I was a bit thin on something to write about for this week, and then I was rescued by the calendar. This past Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost. Among the other reasons it is important in the Christian religious calendar, Pentecost was also the day on which (according to Thomas Malory’s version of the stories, anyway) King Arthur required all his knights to attend his court and renew their oaths.
(It’s interesting, or at least sidebar-worthy interesting, that it’s Malory who seems to have put this in. We’ll get back to it.)
Arthur’s knights all swore to do no outrages or cruelties, to give mercy to those that asked it of them, to serve the weak, and to support no causes that they knew to be wrong for any worldly gain. Even all these hundreds of years later, it’s still not such a bad standard to set for ourselves. There’s a reason this story has lasted for as long as it has.
Of course, if you know the stories, you also know that basically none of Arthur’s knights (excepting Galahad, who is No Fun), not even Arthur himself, live up to this standard. Many times when I teach about the concept of chivalry and codes thereof, one of the ideas the students enjoy kicking around is to what extent anyone ever did. And we’re probably right to be fairly sceptical.
Now, does this mean that Arthur and his knights are a bunch of hypocrites and the whole thing is hollow? I don’t think so, necessarily, and this is why I think it’s interesting that the Pentecost feast seems to have appeared in Thomas Malory’s version of the story. Malory wrote during the 15th century, a time when knights in England were behaving in anything but a chivalrous fashion, and Malory himself spent a great deal of time in prison. It’s not easy to unpick exactly what he was genuinely guilty of, but it’s clear that he got himself into a great deal of trouble.
This has led people to wonder why Malory was (evidently) such a big fan of the idealized King Arthur. One explanation, which I like (and I shamefully cannot recall who it is that I’m ripping off here) is that Malory was perfectly aware that he and his peers were not behaving as knights were meant to, or at least could, and worked out his version of the tales to suggest a higher standard and perhaps inspire the knights of his day to better themselves.
Ah, but the Arthurian knights don’t succeed themselves, so how does it work? It (potentially) works because Malory knew that probably no-one could live up to the high standards of the Pentecost Oath or other ideals of chivalry. But it was still a good thing to try. Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain and the rest are praiseworthy characters, despite their failures and flaws, because no matter what else is true about them it is also true that they try so very hard to achieve something wonderful. They fall short. We’ll probably always fall short of our ideal standards. It doesn’t mean that the standards aren’t worthwhile, and it doesn’t mean that trying is laughable or worthless.
Trying, as hard as we can, to be as good as we can be, which is what the Pentecost Oath really is when you boil it down, is tremendously praiseworthy, even though we’ll have our stumbles and missteps along the way. We can try to be kind, to help those who need it, and to use our abilities to do good things in the world. Sometimes we’ll fail. We keep trying, because we live in a better world when we do. I’m persuaded that’s what Thomas Malory was trying to encourage with his version of the Arthur stories, and I think encouraging the world to be a little bit better is one of the great things that our stories can do for us, and we don’t have to wait for Pentecost.
One last thing on the Arthurian Pentecost Feast. I also like that Arthur wouldn’t sit down to eat until he had ‘heard or seen of a great marvel’. So the Pentecost feast was also a time for stories, the telling of ones that had finished and the beginning of new ones, as knights dashed off on quests inspired by the ‘strange adventures’ that came before the King on that day.
A day when people declared that they would try to do better, and a day for the telling of stories.
Not so bad.
Thanks for reading.