Friday, September 28, 2007

Reconciling Chivalry and Romanticism


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.


Laura H. said...

I am a romantic as well. I love it when the hero gets the heroine in the end. I didn't like the third Pirates. It was not a fulfilling end. Although at the very end of the credits, you see a small snapshot. It is a shot of Will coming back after 10 years of sailing, and find that he has a son. I would hate to have my husband gone that long too! I didn't like Becoming Jane, because of the same thing. She let him go, because of his financial situation!
I love Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, my three most favorite Jane Austen movies. I do like Persuation. In a way, I feel just like Anne Elliot!
I love Jane Austen, can't you tell?
Have a good day in the Lord, and may we find our Mr. Darcys and Mr. Knightleys,someday!

Laura H

åslaug said...

Wow, I'm at the moment speechless after this...well, very convincing writing. I was taken by surprise and I'm impressed. =) You must be an extraordinary woman, whatever knight (or peasant) who get hold of your hand must be a lucky man =)
God bless.

I'll definitely come back to read more later, maybe even today. (I'm still not sure whether I agree in your statements or not, but I like the topic and fancy a good speech). Merry Christmas!


Lisa of Longbourn said...

A week and a half ago a good friend of mine saw two independent films that have been out this fall. The first was Bella (and just to warn you now - I am doing spoilers here), and the second was Noel.

Both involve single young women who find themselves pregnant and contemplating, even intending abortion. Both movies introduce single men who do not want the women to abort their children.

One movie ends romantically, with marriage. And the other's tagline is "Love goes beyond romance." My friend greatly disliked the latter movie, for its ending. But I must defend it. Every day Christians are commanded to love their neighbor. But not every neighbor gets married.

In Bella, the man risks his job and devotes a day and emotional investment to being a friend to the mother. He shows her family, the value of life, the plausibility of adoption. They have friendly adventures. He listens to her, and opens up about his own life and sorrows. She says that she wants a baby with a man she loves. And she needs to go on with her life and grow up. Despite the friendship shown by the man, at the end of the day, she still wants to have an abortion. She doesn't start dreaming he'll marry her. That isn't what she wants or needs. And if you think about it, that isn't what a deserving man needs: to marry a woman who got pregnant outside of marriage just because he feels sorry for her and doesn't want her to kill her baby. So he doesn't marry her. He offers to adopt her baby. And he does. He moves back in with his parents and raises a little girl in a family filled with love. Three to five years later, the mom comes back and meets her daughter. It's a story that shows how love goes beyond romance. As I argued to my friend, most - no, all - of the relationships in my life so far have resulted not in marriage, so it is nice to see a movie about real life.

Thanks for the comments, Laura and aslaug. Do keep reading. I confess I'm not always in the chivalric mood. = )

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn

åslaug said...

Oh, I would like to watch those movies...

I guess it's not always a help being a romantic (especially when it comes to guarding your heart), but I have come to see that even romantics( change their view of what is romantic and what is not. I've clearly changed my view on romance this year that has passed. I like your post even better =) and chivalry is a good thing (not just boring, because they don't marry in the end, as I used to think).
Peace to you,