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.