the Ideal of Christian Knighthood
Collen Anne McAndrew
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KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR! ™
- Emily Snyder
The figure of the knight, remote as it seems from the cynical practicalities of modern society, nevertheless towers as one of the immortal images of the popular imagination. Whether as a political metaphor, an animated hero, a religious symbol, or merely a figure of speech, the knight perseveres, from the most commonplace reference to the least expected remark. Such popularity indicates that there is more to this figure, this knight, than various explanations of "a chivalry born...out of the need to combat the swift incursions of the Arabs in Spain" or "the hierarchy of vassalage dependency" (Cardini 77) account for - that something about this noble character enables him to transcend times and cultures and reach even the virtual-reality drugged children of the Information Age.
So who is this knight? Is he as the modern world would have him, a cliched metaphor for unexpected assistance? Or is he more truly as the medievals portrayed him - a noble figure, not a coherent individual, but at least an individual type worthy of admiration? Among his myriad appearances there are some characteristics, however easily forgotten or distorted, that remain through the ages: a knight is generally seen in relation to a king, a lady, and - most easily forgotten of all - to God (Kennedy 67). Although individual storytellers may forget or purposely ignore one of these relations, there is no doubt that the three together - king, lady, and God - are the keys to that elusive 'something' that continues to make the knight a potent image. They are all present to some degree in the historical circumstances of knighthood, but history tends not to appeal to the modern mind, and it is doubtful that the knight's continued popularity can be explained simply on the basis of history. It would seem more logical to explore his role in the realms of the ideal: in literature - which shows man as he would like to see himself - and in religion - which seeks the human ideal on the basis of the divine.
In the realm of literature, one of the earliest and most revisited sources of knightly lore is the pool of Arthurian legends. Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur in particular captures the complexity of a knightly heritage that stems from, but is not bound to, Germanic warrior-chiefs and feudal anarchy; that branches towards, but is not limited to, the elaborate game of courtly love; and that was long ago claimed by, but not fully won over to, the Christian worldview of divine lordship and the City of God. All these tensions, present and variously dominant in the long history of knighthood, are also present and also in conflict in Le Morte d'Arthur. The literary tensions, however, produce a much clearer picture of the ideal than the one that emerges dimly from the haze of historical conflict. Because of the multiplicity of Malory's sources, different incidents emphasize different aspects of the ideal: one holds up the Heroic knight, who excels in the feudal virtues of "courage, prowess and loyalty to one's lord" (Kennedy 102), while another acclaims the Worshipful knight, who has "the courtly virtues as well…which make a knight pleasing to his lady and useful to his lord in the social and political context of life at court" (Kennedy 58). Both types still contain all three relations, however, and both are contained in and surpassed by the True knight - the fighter and courtier "that loveth God and dreadeth God" above all else and acts accordingly (Malory 615).
Of these three types of knighthood, perhaps the most obvious in Le Morte d'Arthur is the Heroic, defined by martial prowess and service to the king. Le Morte d'Arthur is first and overall the story of Arthur, not a grouping of famous knights. William Caxton's preface calls it "the history of the said noble king and conqueror King Arthur, and of his knights, with the history of the Sangreal, and of the death and ending of the said Arthur" (Caxton xvi). This is not to say that the knights are extrinsic to the story - without them Arthur would be hard put to maintain his kingship - but that they find their identity and purpose in the fact that they are his knights, not freelance mercenaries or anyone else's knights. Arthur is "rightwise born king of this land" (Malory 9), by virtue of the miracle of the sword pulled from the stone and his newly-revealed lineage. Thus he is the centerpoint for peace and right order, and those who follow him gain prestige, purpose, and identity by association with him.
