Buffy’s Round Table: Part 1

Although many of us labor under the romantic illusion that true spirituality is something that only solitary monks sitting lotus-legged in a desert chanting “Om” can cultivate, the fact is that the vast majority of us don’t have the luxury of solitary contemplation.

Scott Farrell Comments:

Though often dismissed as a “cult classic,” the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a wonderful example of the uplifting potential of modern media. Although the show includes many elements of a medieval morality play (including a hell mouth as part of the stage dressing), Buffy’s cast of characters brings to mind another group of medieval literary figures assembled to protect the world by fighting the forces of evil: the Knights of the Round Table. In this capacity, the Buffy crew demonstrates the importance of faith, honor and grace among friends. As Jana Riess explains in this two-part essay, the quests of Buffy and her companions, like the adventures of King Arthur’s knights, remind us that friendships of quality and virtue are an important component of the Code of Chivalry.

By the way, if you’re intrigued by the illustrated image of Buffy wielding the Slayer Scythe at the top of the page, you may want to check out the comic book series Buffy Season 9 from Dark Horse Comics. The image is the cover art of one of the recent issues.

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In human relationship, filled with its shortcomings and trouble,
what can console us if not the faithfulness and mutable affection of true friends?

The Vampire Slayer and Faithful Friends

riessThis sentiment by Augustine of Hippo resonates just as deeply today as it did 1,600 years ago. [The television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer] is always honest, often painfully so, about the ups and downs of human relationships and the many ways that people disappoint one another. But the series also depicts the consolation and hope that derive from those same flawed relationships. As Buffy writer and producer Marti Noxon says, the show is about “the relationships you build with people while you struggle.” Although the final destination of our journey may be elusive, “the quest and the questors, and the people that you find, who are not necessarily your family, are the only thing that lends the journey meaning.”

As fellow questors we can teach each other quite a bit about the spiritual journey, beginning with the act of friendship itself, which serves as a potent reminder of the interconnectedness of all life. When we extend ourselves to another person, we lower the barrier between ourselves and every human being, not just the one we are befriending. In friendship we gain a taste of the infinite worth of each person and, ironically enough, the relative insignificance of each person — in essence, we begin to understand the interdependence of the cosmos. This prepares the way for spiritual awareness. “In Zen literature the word intimacy is often used as a synonym for enlightenment,” writes Zen priest Norman Fischer. “In the classical Zen enlightenment stories, a monk or a nun is reduced simultaneously to tears and laughter as he or she recognizes that nothing in this world is separate, that each and every thing, including one’s own self, is nothing but the whole, and that the whole is nothing but the self.” If intimacy is enlightenment, then friendship is a door to greater spiritual understanding.

The series offers much wisdom about how to be a friend, beginning with the fundamental premise that human beings are to treat one another with respect. The show rejects the idea that using another person is permissible. In the fourth season, when Faith, in Buffy’s body, declines to allow Riley to risk his life to help her thwart a vampire attack, she tells him emphatically, “I can’t use you.” (season 4, episode 16) It’s a double entendre, because she’s communicating more than a simple refusal to allow him to help. She’s also subtly confessing the lesson that she has only recently learned: people cannot, should not, use one another for selfish reasons. It’s a lesson that Buffy also learns (or relearns) in the sixth season, when she finally ends her violent and demeaning sexual relationship with Spike. (season 6, episode 15) Using him is killing her, she says. To cement this truth, she calls him by his given name, William, for the first time. It’s a recognition of his innate humanity, which she has violated.

Friendship on Buffy is a laboratory for another value that the show consistently emphasizes: forgiveness. Despite their courage and wisdom, all of the series’ main characters are deeply flawed. Although he has a loving heart, Xander can be plagued by jealousy and slow to forgive. Willow, too, is sometimes beset by insecurity, and her stunning descent into darkness in the sixth season is a culmination of many of the fears we saw in earlier episodes such as “Nightmares” (season 1, episode 10) and “Restless” (season 4, episode 22). Giles sometimes allows his head to rule his heart to such an extent that Buffy finds his suggestions repulsive — such as advising that she sacrifice Dawn’s life in the fifth season to serve the greater interest of averting the apocalypse (season 5, episode 21). Finally, Buffy, in her turn, is not always a good friend. Too self-absorbed at times to even recognize the pain her loved ones might be experiencing, she can get so wrapped up in her own Slayer duties and personal crises that she takes her friends entirely for granted. It is precisely the characters’ faults and blemishes that make the show interesting, however, and their continuing saga allows us to draw parallels with our own spiritual journeys.

Although many of us labor under the romantic illusion that true spirituality is something that only solitary monks sitting lotus-legged in a desert chanting “Om” can cultivate, the fact is that the vast majority of us don’t have the luxury of solitary contemplation. We walk our spiritual paths in the company of others — partners, friends, children, parents. We learn our most endearing lessons about god and human nature from them, because we offer our most unguarded, raw selves to our friends and family. It is also from them that we must learn the importance of forgiveness, because hurts between strangers simply don’t have the lasting significance — or the potential for pain — as the betrayals of our own Judases … Suffice it to say that some of our most meaningful spiritual growth happens in the company of friends. And to learn those lessons, we have to be willing to forgive each other. As the 19th century Protestant minister Henry Ward Beecher said, we would all be wise to keep “a fair-sized cemetery, in which to bury the faults” of our friends.

© 2004 Jana Riess

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This article is excerpted from the book What Would Buffy Do?» by Jana Riess, ©May 2004, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. The article appears here by express permission of the publisher and may not be reprinted or reproduced without permission.

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This piece is one of many essays, reviews and excerpts written by Chivalry Today's guest columnists. Biographical information about our guest authors can be found at the end of each article.