The Heroic Beast of Burden

Where honor and service come together, you’ll find the workhorse warrior called the knight.

Horse-smHow is a hero like a horse?

Sounds like the beginning of a rude joke, doesn’t it? Yet surprisingly, as we explore the realities of the “warrior’s code” in today’s world, maybe that comparison deserves some serious consideration rather than just a witty punch line.

When we think of animals to associate with heroes and champions, we usually imagine fearsome, aggressive creatures like hawks, lions or wolves. We think that heroism requires the kind of strength, ferocity and spirit that are embodied by such creatures.

We also associate heroes with dragons and other mythical beasts. After all, heroes are supposed to fight monsters, aren’t they? The hero is the one who rescues the helpless maiden from the jaws of a fire-breathing lizard, or slays the witch that lurks within the depths of the dark, primeval forest, abducting unsuspecting children on their way to grandmother’s house.

But we don’t usually make a connection between a hero and a horse. A horse is a beast of burden, after all. Horses are for herding cattle, for pulling wagons, for drawing plows — not exactly the sorts of activities that call to mind the image of a glorious, celebrated hero.

Yet there is a long tradition of worthy ideals that spring from the connection between the horse and the hero; ideals that can help us understand the important balance of ethics and power. Those ideals constitute the principle of “chivalry.”

Although we often think of chivalry as a slightly absurd (but mostly harmless) demonstration of manners and etiquette, the concept really runs much deeper than that. Chivalry is a warrior’s code of honor. It is the code of the hero, and it literally would not exist without the horse. Cheval is an old word for “horse,” and hundreds of years ago, when warriors rode on horseback, chevalerie became the way of the warrior.

Bear in mind, however, the warrior who lived by the “code of chevalerie” was not a plundering barbarian or a mighty conqueror winning glory, riches and fame. The person who adhered to this code was known as a knight, a word that means not “vanquisher,” “adventurer” or some other aggrandizing epithet, but “servant.” The knight — the greatest hero of an age — was proud to be called a servant.

In times of trouble, the knight’s job was to step into harm’s way to protect those who could not defend themselves. In times of peace, the knight’s duty was to serve as an arbiter of justice and fairness. Chivalry dictated that a knight should set ego and vanity aside, and put the needs of others ahead of his own. As the 14th century knight Geoffroi de Charny wrote in his book La Livre de chevalerie:

 

“It is the duty of great knights to place the people’s profit (i.e., “welfare”) before their own, to strive with all their might for the defense of the people and the land, and to maintain the rights of the humble as well as the mighty … The knights of greatest worth are those who give help and comfort in many good and needful ways.”

 

This notion of the knight as “the warrior who works for the benefit of others” was simply revolutionary. Rarely before in history had warriors with swords and armor been anything but a force for destruction, pillage and subjugation. Never before had the principles of compassion and duty been codified with such noble idealism. While not every knight lived up to the high ideals of chivalry, the role of “the good servant” became forever associated with the knights who followed the Code of Chivalry.

Apart from riding on horseback, the knight also presented an image of a hero who was literally a “workhorse” for worthy causes and people in need. In the early 15th century, the Spanish knight Diaz de Gamez, in his chronicle of The Unconquered Knight, observed:

 

“Knights are not chosen from feeble or timid souls, but from among men who are strong and full of energy, bold and without fear; and for this reason there is no other beast that so befits a knight as a good horse … Horses are so strong, swift and faithful that a brave knight, mounted on a good horse, may do more in an hour than a hundred others could have done afoot.”

 

No wonder, then, that the symbol of knights and chivalry was not the sword, the shield or the lance, but the spurs. Urged forward by a sense of duty and honor, like a horse put to the spur, the knight never faltered in seeking ways to be of service, to help, to defend, to be of benefit to those in need.

The Code of Chivalry is sometimes criticized as being outdated, sexist, bombastic and superfluous. Chivalry has been blamed for dulling the competitive edge of personal initiative with unattainable ideals of fair play and quixotic equanimity. But the ideals of chivalry, far from being dead or obsolete, remind us of what is truly valuable and honorable in a world that sometimes seems awash in indulgences of vanity, ego and conceit. Chivalry reminds us that knights in shining armor are those who spur themselves forward to help and work and serve.

How is a hero like a horse? Sometimes the world needs heroes who are ferocious lions, soaring hawks, lone wolves and fire-breathing dragons, but more often than not, heroes are simply beasts of burden. More often than not, heroes are the ones who are willing to shoulder the load and keep moving forward, whatever the cost. More often than not, the knight in shining armor is the parent or teacher, the coach or the manager, the doctor, the police officer, the mechanic or the hundreds of others who step forward every day to be the honorable workhorses of today’s world by simply putting the needs of others ahead of their own in the spirit of valiant service that is still defined by the “code of chevalerie.”

This essay is adapted from a piece written by Scott Farrell for the book Living A Life Of Value, the latest in Jason Merchey’s popular Values of the Wise series. Scott was honored to be asked to contribute to this series.