In the course of establishing peace and order, Arthur gathers around him the pre-eminent lords and knights of the land and forms them into the elite fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table. Thus, just as Arthur's kingship gives him a new identity in relationship to his subjects and the kingdom, he gives the lords and knights a new identity in relationship to himself. Their familial and social ties still exist, but these are subsumed into their new fellowship. Sir Kay, for example, is Arthur's adoptive brother, a relationship he might have used to gain rank for himself on Arthur's coronation. Despite relationships and past actions, however, Kay becomes a Knight like the rest, distinguished only by his appointment as seneschal to Arthur's court (Malory 11). Sir Lancelot takes a different route to the Round Table, making the logical association that as "there is the flower of chivalry (Malory 98), and he is one of the flower of chivalry, he must betake himself to Arthur's court. In other cases the assumption of a new identity is even more explicit. Sir Gareth, for example, is Arthur's nephew and the brother of several other knights. Even with such a recommendation, however, he appears at the court anonymously and serves as the kitchen boy Beaumains until he has proved himself in battle against Sir Lancelot and by pursuing a knightly quest (Malory 215). Whatever the means of getting there, though, all those admitted as Knights of the Round Table thenceforward base their identities not in themselves or even in their association with other knights, but in the association of knights whose fealty is to the king and whose titles come from him.
Likewise, Arthur's knights take their purpose from his: his purpose as king is to maintain peace and justice in the land, so their purpose as his knights is the same. As Arthur swore at his coronation to "stand with true justice," so his knights swear at the establishment of their order
"[N]ever to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succour, upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, nor for no world's goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost."
Like the king, the knights are to be models of justice in their own behavior and in their settlements of the controversies that come before them. The knights are the king's means of executing justice outside of his own court, whether it be by fighting for him against rebel lords or by engaging in individual combat on behalf of the weak or the wronged. Knights errant in particular - knights who "roam through all the four quarters of the world seeking adventures on behalf of those in distress, as is the duty of chivalry" (Cervantes 22) - are doers of the king's "rough justice" as well as seekers of personal glory. In this way the king's peace and order reach beyond his particular court throughout the entire kingdom.
This is not to say that the Arthurian knight is a completely free agent of the king, able to adventure as he chooses and call it the "King's Justice." The king has jurisdiction, whether or not he exercises it, over every quest undertaken by his knights. For a quest that begins with an appeal to his court, he has the authority to assign or deny it to particular knights. Sir Gareth's first quest, for example, begins with a damosel's request to Arthur for justice. Because she refuses to "tell her [lady's] name, nor where she dwelleth," Arthur declares that "none of my knights that here be now shall go with you by my will" (Malory 213). At this point Beaumains/Gareth interrupts, asking that Arthur "will grant me to have this adventure of the damosel, for it belongeth to me;" Arthur accordingly changes his mind and grants it to him. The damosel protests, but Beaumains is the king's designated representative and she has no grounds to refuse.
For a quest discovered by a knight in the course of his adventure-seeking, the king's jurisdiction is more indirect, but it is still present. The knight may choose on his own authority to take up the quest, but he is liable to the king for any injustice he does in the course of it. In one of the first quests of the Morte d'Arthur, for example, a damosel asks King Pellinore to help her wounded knight "for Christ's sake." Even with such a plea, "he would not tarry, he was so eager in his quest" (Malory 95); as a result the knight dies and the lady kills herself "for pure sorrow." On his return to the court Pellinore is told that "ye were greatly to blame that ye saved not this lady's life" (Malory 100): because the death resulted from his refusal of aid, he is responsible for it to the king.
