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Some time ago, in a discussion about books on a different forum, I mentioned that one thing I didn’t care for in George R. R. Martin’s works was the denigration of the concept of knighthood. For this comment, I got a severe dressing down from all his fans. His books were well researched; his portrayal of knights is far more accurate than the idealized images we see in Romanticism. (Also included were, if I recall, a few comments about my poor character based on my criticisms of great fantasy literature. It wasn’t made on Ricochet, you see.) However, I remain undaunted. For the most part, it’s not the portrayal of actual knights that caused me to be troubled, but rather the view of knights as expressed in the “more worldly” of Martin’s characters: a view that the ideal of knighthood is a lustrous fiction with no basis in reality. Martin presents the ideal of chivalry as false and even deadly. Holding fast to honor can get one killed and make one an object of ridicule. Having no honor can certainly be deadly as well, but there appears to be no merit in restraining oneself. If either path leads to the same destination, why take the difficult one?
Here we find postmodern progressive nihilism. The perfect is the enemy of the good. If we cannot meet an impossible standard, we should abandon that standard — even if we have no alternative save dissipation. Those who try and fail short are examples of the ideal’s failure.
I look to another great author of fantasy fiction, however: Gene Wolfe. I like how he explores this concept in his work, The Wizard Knight. In the first part, The Knight, the protagonist meets Sir Ravd. Sir Ravd is an honorable knight. It is in witnessing Sir Ravd’s deeds and integrity that the protagonist becomes inspired to take up arms and become a knight as well. The knight instructs our hero,”It is honor, Able. A knight is a man who lives honorably and dies honorably, because he cares more for his honor than for his life.”
Wolfe does not harbor illusions, however. In Able’s journey, he meets several individuals who fail to achieve that level of honor. This does not dissuade him, however, and he clings to the ideal in spite of the poor examples that follow Sir Ravd’s. For Wolfe, the ideal of chivalry can be just as deadly, but one’s sacrifice serves as an example to others — a banner to hold up as inspiration. One’s loss is felt with just as much pain, but it also calls out to others to take up the same ideals.
This, to me, is the sticking point. The failure of men to meet the ideals of chivalry do not mean the ideal concept of a knight is invalid. It is a given that men will fail to meet a standard. It is a mistake to always attribute the failure of individuals to the failure of the standard.
The ideal of a chivalric knight is compelling. He is a man (and, in some cases, a woman) of arms who wields strength to serve justice and defends those weaker than himself. He he seeks honor above his own desires — and is thus accorded it. When we discourage such ideals, I believe we lose something. The bar is impossibly high, yes, but should we seek that standard we will do well indeed. Constantly readjusting that standard — or worse, removing it altogether — leaves us unwilling to discipline our hearts and minds, accepting where we are as good enough and failing to seek a higher purpose.
Should I ever have boys of my own (or girls who are of similar mind) I would encourage them to look to the idealized knights for inspiration without hesitation. A man of honor and righteousness can be a beacon to others. I would rather others speak of how they (and maybe even I) sought honor and goodness for its own sake and not for their own glory. I would hope they would inspire by their deeds.