For more than twenty years, I have been fascinated with the code of chivalry — with stories of knights in armor protecting the weak, championing the innocent and upholding virtuous causes. I enjoy giving talks on the subject, and not long ago I was scheduled to give a presentation on the code of chivalry in one of my favorite venues — an elementary school class. The night before my presentation I had all of my notes together and I was looking forward to what I hoped would be a very special day. Little did I know it would be a very special day for the whole world.
The date was September 10, 2001.
Like everyone else on the planet, I couldn’t have imagined how drastically things were about to change. On September 11, I woke not to the cheery sound of the normal morning crew on the radio, but to the somber voices of serious news commentators struggling to convey facts and details amid a dust storm of emotion and confusion.
By the time I could even switch on the television, I knew everything had been transformed. The school canceled their classes, and for most of the day I sat with my presentation notes in front of me, wondering if all these idealistic words I had written about chivalry and virtue, hope and courage, kindness and courtesy had just been reduced to rubble. Could anyone seriously talk about knights in shining armor in a world where human beings could perpetrate this kind of act on one another?
Many people who have examined chivalry throughout the years claim that this medieval social and philosophical code, with its reverence of gentle, upstanding behavior, is the ultimate exercise in absurdity. This view is based, in part, on the various cults of chivalry which were products of the neo-Gothic revival of the 18th and 19th centuries. Writers like Tennyson and Walter Scott, and artists like Leighton and Waterhouse put chivalry up on such a pedestal that it became nearly unreachable.
In the days following September 11, I was haunted, not just by the words and pictures coming from Ground Zero, but also by images of noble knights and gentle damsels — images which had once been romantic and inspiring back in the pre-September 11th world where optimism, prosperity and cheer seemed to be inexhaustible resources. Had I crossed the line between a practical application of chivalry and outright fantasy? I recalled a passage I read in the book The Knight and Chivalry by Dr. Richard Barber, a preeminent scholar on medieval literature and sociology:
“Chivalry had been used for far too long as a mere escape from reality for its ideals to have any relevance to the problems of (post-medieval) society; the themes … had lost all but the remotest link with everyday life. All that remained of the old high dreams and visions was an empty shell, a pretty relic of the past, fit to while away an idle moment.”
A few days later, when the teacher called to reschedule my chivalry presentation, I apologetically declined. I couldn’t bear to look at those childish, starry-eyed sentiments about chivalric virtues and knights in shining armor, and I certainly didn’t want to put such notions into the heads of impressionable young children under the guise of practical advice.
But, as everyone who lived through that terrible time in the wake of September 11 knows, hope soon sprouted from the ashes. There were heroic efforts made by police, rescue workers and ordinary citizens to save and assist the survivors of the attack. There was a President, and a government, with the wisdom and grace to fill the skies over the country responsible for the attack with planes dropping food and emergency supplies rather than bombs. There were airline attendants, postal employees, file clerks and legions of other hard-working individuals who had the courage to return to their jobs even though they never dreamed that a war zone could be extended into their workplaces.
Most of all, there was a nation full of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives and people of every kind who, in a time of loss, grief and catastrophe, had the strength to overcome a tragedy that, by all rights, should have brought them to their knees.
During those days, I realized that abandoning the code of chivalry would be an insult to all of those knights in shining armor who gleamed so brightly in the aftermath of September 11.
Looking at the code of chivalry from the vantage point of liberty and prosperity which we stand upon in the modern world, it’s tempting to dismiss this noble cause as a relic from the romantics and idealists of a bygone day. We must remember, however, that the tenets of knightly behavior were created, not in an age of ease and enlightenment, but amid the brutality and ignorance of the Middle Ages. For the people of the medieval world, grace, courtesy and gentle behavior weren’t dreams and visions to while away idle moments. The code of chivalry and its knightly virtues were the best and only defense against a world which seemed to be overflowing with sorrow, terror and despair. Chivalry was the torch that chased away the darkness which, for a time, seemed as if it might engulf the whole world …
On the six-month anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the people of New York established a memorial to all that was lost on that day: two shining towers of light, blazing into the night sky, where the World Trade Center had once stood. These brilliant columns of light could be seen 25 miles away from Ground Zero.
This memorial symbolized a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, it was a reminder that chivalry wasn’t destroyed on September 11, but rather given a new place in the spotlight of life. Those two beacons, glaring fearlessly into the night, were reminders that an act of courage or virtue can shine very brightly in a moment of darkness. This Tribute in Light was an affirmation of everyone who has ever had the resolve to stand by their convictions when the world seemed to be collapsing around them. Perhaps most powerful of all, it was a reminder that we must never lose our faith in the knights in shining armor who stand quietly beside us, each and every day of our lives.