Some thoughts on why Chivalry is dead

01Mar06

I just finished reading Finding Serenity, a collection of essays about the TV show Firefly. The essays were a mixed bag–some were a waste of paper, and others were extremely thought-provoking. A guy named John C. Wright wrote an essay about what chivalry is, why chivalry is intrinsic to the Western genre, and how Firefly fails as a Western due to its lack of chivalry. I think he’s missing a big point.


Wright says that chivalry is a code of behavior of how able-bodied men (i.e., warriors) should treat other people, consisting of two main parts: (A) be gentle & protective to women, children & old men (non-warriors); and (B) treat your enemies honorably/with respect. He goes on to say that chivalry is a useful trait for warlike societies because (A) it allows that society’s warriors to both fight and interact in normal society; and (B) expect respectful treatment at the hands of enemies. Pragmatically, he claims that a more egalitarian society that would cast both its young men and young women as warriors would be out-populated by its chivalrous neighbors within a generation or two. He states that both the Old West and Firefly‘s ‘Verse are exactly the kind of places that would benefit from chivalry, which is why it is such a staple of the Western genre. All well and good, I can swallow all that.

Then he says this:

Delicate modern sensibilities do not approve of anything as rough and manly as westerns, in which responsible adult men protect women and children. Westerns are not, after all, all that popular these days.

What Wright has failed to address is that: Firefly is fictional. The ‘Verse doesn’t exists, only its audience does. The classic Western was popular in the post-WWII fifties and sixties because (among other reasons) chivalry still had meaning for a large portion of the population. They had been to war, fought and bled to protect their home & family against armies of other men. It made sense to them because it reflected the world they lived in.

If, as Wright claims, chivalry is valuable to warlike societies, then its no surprise that it’s fallen out of fashion in modern-day societies. We’re no longer a warlike society, in general. If chivalry is dead, it received its mortal wounds in Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki and is buried in the jungles of Vietnam. You can’t treat your enemies honorably, or differentiate noncombatants from combatants with a nuclear weapon. You also can’t practice chivalry when you have to “destroy the village in order to protect it.” And where is there room for chivalry in the War on Terror? Nowhere.

In the world that most of us deal with day-to-day, women & old men can make their way just as well as able-bodied young men. They can earn their money, pay their bills, and keep up their homes. Most of us don’t fight or face the threat of death on a daily basis. So, our fiction has to change to reflect that new reality.

It’s not just our preferences in stories that has changed, but the world we live in that has made different stories resonate for us.

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6 Responses to “Some thoughts on why Chivalry is dead”

  1. The other thing about Firefly is that it does have chiavlry and is a western — it just isn’t the chivalry or the western that author is thinking about.
    Genres change in time. Many of the reasons you list are good cultural reasons for the change in our socieity. You can make it even more if you cast back farther. The chivalry of Malory and La Morte De Arthur (the font of chivalry) is not the same as that in Dumas. The chivalry of Dumas is not the same as that in Stagecoach. So it really shouldn’t surprise us so much that Stagecoach and Unforgiven are different — and that anything made post Unforgiven would be different again.
    Now, I didn’t like Firefly, and I did think it fell down in a lot of ways. But the crew does show a kind of modern chivalry. Not the paladin on the horse kind, but the “ended up like a dog that’s been kicked too much” kind where you make what good you can where you can. It’s a chivalry for a post-Hippy generation, a cynical and jaundiced generation that sees all wars as being for oil and all knights as being male opressors.
    Really, from the guy that did Buffy could you expect anything different?

    • The chivalry of Die Hard, which I think had a huge impact on TV/Movies over the last 20 years, is what I see it as. The notion of the hero that suffers the “dog kicking” thing you mentioned is now par for the course.

  2. Wright’s written a bunch of books. I read his two Everness books, which are very good, if flawed. He has certain axes to grind, and these sometimes get in the way of the other things he’s trying to do. I do recommend the Everness books. Haven’t read his sf. A friend who did said that in his sf trilogy, he has a similar economic rant as in the Everness books.
    Not that this has anything to do with Firefly or Serenity.


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