C.S. Lewis on Chivalry

Name and Place for Tuesday, December 9 (’14)


This is taken from a lesser known and short essay by C.S. Lewis called “The Necessity of Chivalry” in a collection called Present Concerns.

The word chivalKnight-concept-artry 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 the 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 in the rest.”

The important thing about this ideal is, of course, the double demand it makes on human nature. The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth. When Launcelot heard himself pronounced the best knight in the world, “he wept as he had been a child that had been beaten”.

What, you may ask, is the relevance of this ideal to the modern world? It is terribly relevant. It may or may not be practicable—the Middle Ages notoriously failed to obey it—but it is certainly practical; practical as the fact that men in a desert must find water or die.

Let us be quite clear that the ideal is a paradox. Most of us, having grown up among the ruins of the chivalrous tradition, were taught in our youth that a bully is always a coward. Our first week at school refuted this lie, along with its corollary that a truly brave man is always gentle. It is a pernicious lie because it misses the real novelty and originality of the medieval demand upon human nature. Worse still, it represents as a natural fact something which is really a human ideal, nowhere fully attained, and nowhere attained at all without arduous discipline. It is refuted by history and Experience. Homer’s Achilles knows nothing of the demand that the brave should also be the modest and the merciful. He kills men as they cry for quarter or takes them prisoner to kill them at leisure. The heroes of the Sagas know nothing of it; they are as “stern to inflict” as they are “stubborn to endure”. Attila “had a custom of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired”. Even the Romans, when gallant enemies fell into their hands, led them through the streets for a show, and cut their throats in cellars when the show was over…

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The medieval ideal brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate towards one another. It brought them together for that very reason. It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually needed that lesson. It demanded valour of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was as likely as not to be a milksop.

In so doing, 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 any 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…

..In short, there is still life in the tradition which the Middle Ages inaugurated. But the maintenance of that life depends, in part, on knowing that the knightly character is art, not nature—something that needs to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen.

Lewis, C. S. (1987-03-25), Present Concerns from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

 

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