KNIGHTS AND ANGELS IN THE AGE OF CHIVALRY

HIGH FANTASY AND THE MEDIEVAL MODEL

Copyright 2008, 2012 William R. McGrath

( To review: While Joseph Campbell had his monomyth of the Hero’s Journey to explain the structure of myths and epic tales, C.S. Lewis had his “Medieval Model” to explain the textures, colors and flavors of the stories from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. When you hear a professor of Medieval literature recommend the fantasy novels of Lewis or Tolkien as a good introduction to Medieval literature for modern readers, it is the elements of the “Medieval Model” found in these tales that they are referring to. If you wish to write High Fantasy tales like those of Lewis or Tolkien, then you must understand this model.)

Part 3
Knights and Angels in the Age of Chivalry

…for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
-Romans 13:4

When you read the word “knight” what image comes to mind. Is it not a medieval warrior on horseback, often with a large shield and lance. His armor may be chain mail or it may be full plate, but he is armored in the best that is available in his day. He is a professional warrior, but he is more than that.

Now if I ask you to use an adjective to describe this knight, the odds are very good (if you have read any of the classic stories of knights) that you will either use the word chivalrous or use words that describe this quality; for the word knight conjures up more than just a mounted warrior, the word brings to mind a warrior who behaves in a certain way, a warrior who is held to a higher standard.

In all the old tales of knights there was always a code of conduct, but the question is why? Why were the various codes in these tales (and in the real codes given to real knights) so important to the definition of a knight? How is all this important to the writing of a High Fantasy story?
In historical terms, the first of these codes came about during the time of Charlemagne, in the 8th century A.D., a time when Western Europe was just beginning to recover from the chaos after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Here are two examples of knight’s codes from the literature of the time.

To fear God and maintain His Church
To serve the liege lord in valor and faith
To protect the weak and defenseless
To give succor to widows and orphans
To refrain from the wanton giving of offense
To live by honor and for glory
To despise pecuniary reward
To fight for the welfare of all
To obey those placed in authority
To guard the honor of fellow knights
To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit
To keep faith
At all times to speak the truth
To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
To respect the honor of women
Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
Never to turn the back upon a foe.

-The Song of Roland. 11th century – Charlemagne’s Code of Chivalry

“The king established all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageously nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damsels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.”

-Sir Thomas Malory. Le Morte d’Arthur, 1485

Please notice that in each of these warrior codes, the majority of the rules concern conduct outside of physical battle. Now why is that? Yes, these codes were an attempt to make more humane the rules of war at the time, but just as important, they were an attempt to guide the knight’s conduct in times of peace. What were these knights and what did they represent, especially as it concerns their roles in literature?

The Medieval Model in literature follows the hierarchical structure of medieval society as a whole, (more on this in a future post). The king was the servant of God upon the earth, while the barons (lords) represented the king in their fiefdoms. A knight was the representative of his lord at the local level. Therefore, the codes were intended to remind the knights that they were more than just fighters, they had a higher calling and should conduct themselves as representing their heavenly Lord as well as their earthly one. If the earthly king represented God’s sovereignty then the Christian knight should represent the service of the angels. To those above them, the knights did service as warrior angels, while to those below them, the knights did service as guardian angels. Between these two functions they also served as messengers for their lord’s word and law.  So when we look at good knights in High Fantasy literature we should remember that they are servants first and foremost. To be called to knighthood is to serve both those above and those below you. Just as a doctor serves with the skills of healing, compassion and council; a good knight serves with the skills of protection, proclamation and the execution of justice. So if we are to understand the role knights play in the literature of the Medieval Model it helps to look at them in their trifold roles as warrior and herald angels in service to the king and guardian angels in service to the people.

I try to use this concept of the threefold service of true knights in my own novels.
You’ll find a section from my novel Eretzel below. In this scene the hero Daniel explains to his young student what it means to be a warrior. They begin with issues you expect would concern a warrior-in-training, but very quickly the conversation moves to the non-fighting aspects of the knight’s code. In book one, Daniel takes on the role of knight as older warriors mentor him. In book two he takes on the role of mentor to a young man he has been training in the warrior arts, acting in this scene as a guardian angel, protecting the young man not with his sword, but with his words. How do you find I handled the issue? Please post a comment and tell us your thoughts on knights and angels and their place in High Fantasy stories and the Medieval Model.

