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March 20, 2003
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's
"The White Company" (1891):
Set in the 14th century: Medieval
warfare, with Brits trooping about in
southern France fighting against
Spain. Swords and longbows, and an
This is some of the work that Doyle
regarded as his real writing
(he was much annoyed at the extreme And further, he was annoyed
popularity of trifles like Sherlock that "The White Company"
Holmes). was always praised for
being a rousing adventure
story, completely ignoring
But it alternates slices of it's Serious Aspects.
meticulous 14th century
historical detail with action
that would go well in an
Errol Flynn movie, and many of
the secondary figures have all
characterization of Doc
(e.g. there's a fat knight
that continually talks about
food in the middle of battles).
While this book champions chivalry it does
it without cheating. It's about an elderly, A later book titled
accomplished knight by the name of "Sir "Sir Nigel" is a
Nigel". Sir Nigel is the model of old school prequel about his
chivalry to the point of often seeming like younger days.
a cartoon, a Don Quixote figure. But Doyle
seems serious about upholding chivalry as an
ideal, and Sir Nigel is really intended to
be an admirable figure. He grapples with a The infamous Don Quixote,
terrible world in a way that he regards as in contrast, strikes me as
honorable... though it's not at all clear a total clown, a Mr. Magoo
that he and his kind are making it a better of a knight. Some fans of
place: Cervantes profess to see
something honorable in
France is totally in ruins, the Quixote's deluded ideals,
countryside devastated by eternal but I don't, myself.
combat and high taxation to support
it: the pursuit of honorable combat QUIXAND
doesn't seem to be doing much good
in the world.
Sir Nigel fights for members of the
noble classes that are portrayed as
useless, vicious bastards. And
many of the combatants are far more
interested in loot than glory; "The
White Company" had degenerated to
little more than a marauding gang
of bandits before Sir Nigel arrives
to become captain.
There are also some interesting scenes
we are shown of a French mob that rebels
against some of the more obnoxious
nobles... but the mob runs wild with
aimless violence and they slaughter a
priest who was actually on their side.
So: this is a multi-sided
conflict where none of the sides
seems worth defending...
And yet, "Sir Nigel" conducts himself
according the the strict rules of his
code, and is proud of having done so.
Perhaps, the contrast between the
world, and Nigel's code is supposed Existential
to make the upholding the code even absurdity.
The struggle is more
Chivalry as a code of conduct heroic if it's impossible.
for an imperfect world?
Another related theme of
the book: the importance of
We count ourselves as practical living engaged with the
people, and we are therefore world, as opposed to
"results oriented". For us, cloistered contemplation of
means are used to obtain ends. the soul...
Even the idealists have definite
goals in mind, and plan their A kind of realism, but
actions accordingly. without disengagement
But an idealist, insisting on
bringing about a better world,
is eternally frustrated and
The end always seems distant.
The world seems irredeemable.
Trying to improve the world
is a recipe for frustration:
But a set of ideals that focuses
on "means" is more achievable, A meta-goal, a need
at least when it's just your own for achievable goals.
means that you worry about. If you need to win
fights, then fight
Finding a way that's winnable fights.
worth living in a
Live with honor, fight well, do things the right
way without regard to the way other people do
them. Let the end result wait for the end.
And you'll be happier.
And the world might even become a better place,
as a side-effect, if not as your main intention. (Or it
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