Sir Aidan, Feminist Knight
Truly a man before his time.
The Friday morning meeting of the Round Table at Eldridge Castle began with an unusual amount of bustle and fanfare. There was a good deal of muttering and whispering among the knights; an announcement was to be made. Eventually, Sir Dyson a respected, gray-bearded knight, rose from his seat and spoke.
“To my considerable regret,” he said, “I must give my two weeks notice.” The room exploded into a chorus of appreciations of Sir Dyson and his work, and eventually, the question of his replacement.
Sir Lucius, clasping a scroll, stood and read the list of candidates:
Sir Peter, of Derbyshire
Sir Randall, of Squireshire
Sir Blake, of Criggy Dell
Sir Lavendel, of Mern
The knights fell into a period of silent reflection, considering the merits of each candidate. But Sir Aidan could not hold his tongue. “Excuse me!” The assembled knights stared at Sir Aidan, stunned by his interruption.
“Does anyone notice a pattern here?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“These candidates,” said Sir Aidan, “all share one distinct quality.”
“Honor?” said one.
“Bravery?” said another.
“A strong yet not overbearing sense of self?” chimed a third.
Sir Aidan sighed.
Sir Aidan considered himself a knight of ideas. His one big idea — the one that excited him and for brief moments had the power to dispel his fears that he was really just average — concerned chivalry.
Chivalry was the buzzword of the day, part of the zeitgeist (a word Sir Aidan could not stand). According to the code of chivalry, each knight served a lady. While Sir Aidan and the other knights rode around England, fighting for the glory of God and king and country, the women of England stayed home, minding household affairs and waiting for the knights to return. At least this is what Sir Aidan and his colleagues believed.
In the evening the knights would ride home, dab themselves with towels, visit their ladies and tell them all about what they had seen and done. No one could remember who started it, but several of the knights would kneel when they returned to their ladies and eventually it became standard practice. The knights brought their ladies presents, ideally plundered from vanquished rivals but more frequently purchased from local shops. But above all, the law of chivalry decreed that knights treat women with courtesy and respect.
Yet Sir Aidan found certain aspects of chivalry unsettling.
- Though ladies were its beneficiaries, chivalry was a system created by men. Sir Aidan increasingly felt it was a system actually designed to reward the knights, not the ladies, mainly by allowing them to keep doing what they wanted to do: ride around the country, fight, and then talk about it all later, during meetings.
- He thought about all the times he gave presents to his lady, Lady Annabelle. Giving Lady Anabelle presents made him feel good. But how did it make Lady Annabelle feel? He did not know. He had never asked.
- He felt very conflicted about kneeling. Knights kneeled as a sign of respect to their ladies. But when Sir Aidan thought about it, he realized that kneeling always brought him relief after a long day. No, kneeling was not so much about showing respect to a lady. It was about being tired.
The more he thought about these things, the more Sir Aidan came to see that chivalry was not in fact a system that helped women. It was a system designed to make women think it was helping them, while it was actually keeping them down. Sir Aidan felt conflicted again. In truth, he felt conflicted probably 80 percent of the time.
Sir Aidan collected his ideas in a notebook at home, mostly stray thoughts and pleasing phrases. He dreamed of publishing a scroll that would transform society, and he particularly liked to think of possible titles. Sometimes, even though he lived alone, he would lock his bedroom door and write these titles out in a large, regal script. His favorite was Beyond Chivalry.
Because Sir Aidan did not consider himself a radical, and in fact prided himself on his conservative bearing and even temper, it was many years before his dissatisfaction with the status quo reached a boiling point.
While riding through the countryside one day, Sir Aidan heard a lady’s voice cry out for help from afar. He charged toward the sound of her cries until he came to a castle. There, in the highest tower, a beautiful lady with golden hair leaned out of the window. Sir Aidan stood by attentively at the foot of the tower as she explained her predicament. As far as he could make out from her rushed exposition, it involved a drunken husband, and it was urgent.
Sir Aidan’s instincts told him to break down the castle door, fight his way up the tower steps, vanquish the villainous husband and rescue the damsel. He had done this a hundred times and it was always the same. It would end with Sir Aidan in the tower bedroom, stepping over the slain husband and cradling the beautiful damsel in his arms. He could replay the stock scenes in his mind like a movie montage: the heaving breast of the buxom damsel; her copious thanks and his “it was nothing’s”; the predictable comedy of removing a full suit of armor; the perfunctory sex act; the awkward, clattering exit.
The montage ceased as a thought occurred to him: by going through the usual motions, he would only be perpetuating a way of life he increasingly found intolerable. Certainly he could rescue the damsel, but what then? She would return to her previous state of helplessness, at the mercy of male aggressors — if not the drunken husband, then the wider patriarchal system itself, just as hell-bent on her captivity and submission. The root social causes that for centuries had been driving hysterical women into castle towers, and then blaming them for it, would continue.
Sir Aidan removed his helmet and explained to the lady, who was growing more impatient by the second, that he did not plan to rescue her after all. Rather, he said, he would work to instill a system of alternate values at the castle from within. It meant granting ladies access to jobs traditionally reserved for men, it meant economic equality, it meant the eradication of the word “damsel,” and quite possibly the disbanding of the Round Table, or at the very least a lady quota. It was quite possible, he explained to her, that real change would take at least a generation. When Sir Aidan yelled these things to the lady in the tower, he cupped his hands around his mouth so she could hear better.
Then he rode back to Eldridge Castle, dabbed himself with a towel, and went to see Lady Annabelle. The clarity of his thoughts made him regret not having his notebook.
The next morning at the Round Table, the knights discussed new business.
“We have heard about an attack on a damsel.”
“In what precinct?”
Sir Dabney consulted his pocket map and said, “That is the precinct belonging to Sir Aidan.”
Sir Aidan turned to face him.
“Were you aware of this attack?” Sir Dabney asked.
“Yes,” Sir Aidan said. “It was in progress as I approached the castle.”
“And why did you not save the damsel?”
“I believe,” Sir Aidan said, “that I did save her.”
“How is that?” another knight asked.
Sir Aidan, sensing the opportunity to articulate his vision, swallowed hard. “I believe we have been going about it all wrong,” he said. “Ladies do not want to be helped. A just society is one in which ladies can help themselves. The scene I came upon seems to me symptomatic of a wider problem that has rotted our society to its core. To have saved her — by your definition — would have been the equivalent of tossing a single goblet of water on a raging fire.”
This statement stunned the room into silence. For the first time, Sir Aidan understood that, while his ideas seemed reasonable enough to him, they might be regarded as dangerous, even treasonous, by his comrades. Sir Lucius shattered the silence by slamming a fist down on the table.
“You are lucky that duty calls us,” Sir Lucius said, trembling with anger. Several knights called out for Sir Aidan to be murdered on the spot. Sir Lucius held up one hand to silence them.
“If it were not for chivalry, we would tear you apart right here,” he said. The meeting adjourned as the knights rushed to their horses at set out across the countryside to find the damsel in the tower.
Sir Aidan did not ride again. His scroll, Beyond Chivalry, was published to mixed reviews a decade or so hence, under the penname Paul Nothnagle Devere, and dedicated to Lady Annabelle, with the disclaimer “This is not a present.” He is believed to have lived to the age of 72, in happy exile in a rural province far from Eldridge Castle. His replacement, Sir Blake of Criggy Dell, is said to have distinguished himself mightily by the chivalric standards of the Round Table. He is also said to have vowed to avenge the shortcomings of his predecessor. Whether these claims reached Sir Aidan, or whether he would have cared, is not known.
Gregory Beyer is a writer in New York. He is at work on his first novel.