Has it ever occurred to you that the poetic age of chivalry, so often counted as a part of the romantic past, is at odds with the philosophy of romanticism, with “happily ever after”? Let me quote,
"This woman is almost always unattainable by virtue of her social status or physical distance, and by her fear of social censure; it was, paradoxically, her vary distance that lent value to the lover’s patient suffering. The lady’s worth could be increased by dispensing merce (some token of her affection) to a worthy and deserving suitor, yet the Lady who submitted too soon would be condemned."
from Order of the Grail
and from Everyday Mommy:
"When a knight found a maiden who caught his eye it was customary for him to ask if he might be her champion. Today, a champion is someone who bats over .400 or wins a wrestling match. But, in that time to champion was to fight for or defend a person or cause. If the lady accepted him as her champion she would present him with a token, such as a handkerchief. She may have chosen to drop the handkerchief, hoping the knight would retrieve it. If he did, he became her champion and he kept the token inside his armor.
"In that age of villains and ruffians, a maiden would derive protection from having a champion. The mere mention of his name, such as Sir William of Pembroke, would afford her a measure of safety. Anyone with any sense knew better than to harm a knight’s lady, because he would pursue them to defend her honor."
The old code of chivalry used to baffle me. I appreciated the gentlemanly way knights behaved to ladies, that the champions fought battles and rescued princesses. But I was born romantic, I think, and have never liked a story without a happy ending. The tale of knights told by the history of chivalry said that often a man would choose a lady to whom to dedicate his victories, faithful to her, defending her purity. And when he had won many battles, he had very little hope of receiving the lady as his wife in return. She may even marry another, one of her class if she were a noblewoman. A princess delivered from harm would grace her hero with cheers and her favor, but not with her love. Something honorable was seen in this sacrificial chastity. I could not see it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End came out this summer. Spoiler warning if you care: In the first Pirates of the Caribbean, we found that Will loved Elizabeth so much that he would die for her. The second movie opened with a wedding that never took place, both parties being arrested. Throughout this movie, the young couple had their issues, particularly involving communication and honesty, two things for which they had a bad reputation. In the last movie, At World’s End, Elizabeth proves she can fight and take charge like a boy, and Will realizes a conflict between his loyalty to his father and his lust for Elizabeth. For now we see that he’s not particularly interested in being there for Elizabeth, at her side, so much as he would like to kiss her and not watch her kissing anyone else. Yes, Elizabeth is a horrible example of a lady. When the movie finished, I was caught breathless by the poignant cost of their love. Will gave up his heart, sailing ten years without touching land, for the privilege of spending one day each decade with his wife. It makes a touching tale.
But it makes a pathetic marriage. “For better or for worse” carries more than a few days’ commitment. Marriage is about becoming one, joining lives. However, based on Elizabeth and Will’s relationship to the point of their wedding, they weren’t cut out for a marriage. Letting Will rescue her, and then moving on with life, maturing into a woman interested in a life built around another person, might have been better than the one day per decade marriage.
This conclusion from a negative example (what could happen if my romantic ideals had been gratified in the days of chivalry) helped me to finally embrace that non-romantic code. My friends agree: to be surrounded by good, courteous, self-sacrificing young men is pleasant and edifying. Obviously we are not going to marry every man who holds the door open, or who defends our lives in international wars. Such services are honorable, and we all benefit from and respect the men willing to do them.
Aragorn was such a knight. He had pledged his love long ago to a woman basically unconcerned in the military campaigns he led. Eowyn noticed his nobility when he arrived at Meduseld, spoke to her kindly and intelligently, and was respectful to her beloved uncle. Perhaps she was a romantic like me, assuming that happily ever after meant the knight who rides in on his white horse to rescue her automatically would fall in love with and marry her, or at least, in dark times, let her die with him. The kingly, weathered Aragorn had more wisdom and patient faithfulness than to surrender to romantic ideology. He refused Eowyn’s shadow-love in one of the tenderest scenes in the trilogy. In the end, each player in this saga found their place, and met it with fire-tested maturity. Aragorn became the people-serving king with his long-beloved Arwen at his side. Eowyn discovered love, hope, gentleness, healing and humility in her friendship with Faramir. Faramir himself took up his role as steward, a prince tending a garden-land and inspiring a weary people by his example. He was the husband who could be at Eowyn’s side for life.
In him Eowyn was choosing the ideal of her maturity. I love Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen for presenting everyone as human, and especially for vividly portraying this contrast in heroes alongside the transition in her heroine, Marianne. In the end Colonel Brandon was her choice, having belayed her attraction to every other childish crush, however honorable he was, like the prince described in the Three Weavers. Neither gratitude nor pity nor obligation are good reasons for marriage anymore than infatuation. Yet each of these has its good place in the world. So also chivalry has its place, and however the romantics may rail, the sensible woman will cherish the old code.
To God be all glory.
Disclaimer: I'm still a romantic. In no way am I saying that marriage should be shunned for the chivalric order. The point here is that marriage is so sacred that it should be entered only if the knight and lady are that and more.