After marching through downtown Columbus last night, I woke up aggressively early this morning thinking about Chrétien’s story of Lancelot and the two steps that he hesitates before climbing the cart leading to Guinevere: “The dwarf continued without slowing down even a little bit for the knight, who hesitated but two steps before climbing in. He would regret this moment of hesitation and be accursed and shamed for it.” In part, Lancelot’s hesitation reveals the pull of his knightly pride preventing him from debasing himself for the sake of Love. It is this hesitation that Guinevere will point out to him once he has come to her rescue. It will cause them both much grief and more separation. What interests me is not only the way that the hesitation reveals how deeply cultural coding can cut but also that it expresses one of the most fundamental contradictions at the heart of the chivalric code in Chrétien. No true knight would mount such a cart willingly: No true knight would accept a limit to what he would do in service of his Lady. In other words, by doing all that would make him most knightly, Lancelot must disregard that which belongs most properly to a knight. This is nothing knew in the reception of Chrétien’s story and expresses what is most fascinating to me about his romances. Our knight is constantly confronted with such dilemmas: he often must choose between two actions, each of which on its own demands what is required of the true knight but that cannot be completed in the face of the other. (Another recurrent but less dramatized example occurs around whether to grant mercy to a fallen foe or to exact justice on the behalf of a lady’s request.)
I am thinking about Chrétien’s story for two reasons this morning. First, I am wondering what a political analogue to chivalry would look like given our current climate. I would venture that it would retain the ideals of service, loyalty, and courage and that it would do away with all of the trappings of class and gender politics. I wonder if a modern political chivalry would be desirable or even serviceable. The analogy has legs but it is limplingly anachronistic one and one perhaps not quite structurally parallel enough to be worthy of further explanation.
The second reason for waking with Lancelot’s hesitation in my head is because I, too, hesitated in the face of my ideals and in the face of my friends while marching last night. Like Lancelot, I have come to “regret this moment of hesitation” and hope that it will not cause me to “be accursed and shamed for it.” (Side note, I hate the idea of identifying in any way with Lancelot. Please do not misread the point.) As last night’s march through downtown Columbus spilled from the sidewalks and into the street, our group was pushed along with them. While my friends strode confidently ahead, I hesitated. In the pause, I lost them in the crowd (estimated at more than 2000). I stood for a while taking refuge behind a lamppost so as not to obstruct any of the marchers and simply soaked in the flow. The crowd was seemingly endless, and with each new wave, a new chant emerged. “Whose streets? / Our streets!” “Show me what democracy looks like. / This is what democracy looks like!” “No hate / No fear / Immigrants are welcome here!” “Hey Hey / Ho Ho / This Muslim ban has got to go.” (The last is my youngest daughter’s favorite.) Eventually, I rejoined the crowd and followed it to the courthouse. I discovered another friend who had also decided to keep some distance from the more-than-full corner across from us, and we became more fully observers than participants before deciding to walk together back to our transits home. I was settling in for the night when I learned of the tear gas, the mace, and the rumored arrests (no arrests have been confirmed as of 10 AM). My social media walls were full of posts from the march. It seems that if I had stood still long enough, I might have seen two dozen of my friends and colleagues in the march. I wonder how boldly they strode into the streets, how long they stayed, how safe they were once the police decided that enough was enough.
But solipsistically, I wondered more about my hesitation on the curb and began to feel the pang of regret for not keeping stride with my bold, brave, chivalric, heroic friends. I hope never again to give them cause to doubt my devotion to them, to our allies, and to our purpose. In Chrétien, Lancelot atones for his hesitation through more adventures (and lots of lamenting Guinevere’s censure). When my chances for atonement arrive, you will not again find me hesitant – not even two steps.