In Pellinore's case Arthur can only rebuke, not redress; he can hardly bring lady or knight back to life. However, the knight-errant is generally not judge, jury and executioner in the cases he settles. After his victory and original verdict, especially if the case in question is peripheral to the quest at hand, he often delivers only a preliminary verdict and then sends the prisoners or beneficiaries of his "rough justice" to present themselves to the king. At the conclusion of Sir Gareth/Beaumains' quest, for example, Arthur's court is flooded with Sir Gareth's prisoners: "the Green Knight with fifty knights…the Red Knight his brother…and three score knights with him…the Blue Knight brother to them, with an hundred knights…and a goodly lord with six hundred knights with him…Sir Ironside" - all defeated by Beaumains and sent to "yield me to you at your will" (Malory 252). Arthur accepts them all, with the stipulation to Sir Ironside that "thou must be no more a murderer" - exactly the sentence Beaumains has already delivered - and justice is done (Malory 253). At one stroke Sir Gareth/Beaumains has won himself glory, vindicated those oppressed by renegade knights, and brought the renegades themselves into the king's service - as foretold at the beginning of his service, he is "prov[ing] a man of right great worship" (Malory 210) and a true knight.
Although service to the king is the overarching theme of the Arthurian legends, the popular imagination often first remembers the second relation - namely, that of the knight to his lady. Between the ubiquitous anonymous damsels that accompany nearly every quest and more famous figures such as Guinevere and La Beale Isoud, it is rare that a knight of Arthur's court attempts or achieves anything without the influence of a lady spurring him on. This service to ladies, and the desire to do great things for the primary purpose of pleasing them, is the mark of the latest and best known development of the knightly type: the Worshipful or Courtly knight.
The major impetus for this field of knightly development came from France, through the influence of the troubadours and such 'theorists' as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie of Champagne, after the genre of chivalric literature was already developing (Parry 15-16). It permeated different areas to different degrees: all Arthurian knights are bound by oath to be courteous to all ladies, but not all serve particular ladies, and institutions such as the Courts of Love, set up to judge errant lovers, do not appear in their fullness. Courtly love remains a strong influence, however, and its fullest developments can contribute much to an understanding of the Worshipful knight.
The French school of courtly love, based in part on Roman writers such as Ovid, made 'love' an end in itself and developed an elaborate code of conduct by which lovers were supposed to live, complete with tribunals of ladies to judge their misconduct. Andreas Cappelanus, a court chaplain much involved in the movement, laid out the following table of "the chief rules of love" in his treatise The Art of Courtly Love:
I. Thou shalt avoid avarice like the deadly pestilence and shalt embrace its opposite.
The outstanding feature in such a code of behavior is its displacement of priorities from feudal or religious obligations to involvement in love affairs and service to Cupid, the 'King of Love' (Cappellanus 80). Heroic deeds, service to a feudal lord, and nobility of character are now desirable not for their own sake, but only as they commend a knight to his lady. "Love's solaces" are now the highest goal of a knight's endeavors, and he is to "ever strive to ally [him]self to the service of love" (Parry 7). His lady "is now his feudal suzerain, and he owes allegiance to her, or to Cupid through her," instead of to God through the king. "Her status is far above his...and his addresses to the lady are full of the deepest humility" (Parry 7). It is her inspiration that enables him not only to perform his valorous deeds, but to achieve any worth at all:
"Love causes a rough and uncouth man to be distinguished for his handsomeness; it can endow a man even of the humblest birth with nobility of character; it blesses the proud with humility; and the man in love becomes accustomed to performing many services gracefully for everyone."
Arthur's knights do not generally answer to an authority such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, nor do they engage in the elaborate games of the Courts of Love. They are still influenced by the courtly mindset, however. The oath imposed by Arthur at Pentecost obliges them all "always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succour, upon pain of death" (Malory 101), and although the death sentence is not always enforced, offenses against ladies are still shameful and deserving of punishment. In such cases, too, it is usually the queen who imposes penance on the offending knight. To take one example: Gawaine, on his first quest in Le Morte d'Arthur, succeeds in its aim (bringing back the head of a white hart), but in the process denies mercy to a knight who asks it and consequently kills a lady by accident. Both Arthur and Guinevere express their displeasure at such an unknightly act, but it is the queen, in a manner reminiscent of the ladies of France, who passes judgement:
"By the ordinance of the queen there was set a quest of ladies on Sir Gawaine, and they judged him for ever while he lived to be with all ladies, and to fight for their quarrels; and that he should ever be courteous, and never refuse mercy to him that asketh mercy...[and] that he should never be against lady nor gentlewoman, but if he fought for a lady and his adversary fought for another."
