Scott Farrell comments:
The show Firefly has a small but devoted fan base. Normally I try to avoid commentary regarding specialty subjects on the Chivalry Today website, but when a popular contemporary book includes a chapter with “chivalry” in the title, I think it is fair to address the subject here. You don’t need to be a “browncoat” (i.e., a regular Firefly fan) to enjoy this piece — the underlying topic is how chivalry shapes our modern sense of what it means to be a leader, a role model and a hero.
The short-lived television series Firefly has become the focus of a great deal of speculation, criticism and analysis. Fans find the show’s 14 episodes (including three that never aired) engaging and visionary; detractors consider Firefly inconsistent and illogical. Much speculation has ensued regarding the rationale behind the Fox network’s decision to cancel the show practically before it broke atmo, and one of the more intriguing of these hypotheses is found in an essay entitled Just Shove Him In The Engine, or The Role of Chivalry in Firefly by John C. Wright, in the book Finding Serenity. (Read a review of Finding Serenity at the Troynovant literary review website.)
Wright speculates that Firefly failed to find an audience due to an inherent discrepancy between the genres of sci-fi and the western as regards to the principle of chivalry. Science fiction, Wright says, is progressive, while westerns are traditional; trying to meld the two is like trying to fuse oil and water. In combining these two genres, he says that Firefly creator Joss Whedon “did not add … an element of chivalry into this space western,” but he posits “(chivalry) is in the marrow of the western.” Science fiction must abandon chivalry, but westerns must include chivalry — Wright assumes this Catch-22 doomed Firefly to failure. He concludes by saying today’s audiences are “delighted with radical egalitarianism, and disgusted by chivalry.”
Can this really be true? Are modern TV viewers actually disgusted by chivalry? And is this heroic ideal from the days of “knights in shining armor” completely absent from the genre of science fiction in general, and from Firefly in particular?
Perhaps an in-depth look at the principles and applications of this often misunderstood concept will lead us to a different understanding about the relationship between Firefly and the code of chivalry.
Chivalry in History
Wright’s assumption rests in part on the premise that chivalry is defined by the obligation of a hero to give shelter and defense to the weak and vulnerable. “Protect the womenfolk and young ’uns,” as the cowboys might have said. This, however, is an overly simplistic view of the role of chivalry in both history and drama.
The code of chivalry is a product of the medieval period of Western Europe. Although the principles of chivalry can certainly be found in medieval epics such as the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, these stories have been highly romanticized over the centuries. Chivalry based on nothing but reverence of women (an interpretation that comes largely from the 19th century Victorian era) would have been quite alien to the knights of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. For a more authentic, down-to-earth understanding of how medieval knights viewed the concept of a code of honor we must turn to another type of source material: manuals of chivalry.
Manuals of chivalry are literally “how to” books on military training and martial doctrine, not guides for falling in love and winning the hearts of the ladies. Perhaps the most famous of these manuals is La livre de chevalerie, written in the mid-14th century by Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight and one of the most respected warriors of his time.
Is Charny’s book all about defending the honor of ladies or rescuing maidens? Actually, of the 42 chapters in Charny’s book, only five address the topic of male/female relations. The vast majority of Charny’s text is focused on the qualities of a “worthy” warrior. Indicative of the range of subjects addressed in the book are topics like: “The scale of prowess and types of men-at-arms,” “How to study the art of war,” “The great influence of a valiant lord” and “(How) a good man-at-arms can be pleasing to God.”
It’s important to remember that real knights, warriors by profession, wrote and read these manuals of chivalry. Courtesy and respectful treatment of ladies was certainly a part of the code of chivalry, but only a part. Books such as Charny’s indicate that knights were far more concerned with the notions of loyalty, fortitude, trustworthiness, justice and courage than they were with championing and winning the hearts of damsels in distress.
From the ideals of chivalry Western culture has taken much of its understanding of the dramatic character of the modern hero — readers and viewers often don’t even realize how elemental this medieval code is in today’s image of the hero. Because of the basic sense of chivalry that still pervades our culture, today’s heroes in all genres resemble King Arthur or Sir Gawain far more than they do Achilles, Odysseus or Romulus.
An understanding of the authentic values of chivalry is crucial to determining whether or not this code can be found in the realm of Firefly.
© 2006 Scott Farrell