On Christmas Day, 1952 I unwrapped a gift from my grandparents. It was a book, Howard Pyle’s 312 page “The Story of King Arthur and his Knights.” I cannot imagine what made them think that a ten year old boy would want to read a tome written in imitation Ye Olde English, even if it was about King Arthur. The book got put away somewhere, and maybe that was a good thing because it is the only one of my childhood books to survive. I picked it up a few days ago and started reading it, fifty-seven years later.
Pyle meant it to be both entertaining and a form of instruction for young boys that would lead them into the proper sort of manhood. He interrupts the narrative now and then with a few paragraphs of instruction to the reader about the moral lesson they should have learned from the story just told. But the stories are odd. Pagan magic and Celtic fairies and enchanted places are mixed in with well populated towns, elegant cathedrals and an Archbishop of Canterbury well in control of all things religious. The land of England is everywhere clean, neat, orderly and richly adorned. The weather, of course, is perfect. A knight’s manhood is authenticated by his “adventures.” Adventures involve deliberately seeking out some other knight to fight with, always with the intent of causing injury or death, and it matters not whether one’s opponent is friend, enemy or unknown. The whole point is to fight. Good grief, even Louis L’Amour gunfights were prefaced by a moral reason that made some degree of sense.
Pyle also populates his tales with women of striking beauty and sexually enticing demeanor who are constantly leading knights into their adventures, and yet who must always be “held unto the knights as sacred.” Even a ten year old boy would know that was crazy. This one had the experience of sisters who easily led him into all kinds of trouble and there was nothing sacred about them. Good and practical lessons for the years that would be forthcoming, but I digress.
Admittedly I’m only up to his story of the death of Merlin, and it remains to be seen how he will handle Morgan LeFay and the affair between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. In any case, here are the rules of life I’ve learned so far:
- Pick as many fights as possible.
- Try not to get killed or hurt too bad, but do as much damage as possible to your opponent.
- Use your fighting skills to protect the non-fighters.
- Adore beautiful women but only kiss them on the cheek and then only if you intend to marry them.
- Magic is your friend but be careful with it.
- Beware of enchanted places.
- God is in charge of everything that magicians are not in charge of.
- A real man is a rich man.