Gawaine's situation is somewhat unusual in that he commits a serious offense against an unknown lady and is then judged by the queen and her ladies, with consequences concerning his behavior towards all women. But while few knights find themselves facing a full 'quest of ladies,' the quests and fortunes of the Round Table are still influenced to a considerable extent by ladies of one rank or another. The appearance of anonymous damosels at court or in the course of a knight's wanderings is a common sign of an adventure about to begin, as it is for Sir Gareth in his rescue of Dame Lionesse (Malory 213). In addition, although the knight is ultimately responsible to the Queen, because of her right as consort and as lady, each knight is also answerable to and strives his utmost for a particular lady first and foremost. At one extreme is Sir Gareth, who, after he has rescued Dame Lionesse and returned to court, declares that he loves her "above all ladies living." Since she declares that "my lord, Sir Gareth, is to me more liefer to have and wield as my husband, than any king or prince that is christened," Arthur gives his blessing and they are married (Malory 273). Sir Gawaine, on the other hand, professes at least once that "he loved a lady and by no means she would love him," but his devotion does not last long. After he wins the Lady Ettard's favors by trickery, they are discovered together by Sir Pelleas, one of her long-scorned suitors, and she at once declares that Gawaine has "deceived me and betrayed me falsely...And therewith Sir Gawaine made him ready and went into the forest" and out of her life (Malory 139). Gawaine's other involvements with ladies follow a similar pattern. The majority of Arthur's knights follow one pattern or the other, or some variation. The most prominent knight/lady relationships, however, combine Gareth's constancy of choice with Gawain's extramarital entanglements, producing high drama. Particular examples of this type - an unmarried knight who loves another man's wife - include Tristam, whose lady Isoud is married to his uncle King Mark, and of course Lancelot, the knight of Guinevere.
In theory, at least, relationships of this type are nonsexual: as Sir Percivale counsels King Mark, Tristam "may love your queen sinless, becaue she is called one of the fairest ladies of the world" (Malory 526). For these two examples in particular, the relationship between the knights and the ladies' husband adds a particular encouragement to remain chaste: the husbands, Mark and Arthur, are the knights' liege lords, so consummating the relationships would be not only adultery, but a treasonous betrayal of feudal obligations. In practice, however, they rarely remain on this admirable level. Tristam and Isoud, using Mark's threats against Tristam's life as an excuse, flee to Camelot , where Lancelot protects them. Lancelot and Guinevere have not even the provocation of a threat against them, and Malory's Lancelot, in his first narrated adventure, says he will neither marry nor "take my pleasaunce with paramours...for dread of God" (Malory 192). Even so, however, he and Guinevere commit adultery at least once that Malory specifies and probably more often. According to one theory, "Malory does not see anything 'good' in Lancelot's adultery; however, he can forgive Lancelot's failures because he imagines that they were not premeditated, that they were deeply repented, and that they were very few" (Kennedy 95). In this view 'humanizing' Lancelot is the only reason for having him commit adultery; the story itself could have been forwarded equally well by unfounded suspicion of adultery. Regardless of the interpretation put on it, however, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere highlights the dangers inherent in the courtly ideal when that ideal brings the knight into conflict with his other obligations.
In theory, the desire to win his lady's approval will make a knight behave courteously and morally, just as the desire to keep the king's favor will make him act justly and honorably. In practice, however - even literary practice - the lady's charms and the lure of the warrior life are often enough to pull him off his pedestal and away from his ideal. A third force is needed, then, to balance these two opposing pulls in the figure of the True knight. This balancing force can be found in the third branch of the knight's traditional obligations: his service to God.