(urth) Long Review Essay on Wizard Knight

Stephen Frug sfrug at post.harvard.edu
Tue Sep 18 19:36:56 PDT 2007

>May I inquire, gently, _why_ you find the knightly ideal

I know that this opens me up to a (fully justifiable) charge of 
ducking an issue that I myself raised, but I don't want to get too 
far into this... largely because I don't think I can without getting 
into broad political (if not historical and moral) questions that are 
really off topic to Wolfe.  I guess what I'd say is that my objection 
(or that objection) only stands to those who find the knightly ideal 
-- at least in the comparatively undiluted form that (if I'm right) 
is presented in Wizard Knight; to the degree it's present in Tolkien, 
as I said in my initial review, it doesn't bother me nearly as much 
-- and from others, a simple "well, I like and approve of the 
politics" would be enough for us to agree to disagree.

I also don't think my objections to the knightly ideal are 
particularly original, nor for that matter particularly well 
thought-out (I do study history, but my focus is American history, so 
the topic doesn't come up much).

But, all that said, the briefest version is that my objections to the 
knightly ideal are those which have been made frequently, those 
inherent in modern ideals and those portrayed from many different 
angles by many different authors (some of which you cite!).  It's 
fundamentally hierarchical in a fixed, birth-by-class sense; it 
relies on fidelity to persons (not simply family and friends, but in 
larger, political senses) rather than ideals and institutions in a 
way that -- at least in the modern world -- becomes very destructive; 
it supports the use of violence as a legitimate means of settling 
disputes in cases where it is not the last resort; and so forth.

(On that last point, I'm now wishing I'd bookmarked a fascinating 
piece I read recently, summarizing a scholar's work, about how 
cultures of honor arise in places where there is no dependable rule 
of law, from the frontier to ineffectively policed urban settings to 
criminal cultures, and therefore honor, backed up by a threat of 
violence, arises as a substitute.  But, of course, I didn't bookmark 
it, and probably couldn't find it again.  Alas.)

I think that, fundamentally, the knightly ideal is conservative -- in 
one of the important senses of the term -- and I am not: I believe in 
liberal ideals such as the independent rule of law, democracy, the 
fundamental equality of all persons, etc, which arose as part of the 
transition from the medieval to the modern world -- and the 
abandonment of the knightly ideal was part and parcel of that 

It's certainly an open question for me whether the knightly ideal was 
good in its time and place, or was always fundamentally problematic; 
I'd be open to the idea that when it arose and flourished it was an 
important, and indeed moral, value system.  But in the modern world 
it tends to arise in fundamentally conservative realms where it is -- 
I would argue -- quite problematic, and frequently destructive.

In this regards, I would note that the American culture that was 
closest to the knightly ideal -- which placed enormous value on the 
virtues of honor, courage and fidelity, in knightly ways, and which 
has in fact often been thought of as a chivalric culture -- was the 
culture of the upper classes of the antebellum white south, the 
"aristocratic" slaveholders.

There's a lot of nostalgia for that world in this country.  (I think 
that a lot of conservatives -- who aren't the least bit racist 
personally, don't long for the restitution of slavery, or even Jim 
Crow, etc. -- don't realize the extent to which their values 
originate, historically, in that culture.  Doesn't mean it isn't 
true.)  I don't share it.

... And see, there, now I've gotten political.  But that's the answer 
I can give you.

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