Chivalry Scorned Is Love Denatured
October 2000By Mitchell Kalpakgian
Mitchell Kalpakgian, who formerly taught at Christendom College and Simpson College, is a tutor at Magdalen College in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of The Mysteries of Life in Childrens Literature (Neumann Press), and his writings have appeared in Culture Wars, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and The Catholic Faith.
In Louisa May Alcotts Little Men, Mrs. Jo, who is the headmistress at the Plumfield Academy for boys, testifies, I never saw the boy yet whom I could not get on with capitally after I had once found the soft spot in his heart. This soft spot is the gentleman or knight in each boy which education in the home and school awakens. In the novel it manifests itself in the special protection and affection that Dan, the firebrand and strongest boy in the school, extends to Teddy, the smallest and most tender of the boys: So Mrs. Jo soon saw and felt that there was a soft spot in rough Dan, and bided her time to touch and win him. Mrs. Jo recognizes that boys and men by nature desire the approval and admiration of the women they love. Consider for a moment: In how many homes and schools today is this truth about human nature acknowledged?
In Thomas Hughess Tom Browns School Days, Dr. Arnold, the headmaster at Rugby School famous for his doctrine of muscular Christianity, welcomes the ordinary boys of rural England and educates and civilizes them to become Christian gentlemen committed to honor and principle. Learning that lying and bullying are incompatible with Christianity, the boys learn fearlessness on the rugby field and in the moral arena. Through a series of trials and errors in which Tom Brown fights older bullies and conquers his own bad moral habits, he learns the ignominy of cheating, cowardice, and tyranny, and he graduates as a leader, an earnest and magnanimous gentleman who puts justice above expediency and honor above popularity. In the championship cricket match that concludes the novel, Tom must decide whether to let a more talented player bat or give a younger, less experienced boy a turn. Rather than striving to win at all costs, Tom values integrity above victory, reasoning what a world of good it would do young Arthur to take part in the game. Like Alcotts Plumfield Academy, Hughess Rubgy School cultivates the knight and gentleman in boys, appealing to their inherent nobility and idealism. Consider again: Why have these ideals disappeared from our public schools, colleges, and the culture at large?
The two knights in Chaucers The Knights Tale, Palamon and Arcite, will fight to the death to win the hand of their beloved Emily, and Cervantess Don Quixote will fast and do penance as proof of his devotion to his peerless Lady Dulcinea. Men have this potential for chivalry and sacrifice, this aptitude for defending, serving, and honoring women. Thus there is a soft spot in every boys heart, a little man in every boy, a Christian gentleman in every athlete, a chivalrous knight in every lover, and a quixotic element in every man. Manhood in Western civilization has been imbued with this ideal through the manners of a gentleman, the pledge of knightly vows, military codes of honor, and educational philosophies concerned with character. Given mans essentially chivalric nature, why has the modern world seen the demise of honor and magnanimity in so many of its men?
In Howard Pyles version of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, the tanner sings a ballad entitled The Wooing of Sir Keith in which an old, ugly woman arrives at King Arthurs court begging for the noble deed of a chivalrous knight:
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