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Feather's Miscellany: Honour

Honour is sadly lacking in this age of crippling cynicism, says John Waddington-Feather.

I recently read – and was very impressed by – Simon Armitage’s translation of the long, medieval, narrative poem: “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The poem, written by an anonymous poet about 1400 A.D., captures the spirit and values of medieval society: chastity, courtly love, oneness with nature, honour; and it’s about the latter I’m going to write, for it seems to me that honour is sadly lacking in the present age, an age of crippling cynicism.

It was present only three generations ago. People had to be honourable to survive in wartime Britain. It was to be expected in the forces where honour bonded service men and women to each other to the point of self-sacrifice at times. But civilians had honour, too, in the way society pulled together in the face of a common enemy, Nazism, which threatened to overwhelm the nation. People honoured their neighbours even if they didn’t like them or understand them. They shared what they had with each other and even the British class system became blurred as the nation united to fight for its existence.

Of course, medieval society wasn’t always honourable no more than wartime Britain was. There were self-centred elements in it which ignored their idealistic codes of behaviour. Bloody battles were fought as overlords struggled for power. Kings and dynasties were toppled cruelly. Yet there remained the concept of honour and the ideals which accompanied it. Once a knight pledged himself to his overlord and king, he remained true to his word – as, indeed, did the Hearth-warriors to their thanes and jarls in Anglo-Norse times. “Honour” was their watchword, which was mocked only by cynics like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a profligate and coward. “Honour is a mere scutcheon,” he says – simply a motto on a shield or banner; yet it was lack of it which led to corruption and treachery, as it does in our own society at all levels.

In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the hero is prepared to sacrifice his very life to honour his word. Read the poem for yourself to trace the details of his quest to honour the vow he made to his overlord, King Arthur.

The legends surrounding King Arthur and his court are a myth, but they are allegories for ideals which are as valid today as when the legends were written seven hundred years ago. By recognising those ideals, society knew the difference between right and wrong. When they fell away from them and became amoral, misery ensued for the whole of society.

When individuals become self-centred and put themselves before others, all society suffers. Where there is no sense of honour – honouring a marriage, honouring a family, honouring a community, honouring a nation – chaos follows, and misery.

As Christians we have the ideals of Christ to live by, set before us in his life and teaching. We follow a man who honoured his pledge to God, his Father, a man who sacrificed himself to save the world.

John Waddington-Feather ©

(“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” – translated by Simon Armitage. Faber Books. £7.99)

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