There are several paladin traditions on Azeroth. Two are directly interrelated, stemming from the same basic source and coming together in a modern form. Another was originally a mockery of those traditions, now worked into a reflection that suits those who use it. Yet another was brought to the world with the Exodar, a tradition that goes back thousands upon thousands of years. The final one is newborn, a philosophy born of recent meditations on the horrors of war and the need for balance against the darkness.
What these all have in common is that the men and women who follow these disparate traditions, be they dwarf or blood elf, human or draenei or tauren, are all paladins. Call them Sunwalkers or Blood Knights, Vindicators or simply their names, they are those who can wield the Light in battle. Armed with both weapons and their own faith, they stand against the shadow. Turalyon, Uther, Gavinrad, Lady Liadrin, Aponi Brightmane, Vindicator Maraad and more have been the standard bearers for those with the will to bring Light to the world.
Call them by a dozen names. They are paladins.
Eldest Children of the Light
The oldest extant paladin tradition is that of the Vindicators. Born out of the draenei exile from Argus following the rise of the corrupted eredar, the Vindicators are warriors of the Light. Hardened from thousands of years of warfare with their former people, now servants to Sargeras and his Burning Legion, the Vindicator tradition is one of resolve and unceasing preparedness. While they are as capable of kindness and charity as any paladin, do not mistake the Vindicators for the meek. A Vindicator can and will brutally kill her or his opponents with raw force or the Holy Light and thinks nothing of taking the first strike if it seems necessary.
The Vindicators are the paladin as war leaders and defenders of their people. While they retain the typical paladin's ability to heal the wounded and sick, they have been focused by their constant flight from the vast numbers of the Legion and their constant struggle against an enemy who not only outnumbers them but understands them (thanks to the Legion's two great commanders, Archimonde and Kil'Jaeden, both Eredar) all too well. It's fair to say that no race can boast a history of continuous warfare against such long odds, and the fact that there are any draenei at all still alive is due in now small part to the Vindicators.
Take my hand
The next longest-lived tradition of paladins is that of humanity, but it is of much more recent vintage. The tradition of paladins among humanity is inspired by tales handed down to the ancient, pre-Arathor humans by their vrykul forerunners of a figure named Tyr. Tyr was, to these ancient humans, a half-remembered figure of incomprehensible power and nobility who did battle with an even more unfathomable evil and lost his hand to it. Rather than allowing himself to be healed once the evil was driven back, the stories told them, Tyr replaced his hand with a closed silver fist to remind him of the cost of his victory. To the humans, cold and alone, stranded in a strange land, Tyr's example of personal sacrifice and loss was inspirational, a beacon to draw hope and a means to keep themelves moving forward in a hostile land. What mattered it that everywhere was hostile land and beings that they knew nothing of, when they could look to Tyr's example and stay strong in the face of terrible adversity?
Tyr became something less than a god but more than a man to these ancient humans. His example endured through the Arathi alliance with the high elves of Quel'Thalas during the Troll Wars. So powerful was it in human cultures on Azeroth that when, following the First War, the first human paladins were officially trained to wield the Holy Light in war, they took the name The Order of the Silver Hand in honor of Tyr. The first paladins of the Order were Turalyon, Gavinrad the Dire, Saiden Dathrothan, Tirion Fordring and Uther, the first five among many to follow.
Later, the dwarves of Khaz Modan (long allies to the humans) found something compelling in the tales of Tyr and his sacrifice, and so they too joined the order as paladins. Ironically, we today know that Tyr was one of the Watchers of Ulduar and as such was a powerful servant of the Titans, just as the ancestors of the dwarves (and the humans, for that matter) were. So it's perhaps not surprising that the dwarves (descended of earthen) should find something worthwhile in the tales of Tyr told by humans (descended of vrykul).
Following the treacherous actions of Arthas Menethil, the death of Uther, the fall of Lordaeron and the creation of the Scarlet Crusade, Argent Dawn and finally Argent Crusade the Order of the Silver Hand no longer exists, but some of those paladins who were trained by it still exist, and they train new paladins. Whether these paladins constitute an order as such is up to debate, but many of them consider themselves Knights of the Silver Hand.
Even blood is bright in the sun
Another even more recent order of paladins is that of the Blood Knights, created by Lady Liadrin and Grand Magister Rommath. Using the Light as channeled through the naaru M'uru, Rommath and Liadrin seemingly found a way to control the Light as a mage controls the arcane. They set out to create an order of protectors for Silvermoon that would not be beholden to any so-called higher power. Many were embittered over the destruction of the Sunwell by the Scourge during the Third War and the seeming failure of the Light itself to stop Arthas, a former paladin himself. Seeing the Light as weak and impotent, Liadrin (and many others who would join the Blood Knights) sought to wield its power without paying attention to the ethos they had formerly embraced. These former members of the Church of the Holy Light found that if you stare too long into brilliance, it can illuminate the darkness inside you.
Slowly, as the blood elves discovered that their Prince Kael'Thas had allied with Kil'Jaeden and the Burning Legion and was willing to even send fel-tainted elves against his own people, the Blood Knights transformed from an angry joke told at the expense of the Light into those who felt the warmth of the Sun returning to their people. The Sunwell's reignition as the final sacrifice of M'uru, given to them by the draenei Velen that they had themselves scorned, heralded a new age for the Blood Knights. No longer did they pretend to master the Light but instead again accepted it as a presence in their lives.
Between the shadow and the act burns the sun
It is strange, then, that as the Blood Knights now draw the Light from their reignited and cleansed Sunwell, yet the newest paladins at all are the Sunwalkers of the Shu'halo. Tauren warriors and priests who came to understand that their people's druids were drawing their wisdom from the moon-obsessed night elves of the Cenarion Circle. Two relatively young members of the tauren people, Aponi Brightmane and Tahu Sagewind, managed in discussions by the fire (while Aponi was recovering from wounds earned in fighting the Lich King's Scourge) to do what their elders had failed to for countless generations. They found the balancing force that is the Light, manifest in the Sun itself, An'she. Aponi became the first Sunwalker, at home with weapons of war and the Light of An'she, just as the Blood Knights call upon the Sun through the Sunwell.
Today, all four of these traditions exist at once, and paladins of all stripes work together in groups such as the Argent Crusade. This means that they all have contact with different understandings of the Light and what it means to be a paladin.
Next week, famous and infamous paladins of Azeroth will be discussed, and the nature of these warriors of Light will be expounded upon.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.