shiro is vld's damsel in distress and keith is his knight in shining armor
Ok so I know I joke about Keith saving Shiro like a princess, but actually, this is honestly how their dynamic is portrayed?? Keith is always shown as the first one at Shiro’s side when he’s in danger, always running to his rescue. If he has to choose between the mission and Shiro, he’ll take Shiro every time. But now, let’s talk about this idea he’s a knight for a minute. Because it’s very much a purposefully drawn comparison. In the comics, when the paladins are all likened to pieces on a chessboard, Keith is delegated to this role. The narrative literally refers to him as a knight by name.
The imagery of Keith’s bayard also serves to reinforce this. Instead of a more sci-fi weapon like a laser gun or some advanced alien tech, Keith’s weapon of choice is a classic sword. Nothing evokes the image of a knight more than a sword and shield (which the paladin suit has). Keith’s belief system also feeds into this archetype. Time and again, he’s singled out as the most dedicated to the mission. He is a paladin first and foremost. When Pidge wants to leave to find her family, Keith is the one who lashes out and lectures her about how they need to defend the universe and make sacrifices for the greater good. When Allura is captured, Keith again notes that their duty as paladins must come first. Keith leaves the castle when he believes his presence will do more harm than good. And the paladin guidebook even lists his most important value as honor–a clear reference to knightly chivalry.
Keith’s initial role in Voltron is also a clear indicator of his character. If the head of Voltron is a leader whose men will follow without question, if they’re like a “King,” then as Voltron’s “right-hand man” Keith is a loyal knight. And just like any good knight, Keith will call out rulers for failing to serve the people and treating their subjects unjustly. The way Keith reacts so strongly to Lubos is a good example of this. Again, nobility and honor are distinctly important to him.
Another trope with a knight and damsel you often see in fantasy is that, like a typical knight, the protagonist highly values chivalry and champions a noble cause. But ultimately, that means learning to sacrifice their own selfish desires for the sake of the greater good. So their love interest is often seen as a distraction from the hero’s quest. They can’t afford to indulge in their feelings because the mission must come first. And often times, this culminates in a decision where the knight must choose to sacrifice the person they care about most–a representation of their own desires–because their duty demands it.
And in his trial, who is it that’s sent to tempt the hero and divert him from his quest, who is it that Keith longs for most, the person he “desperately wants to see”? Who is the one person that Keith can afford to be selfish for, the one who he’ll throw away everything–including his obligations as a paladin–just to be with?
And we know that this is an archetype VLD is very much aware of and acknowledges in their narrative. After all, heroes who fail to give up their own wants and needs, chasing after their love and abandoning their duty–they’re often cast down, vilified, characterized as foolish and selfish and bringing about disaster for their arrogance. And Zarkon is the literal embodiment of this character. He’s a glimpse at what Keith’s future could look like if he continues down the same path and chooses Shiro over the universe. Just like how Zarkon chose his love over everything else.
So when I mention all the sheith and zaggar parallels, I really do believe it’s wholly intentional. Especially given all the foreshadow that Keith will eventually reach the same crossroads where he’ll have to decide whether or not to sacrifice Shiro for the sake of the universe. But being that Keith doesn’t believe in things being so “black and white” and also the trope that a successor will surpass their predecessor, I believe Keith will figure out an alternative answer that will allow for both Shiro and the the others he defends to stay safe.
Now, as for Shiro’s role as a “princess,” the notion is pretty interesting. Obviously, it’s a clear subversion of gender. But there’s never any shame or weakness to it. Quite the contrary, actually. Shiro is established as the strongest and most formidable member of Team Voltron. He’s their brave leader, their fearless protector, their unshakable rock. But he is so often idolized, seen as impossibly perfect and infallible, and this inevitably takes its toll. The fact that he allows himself to be vulnerable with Keith, to let Keith help him and take care of him, is never shown as a point of pathetic inability or weakness.
Rather, Voltron portrays it as okay to admit that you aren’t strong enough, that you’re not okay, that asking for help is perfectly alright and there’s nothing wrong with admitting you can’t shoulder the weight of the world on your own. Shiro asking Keith to come save him is important because he never asks the others for help. He puts up a facade and tries to keep everything together in front of them. And when Keith says things like Shiro really changed his life, you can infer that, before this, Shiro was probably always the one taking care of him. So Keith always being the first to defend Shiro in turn reads as You were always the one protecting me, now let me stand by your side and protect you.
This concept of sheith’s dynamic resembling a knight and princess is also established immediately. Their very first scene together is Keith saving Shiro, and it really feels like knight rescuing their lost love. Right away you associate these two characters with one another, see just how intimately familiar they are with each other. Keith fights fiercely on Shiro’s behalf but softens up when he looks at him, leans it closer and tenderly reaches out to him. And I’ve talked about this a lot before, but the way Keith mourns Shiro is distinctly reminescent of someone grieving a lover.
The way he’s inconsollible and claims to be the only one who really cares about Shiro, the way he searches relentlessly and needs to be told time and again that it’s time to move on, the way his voice breaks when Black accepts him and he pleads, “Please, no.” Keith really loves Shiro. And his devotion to him, including leading Voltron in honor of his last wish as well as vowing to never give up on him, Keith’s desperation to be with him, this notion that he’d be all alone without him--yes, he loves Shiro. But it’s a love that’s passionate and intense and possessive and desperate in a way that platonic or familial love just isn’t.
I think Kuron’s rescue and recovery in season 3 is also very remenescent of this whole damsel in distress theme. For one thing, Keith is established as Shiro’s sole rescuer, and the “reunion” scene is an intimate moment between just the two of them. Kuron’s hero is here to save him, and they can both finally be at ease. The start of the next episode is very interesting because it just seems like business as usual. The paladins are all off on a mission, but Kuron is nowhere to be seen. He’s taken out of the action. Instead, this is the first time we get to see Allura use her bayard. And she makes for a fearsome opponent. It’s a distinct reversal of how you’d usually see a knight go off on their quest while the princess waits back at the castle for their safe return. Here, Kuron takes on that position. And the way we see Keith dutifully caring for him at his bedside afterwards reinforces this idea. And it’s okay for Kuron to rest and take as much times as he needs. It’s okay because Keith will still lead in the meantime and he’ll always be there to check in on Kuron and help him through his recovery.
Of course, there’s more than one way to save someone, and I think it’s important to make that distinction with Shiro and Keith’s relationship. Because it’s not Keith carrying all of Shiro’s weight for him and taking care of everything. It’s about Keith really supporting Shiro and reaffirming that he is a good and worthy paladin–“You mean, your bayard.” It’s the way that Shiro has already given himself up for dead but Keith looks him in the eye and tells him that he’ll be alright, that he can make it. It’s the fact that Shiro struggles with his trauma and still believes that he’s a monster, that he’s undeserving of the title “paladin” and that there’s no way he can stand against the empire and survive. Keith asserts time and again that Shiro is their leader, that Shiro is strong and kind and loving, that Shiro isn’t broken, that he deserves to live. It’s that Keith gives him hope, and Shiro is able to stand by his side and push forward because of it.
Ultimately, I think the best way to describe this dynamic is by just quoting what Josh said at wondercon about his favorite scene: “Shiro is in really bad shape and he’s waiting to pretty much get rescued by Keith. I love this clip because you really see the weak side of Shiro, you really see Keith’s determination to find him. And it was just really exciting for me to watch it. Because it really looks dire, and it really looks like he’s not gonna make it in time. And then–a hero comes through and saves the day with the lion.” Keith is really Shiro’s hero. And just like he’s promised, he’ll always be there to save Shiro–as many times as it takes.