Zen in the Art of Chivalry

Simple reflections on the Knightly Virtues

Scholars of both literature and social history often dismiss the Code of Chivalry as “simplistic,” saying that the knightly legends of the Middle Ages lack the complexity and nuance that makes other cultures rich and fascinating. Arthurian legends and the historical knights who admired them have even been referred to in academic circles as “juvenile.”

Such criticism makes some people wonder why these legends have endured for so long. If knights in shining armor are so bland, why do they still live on in books and movies today?

Perhaps chivalry is a bit more complex than it’s given credit for — a premise which can be demonstrated in a comparison of two literary passages. The first comes from Eugen Herrigel’s book, Zen in the Art of Archery. Herrigel was a German philosopher who went to Japan in the first half of the 20th century to study the principles of Zen through the practice of Kyudo, the archery techniques of the samurai. His book, published in 1953, was one of the first serious attempts to help Western readers understand Eastern philosophy.

After months of work with the bow, Herrigel reports that he was pleased with his improving marksmanship. His teacher, however, wasn’t concerned with accuracy; he was concerned with tranquility. Herrigel says,

If ever the least flicker of satisfaction showed in my face the Master turned on me with unwonted fierceness. ‘What are you thinking of?’ he would cry. ‘You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots; learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity.’

Not long before Herrigel went to Japan, Howard Pyle wrote “The Story of King Arthur and His Knights.” The book was published in 1902, and has long been regarded as children’s literature — a fun way to introduce kids to the romance and adventure of chivalry. Yet amid that bedtime reading, Pyle concealed some profound philosophical gems. Consider this passage about the principles of chivalry and duty:

When a man is a king among men, as was King Arthur, then is he of such a calm and equal temper that neither victory nor defeat may cause him to become either unduly exalted in his own opinion or so troubled in spirit as to become altogether cast down into despair. So if you would become like to King Arthur, then you shall take all your triumphs as he took victory, for you will not be turned aside from your final purpose by the great applause that many men may give you … He who is a true king of men, will not say to himself, ‘Lo! I am worthy to be crowned with laurels;’ but rather will he say to himself, ‘What more is there that I may do to make the world the better because of my endeavors?’

These are two observations from two cultures that reach a nearly identical conclusion: Satisfaction and doubt alike can be destructive if they distract us from our goals. It’s an elegant thought that can take a lifetime to really understand.

Zen philosophy is famous for concealing rich and deep truths behind a façade that is sparse and simplistic. In a similar but unique manner, chivalry conceals complex and rewarding truths behind a façade that is simple and idealistic. But Zen and the Code of Chivalry alike serve as reminders that simplicity and meaninglessness are not one in the same, and that (as the great Zen masters would remind us) the most profound wisdoms in the universe are best viewed through the eyes of a child.

Learn More About King Arthur and Chivalry:

Ask What Would King Arthur Do?

Joseph Campbell on Chivalry In Myth

Bring King Arthur Into Your Classroom

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