In August of 1940, C S Lewis published an essay in Time and Tide called 'The Necessity of Chivalry'. The following is a reflection on this essay, later republished in Present Concerns, as the first in a series of reflections on Lewis' work and their 'currency' for Christians engaged in thinking about popular culture.
In the shadows of the Battle of Britain, C S Lewis put pen to paper on the need for Chivalry. The setting was suitably ironic. The roaring of Spitfires overhead left little doubt as to the contrast between medieval organicism and modern machinery. His question, however, was not about machines, but about men. In those days, one could still talk about ‘men’ rather than ‘people’, intending both the biologically masculine and the generality of humans. Lewis does not seem to have conceived of a time when such a definition would become a matter of personal preference. The ‘necessity’ of which he spoke was partly driven by a sense that there were certain ‘natural’ elements to human life which were fixed in stone. There were good men, and bad men, and hard men and soft men, and like categories for women. The idea that one might interchangeably choose to be man, or woman, or both or neither, at a legal or surgical whim, was just not in his calculus.
Despite this change in equations, however, we have with us many of the problems for ‘humanity’ sketched by Lewis for a society with overly sanguine expectations about human goodness. On the one hand, there are those cultures who now have access to modern weaponry, transported by FedEx without the cultural safety switch of Christian ethics. On the other, we have what we once considered Christianised cultures, which act more like Homer’s Achilles than Malory’s Lancelot. The former ‘knew nothing of the demand that the brave should also be the modest and the merciful. He kills men as they cry for quarter, or takes them prisoner to kill them at leisure.’ The latter was omnipresent in the Victorian literature which influenced Lewis’ youth, and in the Pre-Raphaelite High Anglican chapels which were the natural home for Lewis’ spirituality:
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel'd
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.
Tennyson’s poetry – and Lewis and Tolkein’s poetic literature – were almost the last time that the chivalric man could be described as a serious figure, ‘fierce in battle’ but ‘meek in hall’. Battles became thereafter the realm either of the satellite or the suicide bomber, technology or the tribesman. Not only was there no place for men to be men in a way which was not a mere matter of choice, but there was no place in that most inhumane space of human activity, war, for ‘civilisation’.
The shocks of our own time – our inability to pursue a just war against even a hideous character such as Sadam Hussein – are captured in the pictures flowing from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. We begin to acquiesce with the popular wisdom. Perhaps what some cultures need is a ‘strong man’, perhaps we ourselves have to be ‘strong men’ in order to hold a place in the world? Or, alternatively, perhaps there is no place for the strong at all – only for the deal-makers and Byzantine courtiers of the new international order. On the one hand, one is left with the murderous Achilles, beauteous only in his form and efficiency, or the bureaucratic/ corporate Macchiavellian Princes of the international economic order, for whom the ends justify the means. Per forza, says Lewis – the knight is not a figure of nature, but of art, not a result of the native goodness of man, but a deliberative creation of socialized humanity. Without a society, there can be no art – and we stand in times when there are congeries of sub-cultures clinging to the emerging threads of a global society. But subcultures do not a society make, and the global society is now, but not yet. How then can we expect the emergence of this balance between power and restraint, between mercy and justice?
Strangely enough, perhaps through some atavistic remnant of the medieval, we do not cease to hope for the emergence of such a figure. After WWII, for example, Douglas Macarthur returned to the acclaim of the whole world for saving his country, and the international order it represented. Some whispered the possibility of an ‘American Ceasar’, but were relieved that neither the Caesar option nor the Caesar solution proved necessary. Though he tested the waters by allowing his name to go forward for nomination to the American Presidency, he satisfied himself with supreme military control in the Pacific, respecting the civilian power, if not in operational terms at least in philosophic terms, by submitting to Truman’s demand for his dismissal. He was lauded for his sacrificial choice – despite the fact that there was plenty of evidence of his failures as a human being. The Japanese government – at whose hands he had received surrender at the end of WWII – called him a ‘noble political missionary’. He closed his career with a speech to Congress, ending with the words; ‘I now close my military career and just fade away - an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.’ There is a touch of John the Baptist in such language – ‘he must increase, and I must decrease’ – a remnant of Christian idealism even in one of the most notoriously proud leaders of his time. Similar transferences into biblical settings have been made for Australian soldiers in more recent times – Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, for instance, who receives accolades of the type once given to Florence Nightingale, or even General Peter Cosgrove, whose combination of big-boned matey-ness and clear sense of principled service to the civil state, has marked him off from mere military functionaries. His service in Timor, and later in cyclone ravaged areas of eastern Australia, have graced him with an uncommon public respect, flowing from his successful combination of service and martial valour. We are hungry for such figures – and still they seem to present themselves, though in all too small a number.
