Why I Like Shiny Knights

I like knights in shining armor.

These days, medieval warriors get a bad rap. Their popularity has really gone down over the last two centuries. But that’s not fair.

Seriously. What maiden wouldn’t welcome a handsome champion with a sword, a shield and a swan?

In most German Romantic operas, the hero gets to be a hero.  He slays dragons, he fights for what’s right, and he lavishes attention on the ladies. It’s kinda nice!

Take the characters of Lohengrin and Elsa.  They could have used some marital counseling.  But their goodness is so refreshing.  Here are 3 things I like about the opera Lohengrin:

1. Virtue is hot

When Elsa first sees a vision of Lohengrin, she’s pretty excited about him.  She can tell that he’s one of the good guys. She sings,

In Lichter Waffen Scheine         In splendid, shining armour
ein Ritter nahte da,                   a knight approached,
so tugendlicher Reine              a man of such pure virtue
ich keinen noch ersah              as I had never seen before

Bad boys just don’t have that same appeal.  They’re a lot of fun in Act I, but then it all goes downhill. Who would choose the philandering Duke of Mantua over a noble knight? (Even Gilda regrets her choice. Sort of.)

2. Charity is cool

Lohengrin, the mysterious knight, shows up on a boat drawn by a swan. His quest is to find Elsa and fight for her innocence.

Have you noticed that international charity projects aren’t cool anymore? It’s considered arrogant and condescending if we want to improve somebody else’s quality of life. Our gifts are deemed culturally inappropriate. We can still send money to starving children, but we’re not allowed to feel good about it. If we do charity, it’s only because we have a hero complex.

As a world traveler, I know that it is essential to respect local cultures, and to honor the dignity of every person I meet.  I know that it is naïve to assume that other people need (or want) my help. I know that it is dangerous to launch a short-term service project that has no sustainable effect. I know that local problems usually have local solutions.

But I also know that problems are real. There is genuine suffering in the world. We can’t pretend it’s not there. And we have to do something about it. We need to respect cultural boundaries, but we must not use multiculturalism as an excuse for laziness!

Every charity project has flaws. But is it really better to stay home, hoard your cash and read an e-book?  That’s not the way to change the world. Sometimes, you have to take a risk. Grab your sword, call your swan, and get on that boat.

3. Chivalry is still alive

Lohengrin is kind to Elsa.  He’s not very forthcoming about his own past, but he’s very respectful of hers. He rescues her when she’s in distress.

I once had to be rescued by a lifeguard while swimming off the coast of California. The waves got too big for me. As a novice triathlete, I had made some poor decisions and I’d spent all my energy. I knew that I didn’t have enough strength to make it back to shore, so I waved to someone who did. (No, he wasn’t wearing a suit of armor.)

Getting rescued isn’t such a bad thing.  It doesn’t make me less powerful as a woman.  It means I needed some help. That’s all. We all need help sometimes. And I really appreciate being alive.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that we return to a tenth-century worldview. Or that women should only date Wagnerian tenors. 

I’m just challenging the idea that there is no value in medieval German legends. Lohengrin is only a story, but it has a compelling message. Heroic stories are very inspiring. The Dark Ages weren’t really that dark.  After all, some of those guys knew how to shine!