described here in more dramatic fashion than a mere tournament, that’s the way you do it. Let’s say it’s a grim fall day, with black clouds above threatening late-afternoon rain. The levies, bolstered by a few men-at-arms and a few knights of their own, march through an open forest pass. They hope to reach the rebel Grand Duke’s fortress where they’ll be trained as proper conscripts. A few hours into the pass, however, they hear distant thunder and the whinnies of warhorses.

Into ranks they rush, though they form more a panicked cluster than a proper line. They clutch pitchforks and warscythes and salvaged spears, save for the lucky few like Tamry whose parents or forebears have left them war-relics to carry. The levies know full well what’s coming. They live in this world. They’re not under the same delusions a new reader will be, coming into this tale from the happy-go-lucky ballads where a knight is a fop to be trounced with a few quarterstaff swipes–Janus has mastered the quarterstaff, remember? It’s what readied him for the poleaxe and halberd: his favorite weapons when afoot.

When the knights close off the pass’s mouth, they glint surprisingly little; besides the sun’s imprisonment behind the bleak clouds above, these butchers only keep their armor free of rust. A mirror-polish is for parade armor, and today they wear the real stuff: often blackened or lacquered against the elements, perhaps, but free of excess filigree. It’s notched and often battered, battle-scarred as the ruthless sinew animating it, merciless as the killers it encases. Man or woman or whatever else they might be at home, the knights share a single purpose this day.

They form an orderly line, for Imperial knights are not the disorganized glory-hounds we once knew on Earth–I did say to weave knights into your own worldbuilding, did I not? The Mage-Emperor’s rule is absolute, and he has no patience for warriors who cannot fight as a unit when the time comes. Thus must his knights train formations like common soldiers; they have learned not to complain. Why complain about a little discipline if that’s the price of victory?

At a horn signal, as one body, they level their lances, and as one body they take their mounts to a canter. There are no jeers nor curses, no chivalric frippery–such displays are to impress lovers at a tournament. Spite or song, both are equal wastes of energy. After all, the foe are simple commoners! Half-hearted, a man-at-arms orders those peasants with bows to use them as they will. But the thin hail they release is panicked, imprecise, and at too great a range anyway; perhaps one or two might have an arbalest, and perhaps they even manage to pierce a single knight’s plate with it.

Arrows clatter and rattle uselessly against plate, and the knights’ approach slows not at all. Again a horn signal, and here only do they give voice–a long murderous bellow warped and echoing from their helm-shrouded heads like damnation’s own call. Now the charge, horses galloping, lances aimed down at the frail bodies before them. Now ruin.

Tamry doesn’t really see the impact: there’s only a wall of human and horse and steel barreling down on her and those few other levies ready to admit that they’re about to die rather than break lines and rout. She aims the spear she stole from her father, but it’s such a small thing, and the lance reaching for her belly looks to her panicked eyes as though it’s a full-grown oak handled by a raging giant. Its point approaches , and then all is blackness. When she wakes, it’s with shredding agony in her side and carrion-stench all around–a lance-shaft broken off in her belly, and thousands of corpses left to rot where they fell.

Tamry still lives for the simple reason that the knights weren’t even sent to attack this force. In fact, they were returning from a raid into the Grand Duke’s territory. It was a strategic hiccup, she later learns, a slaughter of opportunity as two opposing forces chose the same pass to journey opposite directions. She’s never quite the same after; she’s not able to afford a healer who can undo the damage done by that lance. Her left side will always be weaker, she’s told. Tamry doesn’t care. All her friends are dead. The only thing left is vengeance. Vengeance on the Imperial knight whose armor and heraldry she remembers so vividly. Vengeance on a knight who will turn out to be young Janus.

This will obviously make the later tournament scene much more heartbreaking, and you can tell I might keep going with this for a while. As I said at the start, though, I’m not trying to make this authoritative–it’s gotten a lot longer than I intended already! The only ironclad dictum I have: if you include knights in your writing, remember that you’re under no obligation to put them there, and so they should be in the story because you want to have them. Since you want them, you owe to yourself as a writer to do everything you can to make them your own.

I like my knights terrifying and more than slightly sociopathic, but maybe you’d rather some peppy dreamers with a lot of promise and a lot to learn. And you know what? That’d be just fine too.

I’ve certainly typed enough thoughts of mine–how about yours? Is there something here you wish I’d gone into more depth on, or somewhere you disagree? Let me know below, and share your own ideas about shiny men with big lances. Otherwise, please leave a like, share this with your friends wherever you may go online, follow me on Twitter if you’d like to keep up with my day-to-day musings, and consider supporting me on Patreon!

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