They say that chivalry is dead, that the medieval ideal of the humble knight is laid low in the dust. They were saying the same in C.S. Lewis’s day. And Lewis, rather than lamenting the loss of chivalry, sought to do something about it.
Lewis loved chivalry, at one point even referring to it as “the one hope of the world.” Lewis deeply appreciated the double demand that the chivalric ideal 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. (“The Necessity of Chivalry” in Present Concerns, 13)
Ferocious Wolves and Meek Lambs
This combination of ferocity and meekness, restricted to the appropriate occasions and situations, is necessary because humanity is otherwise prone to fall into two main groups: bloodthirsty wolves and cowardly lambs. History, according to Lewis, is a cyclical progression in which cruel barbarians rape, pillage, and destroy a civilization, only to settle in to become soft and decadent, unable to resist the onslaught of the next barbarian hordes. Chivalry, with its dual demand on men, sought to break this cycle by creating lion-like lambs and lamb-like lions.
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. (14)
This ideal, covering as it does a whole host of human existence and social situations — from the savage clash of swords in battle to the minutiae of manners when meeting a woman for the first time — is not something that just happens. It is “art not nature,” which means it must be taught, encouraged, and cultivated.
Chivalry in Battle — And at Home
Lewis sets out to do this sort of instruction in Prince Caspian, especially in the character of the High King Peter. Peter shows great courage and wisdom in his willingness to fight the battle-hardened Miraz in single combat. Simply by challenging Miraz to single combat, he hopes to create some time so that he can “inspect the army and strengthen the position.” Even if Miraz rejected the challenge, the delay might afford Aslan the opportunity to do something. In the battle, he demonstrates his prowess as a fighter in wisely using his youth and stamina to his advantage. And he fights with honor, allowing Miraz the opportunity to regain his footing when he slips.
At the same time, he’s a master of tact and humility — ably navigating relational conflict with his siblings and making sure that Caspian knows that he’s not there to take Caspian’s place, but to put him in it. He shows an intentional concern for the dignity of others, as well as appropriate generosity and magnanimity. He acknowledges the badger’s faithfulness by kissing him on the head when he first meets him. He honors the Bear’s ancient right to serve as a Marshal of the List, even if the Bear has the potential to bring shame on the army by sucking his paws. He seeks to cheer up the Giant Wimbleweather after his blunders in battle by sending him as an escort with his challenge to Miraz. He skillfully handles Reepicheep’s request to serve as a Marshal, denying the Mouse’s desire while maintaining his dignity. He even commands that Nikabrik be buried according to Dwarfish custom, despite his evil and treachery.
The Perfect Knight
It is this deliberate concern with courtesy, honor, and the dignity of others that is so necessary for us if we are to live like true Narnians in our homes, in our churches, and in the world. Our Lord requires that husbands show honor to their wives as the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7), and that wives respect and honor their husbands as their head (Ephesians 5:33). Children likewise must honor their parents (Exodus 20:12), and parents must imitate God in remembering the frame of their children (Psalm 103:14) and not provoking or discouraging them (Colossians 3:21). All Christians are called to sacrificially serve one another rather than lording our authority or rights over each other like the unbelievers do (Matthew 20:25–28). Elders in particular are singled out as those who must not be domineering over those in their charge, but instead be, like the High King Peter, an example to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).
How can we come to live in this way? The same way that Edmund came to wear this sort of glory in Prince Caspian.
For Aslan had breathed on him at their meeting and a kind of greatness hung about him. (Ch. 13)
The breath of Aslan makes Edmund great with Aslan’s greatness. So too the breath of Jesus. For he is our ultimate model of chivalry — protecting the accused from the stones of hypocrites, washing the filthy feet of Galilean fishermen, and driving the wicked from his Father’s house with holy zeal. From serving others and giving his life as a ransom for many to returning in wrath to repay with affliction those who have assaulted his people, he is the true embodiment of chivalry, the perfect Knight above all knights. It is he that truly combines in himself the paradox of ferocity and meekness. He is the Conquering Lion of Judah and the Humble Lamb that was Slain. Lewis was right — Chivalry is the one hope of the world.
Joe Rigney writes more fully about chivalry in chapter 5 of his newly released Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles. Joe is speaking on the theme of Narnian discipleship at this weekend’s Desiring God National Conference.
Many fear chivalry is long since gone and buried in our culture. But, C.S. Lewis believed it is both “practical and vital” and perhaps even obtainable in our modern age.
Lewis starts his argument by explaining what chivalry meant in the middle ages. He gives the example of Lancelot from Malory’s “The Death of King Arthur.” Chivalry makes a “double demand on human nature,” as the chivalrous Lancelot was fierce in battle yet meek in society. In a way, it is a paradox.
This is necessary to understand about chivalry: It is fierce to the nth degree and meek to the nth degree. It is not a compromise between the two.
Ever concerned with practicality, Lewis then goes on to point out the relevance this definition of chivalry has to the modern world. He proceeds to give us examples of “heroism by nature” we see in our modern world: The war hero who would have been deemed unfit for any other place than prison in peace time or the football player who is brilliant on the field and a bully in the school halls. These examples are heroism outside the chivalrous tradition.
Chivalry of old, however, brought the seemingly opposites of meekness and sternness together. It did this out of necessity. “It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior, because everyone knew by experience how much he needed that lesson. It demanded valor of the urbane and modest man, because everyone knew he was as likely as not to be a milksop.”
When we cannot personify both meekness and sternness, we become societies that excel at one extreme or the other. When these two extreme tendencies try to dwell together, it “weaves the world’s [burial] shroud.”
However, Lewis finds hope in the conduct of WWII soldiers (which he was witnessing while writing this essay). Despite 20 years of peace in Europe after WWI, the younger generation hadn’t succumbed to a meekness-only character, but had, in fact, been able to personify both meekness and sternness in wartime—perhaps even better than their WWI predecessors had.
Here is the crux of Lewis’ message to us today, in our modern world: The maintenance of the chivalry tradition “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.”
In conclusion, it is up to us, as members of modern, classless societies, to learn this traditional art of chivalry. The following video puts Lewis’ thoughts on sketch paper in a truly thoughtful way.
Megan Briggs is a writer and editor for ChurchLeaders.com. Her experience in ministry, an extensive amount of which was garnered overseas, gives her a unique perspective on the global church. She has the longsuffering and altruistic nature of foreign friends and missionaries to humbly thank for this experience. Megan is passionate about seeking and proclaiming the truth. When she’s not writing, Megan likes to explore God’s magnificent creation.