Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Chivalric Song of Roland and the Modern Warrior


It has been a while since I’ve written anything substantial for this blog. In fact, I’ve been writing, but mostly on modern martial topics that don’t quite fit here. This bit, however, is close enough to share here, as it applies to martial artists in general; ideals, conduct and ethics, specifically. If it fails to be epic, it was meant as notes to be read to my students.

The Song of Roland is an epic poem written at the turn of the 12th century AD romanticizing the deeds of Charlemagne and his knights in the 8th century. Roland was a great and loyal warrior, and the song describes his betrayal at the hand of Ganelon.
Within the song, there is one of the earliest recorded codes of Chivalry which remained as a foundation for such until the warrior class was eventually displaced by the ignoble gun.

Chivalry, like Bushido, is impossible to truly follow within our modern society, where a relatively independent warrior class can no longer exist within it. However, many aspects of such codes are alive and well to martial artists; those who still have a warrior calling. As with warriors in any age, we model ourselves upon the ideal warriors of ages past, and all ideal warriors have had a code they strove to live by.

One can always take the principle meanings behind ancient warrior texts and apply them, in principle, to any job, business, life, etc. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, for example, is probably used by more businessmen than generals. A good enough idea, but I can’t help but find it degrading and contemptible to try, personally, coming from a warrior angle myself. So, use these as you will, but I am not going to try to warp this warrior code into some banal remains of glory. Again, I am applying this to our contemporary martial artists, though we cannot obtain former glories. Expounding upon the Code of Charlemagne, I will primarily keep to the secular virtues, as the non-secular ideals are fairly straight forward and no longer universal. However, I will include them to keep the code complete.

As a special aside for my students, and students of the American Kenpo Karate system in general, note that most of these chivalric principles have an equivalent in the various pledges of the system, and I encourage you to make the comparisons.

The Code:

1. To fear God and maintain His Church.
Religion has always been a particular incentive to warriors so inclined due to the deadly nature of their studies. It is imperative to those with such a faith to maintain a clear conscience, because combat can occur at any time, and to paraphrase another chivalric treatise, it takes only one swift stroke to send you to hell forever. Going into battle expecting to be able to clear one’s conscience at the time of action is the same as a martial artist hoping to have a chance to stretch and limber up before he is ambushed on the street.

2. To serve the liege lord in valor and faith.
Warriorhood has, in most cases, been a calling of service; those who direct the warrior are generally incapable of committing to personal violence themselves. It is no coincidence that knight and samurai both have essentially the same meaning at their root; servant. Exceptions to servitude being those such as the knight errant, and ronin. Most martial artists will not have a liege lord, so to speak, but not all. Soldiers, for example, are sworn to obey their chain of command. But in any case, to serve in valor and faith is to serve both in physical deed and in principle loyalty. To do otherwise is falsehood.

3. To protect the weak and defenseless.
This particular virtue is small in word and great in deed. So great, in fact, that very few uphold it, for it places one in harm’s way. But when it comes down to it, the warrior lifestyle is not a selfish one, but a selfless one. Only a coward thinks of their personal defense alone, and what kind of coward would spend years in physical training solely for his personal defense? Helping the helpless in dangerous circumstances is something martial artists should aspire to.
For example, in the American Kenpo system, the blue belt pledge includes …and will defend, with all the skill I possess, the weak, the helpless, and the oppressed. These should not be hollow words for any warrior.

4. To give succor to widows and orphans.
This one may seem less relevant now than it did a thousand years ago, but in principle it is not. This is an ideal that literally held, and holds, society together; caring for those less fortunate, and for those that cannot care for themselves, particularly if robbed of their provider by war or violence, and particularly the un-pensioned family of a warrior.

5. To refrain from the wanton giving of offence.
One who trains for violence shows his discipline with humility and graciousness, and does not needlessly pick fights, nor does he insult those weaker than himself. Any serious discipline should spawn good manners. Grave arts breed grave knowledge and consequence, and such knowledge leads one to value life and, by extension, not jeopardize it.

