J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis practiced what they preached.
While most people are content to sit back while others battle for just causes. Sadly, cowardice appears to outweigh bravery in our modern age. We have, Lewis says, “having grown up among the ruins of the chivalrous tradition . . .” (“The Necessity of Chivalry”).
Lewis and Tolkien, by contrast, were genuine heroes. Peaceful academics by nature, each of them responded to their nation’s call to defend their homeland against the Huns.
In the world of the modern university—inhospitable to those who would defend the veracity of the Scriptures—each man counted the cost, and willingly bore the ridicule of skeptics and secularists.
Not only were these two Inklings paragons of courage, they engaged in their battles with a code of chivalry. Neither desired the destruction of their foes. Instead, they sought the preservation of truth, justice, peace and mercy.
Chivalry is a concept alien to the modern era. In an age when there is so little mercy and forgiveness, it seems a more and more archaic notion each day.
Yet, chivalry is not dead.
Both of these men not only modeled the virtue, they imbued their works with its spirit. The heroes of Middle Earth and Narnia are chivalrous almost to a fault. And the spiritual heirs of both fictional domains, still yearn to be chivalrous in their own lives.
So, precisely what is it? As Lewis begins his essay on the subject, he writes, “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.”
Lewis considers the “double demand it makes on human nature” through an exploration of the Middle Ages.
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.
Gentle toward the innocent and vulnerable. Relentless versus evil.
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.
We live in a violent world, and the beheading of even children suggest things are growing worse. So, more than ever, Lewis tells us, we need chivalrous people like Lancelot, who combined these conflicting qualities. We need gentle men, like Lewis and Tolkien, who are willing to lay aside their books to face the specter of war on the front lines.
Lewis forcefully describes the three divisions of humanity bereft of chivalry.
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. When this dissociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair.
Lewis wrote the essay during the Second World War. He and others among the Inklings had stood in the gap during the “war to end all wars.” Now he was observing a glimmer of hope in the witness of a successive generation doing its part.
Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon.
In the face of the contemporary ferocity of global terrorism, we see many young men and women following their example. Surely, they are a minority among the population, but we are all deeply fortunate they exist.
Our prayers should accompany those of all nationalities who are courageous enough to face the blade of modern barbarians. And our prayer should be that they are not merely brave, but also meek.
15 thoughts on “Inkling Chivalry”
Great post. To borrow from Carl Sandburg, we do need “men of steel and velvet” in our culture instead of caricatures found in misapplied and misrepresented typecasts of incompetent male figures on t.v. Thank you!
Quite true. And, thank you for adding Sandburg’s observation to the conversation.
Well said – especially today.
To be able to stand and deal with brutality and evil in defense of truth and the weak, then to be able to put down the sword and rejoin mannerly reasoned society is rare, but we must pray those that can, do so.
Sadly, it is a timely column. Of course, the post was published before we learned of the Islamic terrorists burning to death the Jordanian pilot (who shared their own faith).
I love this post, and any recasting of chivalry in its intended terms (although I’m happy to be free of the gendered implications of chivalry – poor Enide is enough to scare anyone off of chivalric love entirely).
I focus on the military expressions of chivalry and leave the romance aspects to others…
Such a sad truth, and those in the military are demeaned as unable to do anything else
A lot of people do think military folks are those who didn’t have “better options.” Those of us who have spent lots of time around volunteers who risk their lives to protect ours are quite aware of the lie…
There are so many lies, about all kinds of people everywhere. It’s like we’re swimming in lies! And they’re so hard to fight because if the lie is true about one or two people in a hundred, then the liars will have someone to point to to support the false image. …I may be a little bitter about this. God help me!
Yes, slander (false witness) is so deeply embedded in our fallenness that it even merits enumeration in the Ten Commandments.
I just reread this essay this morning!
It’s a good one, isn’t it? But that’s true of them all…
“Not only were these two Inklings paragons of courage, they engaged in their battles with a code of chivalry. Neither desired the destruction of their foes. Instead, they sought the preservation of truth, justice, peace and mercy.” I think both men would frown and shake their heads at this… maybe I am wrong, maybe my perception of them is at fault, yet I feel sure that they would both say that they fell short of their ideals. I don’t doubt that they found courage and charity in themselves that they had not previously suspected, but I also can’t believe that they didn’t sometimes find cowardice, resentment, hatred, self-pity and other less-than-chivalrous things bubbling out of them at times. In a way, that is what makes the ideal of chivalry so important. Partly because we DO fall short of it, and therefore it is something to strive for, and partly because the struggle itself, the overcoming of cowardice and hatred, is the mark of human chivalry.
I don’t think you are at risk of idealizing these men too much. I’m sure you are just making a point (and it is well-made), but I’ve known people who HAVE idealized fellow humans, and since I have seen the damage it can do, I am wary.
“He and others among the Inklings had stood in the gap during the “war to end all wars.”” This, however, I think is true. Whatever failures they may have had, they were there, they fought, lost friends and comrades, suffered, and came through tempered rather than broken. “Paragon” may be too strong a term, in my opinion, but they, and all like them, have my deepest respect.
The point about the powerful warrior and the meek, almost priestly man being one and the same, though, is well made. I just started reading Lewis’s The Discarded Image… and I may find I have more thoughts on this subject by the end of it. ^_^
Thank you for your thoughtful addition to my column. Both of these men, devout Christians as we know, would have been extremely aware of their own shortcomings. However, that’s one of the glories of God, that the Lord uses such imperfect vessels and tools as us.
” However, that’s one of the glories of God, that the Lord uses such imperfect vessels and tools as us.” Glory and mercy. :)