When they appear, however, they do indeed seem to carry the aura portrayed by Lewis, suggesting that the glamour of the art has yet to wear off our tired civilization. Whether we have the concentration, commitment and spiritual substance to sit still while the art is worked upon us is, however, a matter of question. Lewis proposed that the knightly figure was still ‘terribly relevant’ though questioned whether it was ‘practicable’: ‘the Middle Ages notoriously failed to obey it.’ Even if not practicable, however, Lewis thought it practical, merely because it was necessary. Civil society would collapse without it. Under the clouds of a civilizational cataclysm, it may have been easier for him to gain acquiescence, to conjure the vision of the meek/fierce knight in defence of his besieged Atlantic Island. In a global culture of affluence and choice, where nothing is ‘necessary’, leaders find it essential to create the circumstances wherein the practicable can once again become practical. In many cases, it seems, they are not believed – they conjure Lancelot in space suits and high tech armour, and people will submit to only $15 worth of cinematic conjuring. Beyond that, it is the endless critique, the cycle of reductio not so much in adbsurdem (no-one after all is laughing), but into nothingness. The art is lost in technique, and the stained glass remains flat and unevocative.
There is a warning in this for church leaders: we have yet to exhaust the range of cultural potential for authority. Leadership in our culture is homogenously, boringly, in the hands of bureaucrats or generals. Lacking are the heroic, the meek/fierce knights of the Cross who know self-restraint as well as sacrificial outpouring. There are many squires and gallants in our ranks, not a few mercenaries and one or two generals of technocratic brilliance. There are few, however, who move with unconscious authority gained by unpromoted social recognition, who win renown not for what they do, but for who they are:
Then the great knight, the darling of the court,
Loved of the loveliest, into that rude hall
Stept with all grace, and not with half disdain
Hid under grace, as in a smaller time,
But kindly man moving among his kind…
Can there indeed be such a person in a time of relentless self-reflection and self-love, of unblinking media coverage and information gathering? Not ‘naturally’, says Lewis, but only through the naivity of artless art. Certainly the reaction to such people as Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama indicate a popular hunger for, a belief in, the possibility of such. If it is a matter of art rather than nature, then it awaits the intention of a culture to produce such an art, ‘of that art which has human beings instead of canvas or marble, for its medium.’ Despite the decline of his anthropology, Lewis leaves us believing that the church must look to its cultural attitudes – that, given the preciousness of the materials with which it is entrusted, it must care more and waste less. We must certainly do more than simply replicate culture in the search for relevance – we must foster creative cultures of the human arts, where such people can be formed. Lewis was essentially a cultural pessimist. Despite his view that democratic society was the best of a bad lot of political systems, he did not think its cultural forms would necessarily contribute to the betterment of human characters. ‘It may or may not be possible to produce by the thousand men who combine the two sides of Lancelot’s character. But if it is not possible, then all talk of any lasting happiness or dignity in human society is pure moonshine.’ Thousands there may not be, but I have met some, and felt their instrinsic strength. I see the promise of it in the many thousands of students now in Pentecostal colleges, who are shaped in the expectation of a calling to power wrapped in grace. On the whole, their faces shine with the knowledge that the Christ they have met through the witness of the Spirit lives within them, making all things new. It makes me hope that I shall, in a career of teaching for the ministry of the church, see many hundreds of men and women rise up fierce in battle, and meek in hall. It must happen. It shall happen – or all talk of any lasting happiness or dignity in Christian churches is “pure moonshine”.
 C S Lewis, ‘The Necessity for Chivalry’, in W H Hooper (ed), Present Concerns, London: Fount Paperbacks, 1986, p.14.
 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Lady of Shalott’,
 Tennyson, ‘Lancelot and Elaine’.
 Lewis, ‘The Necessity for Chivalry’, p.15.
 Lewis, ‘The Necessity for Chivalry’, p.15.