6. To live by honor and for glory.
Honor, being the approval of one’s peers, is the greatest of aspirations, at least if one’s peers value virtue. Glory is the path to honor for the warrior.

7. To despise pecuniary reward.
A greatest element of warrior virtue and source of honor is to undertake hardship without monetary compensation. A familiar example in film would be the efforts of the peculiarly chivalrous Seven Samurai. Virtue is its own reward, and honor even greater. Pursuit of pecuniary reward makes one a mercenary, not a warrior.

8. To fight for the welfare of all.
This is part of the selfless life of the warrior. A self-serving warrior lacks honor, and his glory is hollow. Selfless deeds withstand time, selfish ones die with those who commit them.

9. To obey those placed in authority.
Just as the succoring of widows and orphans holds together society, obeying those in authority holds together the school or the military, be they an instructor, assistant, or even a new team leader. It is essential that warriors act in a cohesive manner and not invite discord amongst themselves, whatever the setting.

10. To guard the honor of fellow knights.
You should always protect the good name and honor of your peers and fellow students if they are unable to do so themselves, be they fellow martial students, soldiers, etc. Even in spite of personal differences, professional accord is essential. If a warrior will not protect the honor of his peers, no one will, and I for one would hope the same would be done for me.

11. To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit.
This is self-explanatory and can reference other principles of the Code, such as number five. It is not becoming of a warrior to be unfair, mean or deceitful. However, it must be stressed, that unfairness and deceit are principles of combat that should be exploited, and that this principle is not referring to combat, but to warrior behavior. Meanness, or cruelty, for its own sake, however, has no place, not even in combat. This is a creed that sets civilized warriors apart.

12. To keep faith.
To remain loyal. Honor your vows. Be loyal to your school, association, comrades, fellow students and instructor. The bond between student and instructor is a sacred one, and it should be honored.

13. At all times to speak the truth.
Most think this impossibly hard, but it is not. It is better to remain quiet or well lettered if one cannot be truthful. To quote a silly movie, “We are men of action. Lies do not become us.” A warrior’s honor hinges on forthrightness and the strength of his word.

14. To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun.
This is an essential warrior trait in any case, but it would not have to be mentioned if warrior enterprises were easy. They are often the most difficult. The fortitude to complete the mission, get the black belt, or any other task you have committed yourself to is of the essence. If the warrior cannot persevere, he is not really a warrior. We see drop-outs all the time. Where do they go? What do they do? They leave warriorhood. No songs are written for them.

15. To respect the honor of women.
As a generalization (which certainly does not apply to all), women lack many of the safeguards that men take for granted, particularly warriors. Many criminals victimize women for just this reason; they would not do the same to men, particularly warriors, out of fear. In the same vein, though perhaps not with means of a criminal nature, women are taken advantage of. Thusly the warrior must keep women’s honor in mind in much the same way as he would respect the helpless or less fortunate already mentioned, or the good name of his peers.

16. Never to refuse a challenge from an equal.
This mainly refers to martial challenges, not ping pong or cricket, and by equal, it refers to our peers. Equal has varying definition, depending on what you do and where you are, but you should know the difference. Modern society complicates this. It was an easier consideration in the time of the warrior classes when an equal could be easily identified in any instance (caste systems made it easy). The other side of this coin, and at least as important, is that challenges should not be made lightly.

17. Never to turn the back upon a foe.
This has dual meaning, much of it more applicable to the knight of centuries ago than the warrior of today. Of course in combat, we would not turn our back when engaged with an opponent, which applies to all warriors all of the time, but it also has the implication of the eschewing of cowardly retreat (not to be confused with a tactical retreat; where you draw the line will depend upon your definition, and what is at stake). A third implication is that we should not pass up on a chance to engage an enemy; an honorable ideal, but best tempered by discretion (warriors who lack discretion may be valorous, but they tend not to last).


Copyright Sept. 20th, 2011, Benjamin "Casper" Bradak


JH said...

Very well said, sir :-)

B & C said...

You cut me to the quick, my friend. THough I do recognize some of these in me, I fail in others very badly. Nonetheless, one can always get back on the path.