*******

“Courage is not the lack of fear. Courage is doing what you must despite your fear,” said Daniel. “My father used to tell me that courage is not your goal. It is the tool you use to reach your goal and, as is true with most tools, it is neither good nor evil, but can be used by good men and evil men equally to achieve their needs.”

“And honor?” asked Raviv.

Daniel and Raviv sat near a small fire, watching the embers glow as a hunk of pork roasted on a spit above the coals. Daniel had chosen to take Raviv alone with him hunting instead of also including Elan and Ehud on the trip. The two other boys still had their father. Raviv had lost his at an age when a boy needed his father most. Daniel was using their time alone to tell Raviv of the warrior ways of his people.

“Honor is doing what is right no matter the cost. Honor is walking the right road whether that road is smooth or rocky, flat or over the highest mountain.”

Raviv nodded solemnly.
“Next is wisdom, right?” he asked. “I know what that is. Wisdom is knowing everything about something.”

“Close,” said Daniel, “but what you speak of is knowledge. Wisdom is not exactly the same thing. Knowledge is like a map of a land. The map may show every mountain range and river, but it will do you no good if you do not know where you are and where you need to go. Wisdom tells you these things, for wisdom is the compass that gives you direction. It is the ability to know why something is right or wrong, not just that it is so.”

“But what about fighting?” asked the boy.

“There is much more to being a warrior than just fighting,” Daniel said. Raviv stared at Daniel intently. Raviv’s father had always been kind to him, but had never had the time to show him this kind of attention, and the boy was taking in Daniel’s words more ravenously than any meal he had ever eaten.
“The warriors of my people are called paladins,” said Daniel. “They are the warriors of the king’s house and are mostly made up of men of his own family. They are the protectors of the realm in time of peace and the leaders of the army in time of war. Being of the king’s house, they are held to a higher standard than mere fighters.”

He drew forth the knife his parents had given him and held it before Raviv.
“Wisdom, honor, courage, faith are the words written on the handle, but what a paladin stands for is much more than that. Here is a poem we used to say to remind us.”
Daniel began to recite.

Courage in battle,
Honor in doing,
Truth in speaking—
That is the way of the warrior.

Leading from the front,
Asking not from others
What you would not do yourself—
That is the way of the warrior.

Wisdom in council,
Patience in study,
Encouraging many—
That is the way of the warrior.

Working hard,
Laughing harder,
Serving best—
That is the way of the warrior.

Openhanded to the poor,
Showing others the way
That true treasure is stored—
That is the way of the warrior.

Know your battlefield,
Know your weapons,
Know your equipment—
That is the way of the warrior.

Mercy to the weak,
Keeping the peace,
In word and deed—
That is the way of the warrior.

Daniel stopped, and both he and the boy were silent for a time, staring into the fire.

“I shall be a warrior when I am a man,” said Raviv after a time.

Daniel stirred the coals with a stick, thinking a moment before he replied.
“My father would often say that to be a man is to be a warrior, and it matters not whether the man holds  a sword in his hand or a pen or a plow. To be a warrior is to be the protector of those in your charge; therefore many men are warriors. It is not the type of fight that makes you a warrior. It is the fact that you fight at all and the heart within you while you do it.
“I have seen farmers back home who had a warrior’s heart, for they fought against a hard earth every day to feed their families. Too much or too little sun or rain or wind all made war against them, and yet these farmers toiled on, fighting without giving up. To fight each day against forces greater than yourself and not give up, then to get yourself up the next morning and begin your battle all over again, that is as good a description of a warrior as I have heard.”

Daniel looked over and was surprised to find tears falling down Raviv’s face.

“My father gave up,” said the boy. “He was no warrior.”

“Yes, I know,” agreed Daniel, both understanding the man and hating what he had done at the same time. “Your father’s father left him when he was your age; did you know that?”

“No,” replied Raviv looking up, “he never spoke of it.”

