Friday, January 9, 2015

What Makes Malory Great

“All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” It’s all too easy, especially after weeks of hearing songs about peace on earth and the Prince of Peace, to think that Christ opposes violence. But our Lord’s words to Simon Peter form only one side of a tension about sword bearing in the New Testament. Soldiers repenting of their sins asked the Baptist what they should do, and he did not tell them to put up their swords. Jesus commended the Gentile centurion with the paralyzed slave for faith greater than any He had seen in Israel, a faith based on his warrior’s understanding of authority, and didn’t tell him to put up his sword. Paul tells us that God puts the sword in the hands of governmental authorities for the punishment of wrongdoers.

It’s a tension too subtle for our culture, perhaps. The sword itself is neither good nor evil. But detecting the right uses from the wrong requires discernment, judgment, and careful thought according to standards rather than taste: three activities not currently enjoying a very high place in society’s value system.

But Sir Thomas Malory understood. The battles and the armor and the pageantry and the chivalry and the defense of the defenseless and the punishment of bullies – all of that world that develops from the marvelous drawing of a sword from a stone makes Malory’s Arthurian tales good and memorable and lastingly popular. What makes them deep is the religious symbolism of the Grail story and the tragedy of the breaking of the Round Table. What makes them great is the interaction of these elements and the nuanced view it teaches us. The use of the sword can be good, Sir Thomas tells us. I don’t mean just that the swordplay makes for good storytelling; I mean that the wielding of a sword can be Good with a capital G, that it can be a virtuous act. Galahad jousts and fights (without a shield!) because God supports him in the day of battle; his deeds are commended not only by the narrator but by the Lord. On the other hand, a hermit convinces Launcelot that his life of chivalry – all those great adventures that keep readers coming back to his story – was sinful because it was done for pride.

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