Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit very kindly linked* to my recent post Call me unchivalrous:
THE RISE OF THE UNCHIVALROUS CHRISTIAN. “From the very beginning chivalry’s teaching on men and women was a parody of Christianity.”
Glenn’s interest in the subject would be well known to his readers. His wife Dr. Helen wrote a book titled Men on Strike a few years back, and it is a common theme for him. Moreover, the single sentence he quoted would remove any doubt.
From the very beginning chivalry’s teaching on men and women was a parody of Christianity.
However, the discussion is predictably filled with readers who are sure Glenn and I are talking about chivalry on the battlefield, and therefore have the whole thing terribly confused. It is very much like any discussion during the cold war regarding the nature of communism. Criticize communism and you would be in for a lengthy dissertation regarding the Soviet Union and China having nothing to do with communism. It was an effective tactic in the short term, but history was not on their side. The same will prove true for what laymen most commonly call chivalry, and what literature professors call courtly love. For the reality of the foolishness of courtly love becomes more obvious with each passing day. White knight is now a pejorative even white knights recoil from, and it will only get worse. Yet in a moment of desperation a white knight might offer in their defense:
Yes, modern white knights are creepy pedestalizers, but the original white knight was Lancelot, a most brave and noble man!
Indeed Lancelot was brave. And indeed he is the archetype for the white knight, as this was the moniker Lancelot went by before he learned his real name. But Lancelot was not noble when it came to women. He creepily obsessed over another man’s wife (Guinevere), and when he famously fought for her honor after she was accused of adultery it was with full knowledge that she was guilty as charged. Look up pathetic white knight and you will find a picture of Lancelot.
Moreover, when people say what we need is more chivalry, 99% of the time they are not talking about fighting duels, holding prisoners for ransom, or going on armed adventures. What they mean is men need to become like Lancelot. Indeed C.S. Lewis made this very point in his essay The Necessity of Chivalry.
The word Chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things—from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train. But if we want to understand chivalry as an ideal distinct from other ideals—if we want to isolate that particular conception of the man comme il faut which was the special contribution of the Middle Ages to our culture—we cannot do better than turn to the words addressed to the greatest of all imaginary knights in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. Thou wert the meekest man, says Sir Ector to the dead Launcelot. Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear at rest 1.
Lewis understood that not many men could become like Lancelot, but still, Lancelot is the ideal he was arguing for when he called for a return to chivalry:
…the Middle Ages fixed on the one hope of the world. It may or may not be possible to produce by the thousand men who combine the two sides of Launcelot’s character. But if it is not possible, then all talk of lasting happiness or dignity in human society is pure moonshine.
If we cannot produce Launcelots, humanity falls into two sections—those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be “meek in hall,” and those who are “meek in hall” but useless in battle—for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not here be discussed.
Lewis concludes the essay with (emphasis mine):
I have tried to show that this old tradition is practical and vital. The ideal embodied in Launcelot is “escapism” in a sense never dreamed of by those who use that word; it offers the only possible escape form a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable. There was, to be sure, a rumour in the last century that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural process; but that seems to have been an exaggeration.
*For a more sympathetic response to Glenn linking to my post see this post by blogger Bill Quick.