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Chivalry Scorned Is Love Denatured


By Mitchell Kalpakgian | October 2000
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 Children's Literature (Neumann Press), and his writings have appeared in Culture Wars, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and The Catholic Faith.

In Louisa May Alcott’s 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 Hughes’s Tom Brown’s 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 Alcott’s Plumfield Academy, Hughes’s 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 Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” Palamon and Arcite, will fight to the death to win the hand of their beloved Emily, and Cervantes’s 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 boy’s 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 man’s essentially chivalric nature, why has the modern world seen the demise of honor and magnanimity in so many of its men?

In Howard Pyle’s 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 Arthur’s court begging for the noble deed of a chivalrous knight:

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