I was happy to have the pleasure of reading Howard Pyle’s Otto of the Silver Hand (Pyle’s first work of fiction) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel during the same time. Doyle wrote Sir Nigel to be the prequel to his The White Company. The White Company held as great a readership as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes until the Second World War, yet it still retains enough popularity to have been published continually since 1891. That book’s superiority over Sir Nigel is plain from the former’s variety of action, variety of characters, and better weaving of religion within the martial code of chivalry. Pyle’s novel, Otto of the Silver Hand, also better excels at weaving together the religious origins of chivalry into the knight’s code.
The reason behind this lies in the manner of the protagonists: Otto and Allen Edricson are both cloister bred, while Nigel Loring, whom we see as a squire in Sir Nigel, was raised within a knightly household and taught to value the manly virtues more than the decent–the loud virtues more than the quiet. It is like comparing Robert E. Lee to Nathan Bedford Forrest. Both were valiant men, but the heavily Christian upbringing of Lee better tempered his irascible nature than the more worldly education of Forrest tempered the Wizard of the Saddle’s hot blood. And so, his peers called Lee “the marble man” for his peaceable and orderly character, while Forrest struggled to control his temper almost until the very end. Even so, Nigel Loring takes about as long as Forrest to fully assimilate the gentle virtues, while Allen Edricson and Otto start from the decent and work to the manly–although, Allen is described by his friend Hordle John as already having a stalwart heart despite his meek exterior.
Meekness is especially a Christian virtue, so it is no wonder that the cloister bred Allen and Otto have the edge over Nigel in that realm. The last thing the world wants to teach a young man is meekness. It tells a young man to be confident, not to let an opportunity pass, and not to let his honor be slighted. Meek behavior is a sign of weakness and prevents a man from moving up in the world. Nigel Loring the Squire starts with a violent temperament. He beats an obnoxious summoner and acts on his vendetta with the nearby monastery. Nigel deems it his right to do the monastery hurt however he can–including by releasing a pike into the monastery’s pond, killing all the carp therein! Not the actions of a meek man!
Most would find fault with the young squire’s high-handed actions at the beginning of the novel. Yet, Doyle himself seems to not have loved the virtue of meekness very much, and enjoyed more writing about Nigel’s heroics than about his advancement in unselfish service. Unselfishness is related to meekness; even if some forceful persons call themselves unselfish because they only care about others’ interests. But, a truly unselfish man would not impose his will on another person: ordering other people to suit one’s liking is a form of selfishness, as Oscar Wilde famously wrote. Only the meek can be truly unselfish.
Howard Pyle comes from a more religious background. (One of his works, Rejected of Men: A Story of Today describes Christ’s life as if set in early twentieth century America.) Contrary to the way Doyle rejoiced in the warfare of medieval times, Pyle describes the middle ages as a period filled with barbarity and violence–a time when life was cheap. Otto’s father, Baron Conrad, is himself a brigand, who can’t refrain from internecine warfare and seeking plunder despite the entreaties of the person he loves best in the world: his dear wife. When his wife dies in childbirth, Conrad sends young Otto to a monastery, which is described as an oasis amid the savagery of the age. Pyle is far more positive about the monastic life than Doyle, who often highlights corruption within the religious orders and describes the chivalric order as performing a higher service.
People have observed that very wicked men often enjoy more pronounced conversions from evil than many naturally good men: the St. Pauls outshine the Grover Clevelands of the world. In a like manner, Baron Conrad’s greatest deed far outdoes the best of Sir Nigel’s or Sir Allen’s. It has not the slightest speck of self-interest, which imparts it the aura of a supernatural grace instead of a merely human virtue. Courage combined with meekness is found most often among the saints and seldom among worldly heroes.
Doyle neglects that chivalry originates in the Church. Every society has brave men, but few societies have men both brave and meek. Compared to the true knight, educated both by the light of faith and the flame of courage, many of history’s greatest conquerors strike one as gangsters who have attained impunity. Without the virtue of meekness, the knight would be a gangster himself. To best understand the virtue of chivalry, one must keep in mind that meekness must never be separated from it and that meekness is chivalry’s most difficult facet.