“The sons of Anak saw your father the night he left, and he told them that,” said Daniel. “He thought that since he had survived such a thing, you would be able to do so as well. He thought that, and so do I.”

“But if his father did that to him and he to me, will I abandon my own family one day?”

Daniel turned to face the boy better. “It is not set in stone that a son must repeat the mistakes of his father. You have not the same heart as your father; you are a different person, are you not? The family you grow up in is only a part of what you are. You are like a tree, and your family is the soil that you are planted in. But whether that tree is beside a stream or on a mountain top, grows in time of rain or drought, many things besides the soil determine how that tree shall grow. Look at the sons of Anak: seven warriors raised in the same house, yet as different as seven types of trees when it comes to the hearts within them. And men are not trees. We have minds to decide our own paths and feet to take us down that path. Does the son of every baker become a baker? Do all the sons of wool merchants become wool merchants? Some do, but many seek their own way. You must decide your own path and then follow it.”

“I shall be a warrior in my heart,” replied Raviv. “I do not know if I will earn my living with a sword or a pan, or a pen, but I will never abandon those under my care. I shall be a warrior.”

*****

NOBILIS VOS ESTOS,
Bill McGrath

5 Comments

Filed under Christian Fantasy, HIGH FANTASY, Medieval Model

5 responses to “KNIGHTS AND ANGELS IN THE AGE OF CHIVALRY

  1. Recently, I’ve been wondering why the common conception of the stereotypical high fantasy setting is the Medieval period, because the concept of the fairy-story is of beings and times that are ancient and pre-historic, of “things not found within recorded time.” The Middle Ages are well within the realm of recorded history for us.

    I think the answer may be that in order to marvel at a mysterious world where ancient and spiritual beings can lurk in any forest, where the elements of nature have deep meaning, we have to put on something like a Medieval mindset. We have to think like the people of the Middle Ages, whose world was spiritual and mysterious. However, I think when this mindset is carried over into setting, it helps to reinforce the stereotype that all high fantasy consists of medieval knights and feudal kingdoms.

    • You don’t necessarily have to set your story in a Medieval setting to adhere to the Medieval Model, you can set your story “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” and still fall nicely within the model. I go into this in more detail in my post on the Golden Age this past January. But really, we are not the first ones to do this. Writers in the Renaissance set their own fantasy stories during the middle ages, writers in the late classical period set their stories in the early classical period and one can go back as far as the Iliad to find Homer telling his audience that the heroes of the Trojan war ( set about 300 years before) could throw stones with deadly effect that “would take three men of this time to even lift. As you said, it is the mindset of the setting that is important, not the specific outer trappings. I’d really like to hear your thoughts on the Golden Age post, as it goes into more depth on this subject.

      Regards,
      Bill McGrath

  2. Nice post! You’re a wonderful writing! :) I think the chivalric knight can be useful in all fantasy. I tried to model the hero in my WIP (a steampunk fantasy) after a knight, keeping in mind the knight’s code. However, I then gave him certain flaws. So, he’s not an ideal “knight” but I think there is much to admire in him because I kept the code in mind.

  3. Hi Amanda,

    I think it is entirely appropriate to have a knight in a Steampunk novel. Many a man of the Victorian era (when most Steampunk is set) has modeled his behavior on the knight’s code; sparked by a renaissance of Arthurian novels, art and lore at this time.

    Regarding chivalrous knights in modern fiction, have you read the Dresden Files urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher? They are set in modern day Chicago and have a character named Michael Carpenter who is a knight who upholds the old codes. Two movies with heroes who follow the knight’s code of chivalry are Captain America (an easy one to spot) and a Brendan Fraser movie from 1999 called Blast From the Past (if you haven’t seen this one, it’s lots of fun).

    Here’s an article on cowboys and knights that I think you may enjoy.

    http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1036/article_detail.asp

    Regards,
    Bill McGrath

    • Thanks Bill. I haven’t read the Dresden Files yet, but it’s been recommended to me more than once, so I think I shall have to. :)
      Now I’m off to read the article. Cowboys and knight are two of my favorite character types! :)

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