[A note before I start. Ok. A long note. I’m talking about men here. I, and most of you, and Lewis, probably disagree with medieval feminine ideals. So when I say chivalry I’m talking specifically about this idea Lewis is discussing in ‘The Necessity of Chivalry.’ Not the whole system, not really thinking about men vs. women and if it applies to both. That would probably necessitate multiple posts!
Also, Lewis quotes the word meek to describe one aspect of chivalry. I want to note why neither Lewis or I primarily use that word when we talk about it. Meekness is strength under control. Launcelot had the strength to control his fierceness and exhibit modesty, gentleness, docility, demureness. The word meek is now often used to refer to the qualities – gentleness, modesty, etc. – this control allows him to exhibit rather than the control itself, so it is often equated with weakness. I wonder if Lewis addressed that in Studies in Words? I’ll get around to that eventually . . . I’ll use words like gentle instead.]
I read Lewis’s essay ‘The Necessity of Chivalry’ a few weeks ago, and it’s been in the back of my mind ever since. In it, Lewis makes the point that the ideal of chivalry – Launcelot’s meekness in hall and sternness in battle – was the result of careful cultivation rather than a natural phenomenon. The idea is that most men fall into two classes – they are naturally either stern or gentle; lambs or lions – and to become both requires work. It is ‘art’ rather than ‘nature’. I love this summary, ‘The medieval ideal brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate toward one another. It brought them together for that very reason. It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually need that lesson. It demanded valour of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was likely as not to be a milksop.’ Not pullin’ the punches, there!
He also makes the point that people and cultures tend to prefer one or the other as the ideal. Some people think that the more violent tendencies of men will or should die out. They prefer the more modest, gentle side. Others would prefer more violent heroes, like Achilles, who came before the chivalric tradition and lack this softer side. For example, recently someone talked about one of their kids wanting to watch Sense and Sensibility, the movie, to help them understand the novel. Someone else said that was great, if it was a girl. I couldn’t resist making the point that men have enjoyed Austen for over 200 years, and only recently has it come to be considered feminine. But they thought that it wasn’t manly to enjoy that docile, gentle – and non-violent – writing.
He concludes with the idea that the melding of the two in the tradition of chivalry is in a sense humanity’s escape from either extreme. Men should strive for a balance of the two – fierce men should learn the control to become meek, and gentle (or weak) men should learn to fight when it is necessary.
The essay sparks my interest on a number of levels. One is that his point about society having a divide between people who prefer either stern or gentle men is spot on. I really think it’s a major dividing point between the political parties in the U.S. right now. The left prefers gentle men, and the right prefers the stern. I think a large part of the reason President Trump was elected is that he has that authoritative, confrontational style and apparently more people prefer that right now to the gentler, more modest style. Cultures tend to swing between the two – as Lewis also pointed out – and that’s part of how you end up with a man like President Obama being followed by someone like President Trump. People also tend to assume that if a man is one he can’t be the other. No comment on either President. It’s potentially an interesting way to look at American politics, anyway.
