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Chivalry- R.I.P

We live in an age where the brutality and the vigilante justice of the knight errant is no longer acceptable for people with positions of stature in society. While courage and honor are still praised by society, one rarely finds a man true to his word regardless of cost. Chivalry towards ladies is sometimes mistakenly decried by those supporting equality for women. And Courtly love, in it’s modern form, is frowned upon. Those who might have a keen sense of justice often have only indirect methods of fighting for the right — legislation just can never be as satisfying as clouting a knave over the head with the flat of a blade. It seems that justice in American society is often tempered by compromise, rather than a blacksmith. Skill at arms is more often attained as an exercise, rather than a useful tool, and strength of body, while glamorized, is degraded by large numbers of “men of the mind.”

Chivalry is a lot like ethics; it is a governing principle concerning fair play as far as medieval combat among your peers was concerned. Do not attack an unarmed knight – allow him to arm himself first, if you unhorse your opponent and your opponent is still able to fight, get off your horse to fight, etc. – fair play with honor and respect. At the end, there still was a winner, and the winner ended up with more respect and admiration from those concerned that had he fought without chivalry. What am I getting at? Capitalism can be much the same way. American businesses have taken advantage of this system though, a system that one can cheat in and get away with, instead of being honorable and respectable institutions that children could look up to. So many things are like this that I just shake my head and sigh when I think about them – is American just a scam? Where did all the honor and respect go?

In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Gawain made a promise to the huntsman  to give him whatever gifts he received that day in exchange for whatever gifts the huntsman received that day.  On the third and final day of Sir Gawain’s visit, he received a green girdle from the huntsman’s wife, who was his secret lover.  The only reason that he accepted it was because he, like Lancelot, had fear in his heart;  only Gawain’s fear was dying.  The huntsman’s wife told Gawain that the girdle had magic powers and would protect him from his fate, for the next day Gawain was going to fulfill a promise that he had made to the Green Knight and get his head chopped off.  At the end of the day, when Gawain met the huntsman to exchange gifts, he did not give the huntsman the girdle, and broke his promise so that he would fulfill his promise to the Green Knight.  He, like Lancelot, betrayed the code of chivalry for their own purposes.

The most prominent example of Arthur’s “great” honor is depicted in the story “Day of Destiny.”  In the story King Arthur and his knights have one the arduous battle against his half son Mordred’s army.  The only one’s left standing on the field is King Arthur and two of his knights Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere.  Lucan says to Arthur “sir, let him be,”… “for he brings misfortune.  And if ye pass this unfortunate day ye shall be right well revenged.  And, good lord, remember ye of your night’s dream and what the spirit of Sir Gawain told you last night, and God of His great goodness hath preserved you hitherto.  And for God’s sake, my lord, leave this battle field, for yet be here three alive, and with Sir Mordred is not one alive.  And therefore if ye leave now, this wicked day of destiny is past!” Arthur’s response to Sir Lucan’s speech is “Now come death, come life,”.  What this proves is that Arthur shows his honesty and loyalty to his promise;  the purpose of the killing was to kill Sir Mordred and that exactly is what transpired in the end.

In the movie “Excalibur” that we had viewed in class, Lancelot attempts to be honest by refusing the love and attention of Guenevere.  Nevertheless he becomes enchanted by the beauty and charm of the lady and he falls for her.  Although obviously disobeying the Knights code of honor he continues his affair with Guinevere.  Although people always endeavour to be as honest and just, a honourable knight cannot afford to deceive anyone, because consequences could have an adverse affect on them later.

Honor is not a virtue. It is the essential quality that accrues to a man when other people view them as being virtuous-i.e. they honor them. The drive for honor earns a knight or man-at-arms renown, his fame, his good name. It is always a very strong motivator for some soldiers. Honor in a personal sense is often confused with such ‘public’ honor, but I say rather that this is not honor but integrity.

Chivalry is a romantic ethic, doomed to failure; Arthur fails because he had too much pride in himself although his heart was in the right place his mind never was. But I come away from good events with a heart full of courtesy and generosity, with a strengthened sense of my own honor, and with a little more courage and persistence in the face of a less than ideal world. That is the reason that during the Middle Ages warriors and rulers at their leisure turned to dreams. That is the reason we today are drawn to these virtues of chivalry. We may never live out a romantic ethic, but it is a food as nourishing as any at the table, and a wealth as dear as any coin of the time…

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