The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake:

This post is to follow upon this series from April, on how the ethics of chivalry may help repair our own culture's division between men and women.

A culture has powerful images, symbols that the people do not fully understand, may not fully be aware of knowing: but they are there, and echo in our lives. I wrote about the Paladin while I was in Iraq, and again a few weeks later. These were legends from Charlemagne and Arthur, that modern men were living out. And in a sense they knew it, as you can see from the name they chose for the artillery and the banner that marks Camp Slayer: but in a sense it travels below consciousness, as you can see from the heraldry that ties Sir Lancelot to the 3rd Division.

I'm going to quote a section from The Return of King Arthur: The Legend Through Victorian Eyes by Debra N. Mancoff. It is a beautiful book available here; though many of the paintings are also reproduced in this book by David Day, which is available used for less than two dollars.

The commentary, however, is Dr. Mancoff's.

In the early hours of the morning of 20 June 1837, William IV died in his bed in Windsor Castle. The lord chamberlain and the royal physician were dispatched to Kensington Palace in London, to convey the grave news to the duke Kent's widow, whose daughter, Alexandrina Victoria, was the next in the line of succession. Only nineteen years old, Princess Victoria was the new queen. She had been sleeping in her mother's bedchamber, a habit maintained from childhood, but when she received emissaries from Windsor she received them alone.


[H]er diminutive figure, swathed in the Parliament Robes of crimson velvet, trimmed with ermine and embellished with golden lace and tasseled cords, gave the crowds pause.... [She] stirred compassion as well as loyalty in the hearts of her subjects. As small as she was, she was ready to serve... The gentlemen knights of England now had their fair lady, and the new reign channeled romantic energy into practical service.
This is the beginning of the story of how Victorian England produced not only the greatest power ever known by the British Empire, but also a renaissance in art reviving one of the main themes of Medieval literature: the Arthurian epic. The story is fascinating and important in its own right, but I wish only to follow her this far for now.

The power of the thing lies in this phrase: "...their fair lady, and the new reign channeled romantic energy into practical service." It happens that the lady was young, and seemed to need protection; but the channeling of romantic love into practical service has a deep history in the West, one where often -- usually! -- the lady was more powerful than the knight offering his service. Maurice Keen, in Chivalry, explained how the Medieval ethic of courtly love allowed women to enter the power structure. A knight could be loyal to his lord in friendship, as brothers in arms, but this ethic allowed him to base his loyalty to his lady on that strongest foundation: love.
Her acceptance of her admirer's love (which meant her acceptance of his amorous service, not admission to her bed) was the laisser passer into the rich, secure world of the court of which she was mistress. The courtly literature of the troubadours encapsulated thus an amorous ethic of service to a lady which was essentially compatible to the ethic of faithful service to a lord: indeed, it borrowed not a little of the vocabulary from the legal vocabulary of lordship, fealty, and service.... Thus in courtly love female approbation offered a new, secular, and psychologically very powerful sanction to the secular conventions of the code of courtly virtue and martial honour. As Wolfram von Eschenbach's Willeham declared, in a great eve-of-battle speech to his knights, 'there are two rewards that await us, heaven and the recognition of noble women.'
The two were often combined in the Arthurian cycle, where the lady is sometimes a messenger of God as well as a lady of power -- whether courtly or, as these are romances, sorcerous. To continue with Dr. Keen (p. 81):
The right perspective on it is given in the wonderful passage in the romance of Lancelot in which the Lady of the Lake instructs her charge in the duties of knighthood and the significance of the knight's arms. All that she has to say is permeated with religious significance and symbolism.... But we have to remember too who is giving these instructions to young Lancelot -- a great lady of regal family and endowed with magical powers, not a priest.
Thus too, in Edmund Spenser's great epic poem, the Red Cross Knight -- none other than Saint George! -- is sworn to knight's service to the poem's namesake: The Faerie Queene. He is guided by a lady, Una, who keeps him on the right path and recovers him to it when he is lost. The concept of love and womankind and faith are so deeply intertwined by this point, which is less Medieval than Early Modern, that the audience is not at all bothered that Una is a symbol for the Anglican Church, and that the false lady competing for St. George's love is a symbol of a different Church (the Roman Catholic one, given the politics of the day), and that the marriage St. George gains to Una is therefore symbolic of eternal love through chastity rather than the marital release our own time would insist upon.

The key things that matter are these: the lady is noble of spirit; she, like the Lady of the Lake or Queen Victoria, has the power to bestow arms, or to approve of their use in her defense and interests; she is morally worthy of service; and she calls men to channel their feelings of admiration for her, even love for her, into practical service. Such love thus expressed is no danger to marriages -- rather, it reinforced feudal bonds by giving a useful channel to the sexual tension that might otherwise exist, and by giving the knights a way to serve the lady with as much intensity of feeling as they served their lord.

It also opened the way for women to occupy genuine positions of power in the Middle Ages, for just this reason: it diffused the tension. Even as late as Elizabeth I, a queen could be loved by many knights, though none of them were her king.

The channeling of romantic love into service takes advantage of the natural impulse of men to love more than one woman, without violating the strictures against adultery. Indeed, the romances are clear on one thing: the destructive nature of adultery, when even the greatest knights and noblest ladies should choose to give themselves to it. Arthur's infidelity leads to the birth of Modred, who slays him; Lancelot and Guinevere's, to the fall of Camelot.

We received this unconsciously, but powerfully. It is the ethic at work in Shane. He rides in as the cowboy version of a knight errant, and falls in love with the lady of the homestead. He renders what is nothing less than knight service against the raubritter, and then -- conscious that he cannot keep his love in proper limits, and feeling loyalty to the lord of the homestead as strongly as his love for his lady -- he rides off into the wilderness. Replace the hat and Colt with a sword and lance, and it could have been written in the 1400s.

For another such lady, the gentlemen of England raised their nation to heights even its proud history had not known before. Such an ethic of love and service may allow us to renew our society's connection between men and women, which we have seen strained: at least, for those who hear the call of these ancient things.

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