It’s also interesting to think about when considering books and movies and casting choices, especially when you consider physical characteristics as representing one extreme or the other. I mean, you could never have a slender Thor or Superman, right? But Spiderman is generally much physically – an often emotionally – on the more slender/modest side. Though that’s partly because he’s also young. But I do think that the physicality of casting often conforms to – or very intentionally creates a contrast with – those associations. Ha! Note the Superbowl commercial with Aquaman! More to the point, I recently saw the new Little Women – the one by Greta Gerwig. The casting kinda bothered me. In the book, Professor Bhaer is older (40’s), like a ‘big bumblebee’, and ‘rather stout’ – rather like a bear, in fact. He wrestles with his nephews (and his children in Little Men), does physical labor (in our first introduction to him he carries something heavy for a maid), points out Jo’s flaws in a none-too-subtle way. He is much more on the stern end of Lewis’s spectrum. He is very different from Laurie, who is a gentle-man, more physically slender, prone to the flaws inherent in that kind of character – tends toward laziness and giving others their way whether or not it’s good for them. And I think part of what Alcott was doing was showing how the two very different women – Jo and Amy – were attracted to very different men. I know she didn’t really WANT Jo to get married, but since she had to make it happen, she visualized the kind of man Jo would be attracted to – intelligent, but also very different from Laurie physically and emotionally. Jo wanted a man who could stand up to her, strong enough to take her tempestuous nature – physically and intellectually and emotionally. Amy was in some ways stronger, more determined, less conflicted – she had enough determination for her and Laurie both! But Gerwig cast a young French actor known for his sex appeal as Bhaer, so that Jo ended up, well, whatever that was (chasing? kissing? marrying?), a man much more similar to Laurie. And the way he’s played is also more gentle. I think it says something about the kind of man Gerwig – and her intended audience – prefers. I think it’s difficult for this generation to imagine a girl falling for a man like Alcott’s Bhaer, so the filmmakers altered his character. But in Alcott’s day, I think it seemed much more reasonable – girls were often marrying older (hence thicker), more stable men. It could be lots of fun to apply this rubric/comparison to, say, Shakespeare or Austen and film adaptations of their work – to see how the characters fit, and how those characteristics are portrayed over time. Austen’s Darcy, for instance, is stern but learning meekness, and Bingley is meek and learning to fight for what he wants. That old BBC adaptation (still the best!) definitely reflects that in their casting.
But then, of course, we have to look at the trilogy in light of this essay, which was written between Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. The essay makes it clear that he saw his generation leaning toward a preference for the gentle end of the spectrum and away from the stern end. He said that some had expected the more violent tendencies in men to die out and that they had been surprised when it was still alive as WWII started. That may have been on his mind when he created Ransom. He’s definitely on the modest/gentle/meek end of things. He shows a distinct desire not to enter into physical violence – but he learns that it is sometimes necessary. In That Hideous Strength, Mark also shows that tendency. Merlin seems to have been on the more stern end of the spectrum, but has grown to demonstrate both qualities, as is demonstrated in his interaction with Ransom.
But probably most interesting is the fact that Lewis doesn’t associate the gentler qualities with femininity, as did most of his culture. He’s talking about men – real men; ideal men – as exhibiting qualities often associated with femininity. Monika Hilder has written three books on Lewis and gender, from a perspective that he’s turning chivalric gender ideals upside down. But I think she misses the fact that Lewis absolutely doesn’t see those qualities (gentleness, modesty, humility) as feminine – human, maybe, but not feminine. His perspective on femininity is completely different. Rather than defining femininity as demure, gentle, docile, (Um. Definitely not the words I would use to describe Tinidril!), he defines it as releasing selfish desires, accepting what God sends, doing what God calls you to do, and nurturing growth in others. To be fair, Hilder does list ‘receptivity’ among the feminine traits she sees Lewis upending. But Lewis saw women as capable and strong and intelligent and curious, and if anything MORE ferocious at times than men! (I can’t remember where but he indicated that some women were too protective of their families.)
An area I wish Lewis had addressed in the essay is the importance of knowing when it is appropriate to be fierce, and when it is better to be gentle. After all, it would be horrific if a man were fierce in hall and meek in battle! I do think he makes it fairly clear in Perelandra that a man should be fierce when protecting others. Ransom is at first fierce only in his words. He seeks every possibility of outmaneuvering the Un-man verbally. He is reluctant to engage in physical violence, but he does so – and he battles fiercely – when he realizes that there is no other option. And I think that would be Lewis’s primary criterion for determining when that fierceness is appropriate – when protecting others. I think of Peter battling Meroz as a way to avoid bloodshed, of Edmund battling the White Witch, of Reepicheep learning that his honor is not a good enough reason to fight fiercely.
It’s a really interesting read, if you get the chance – short but sweet! Not like the pieces from Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature that I’m reading now!
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