Monday, August 17, 2009

'Sir Nigel'

In The White Company I told you how much I liked Conan Doyle’s wonderful little tale of chivalry set during the wars between England and France in the fourteenth century. I am now reading Sir Nigel which is set slightly earlier and tells us the story of the knight of that name who we met in 'The White Company'.
Conan Doyle, like that great historical writer Patrick O’Brian, is thoroughly steeped in his period and brings vividly to life the notions and morals of those distant times. I thought I would share one such insight with you because it has to do with the notion of the gentleman, which is a popular theme on this blog.
The young Nigel, not yet a knight - a mere squire – yet of noble birth and brought up in the old ways, is travelling to the wars with Aylward, a longbowman and Nigel’s own squire.

That night they slept in a sordid inn, overrun with rats and with fleas, one mile south of the hamlet of Mayfield. Aylward scratched vigorously and cursed with fervour. Nigel lay without movement or sound. To the man who had learned the old rule of chivalry there were no small ills in life. It was beneath the dignity of his soul to stoop to observe them. Cold and heat, hunger and thirst, such things did not exist for the gentleman. The armour of his soul was so complete that it was proof not only against the great ills of life but even against the small ones; so the flea-bitten Nigel lay grimly still while Aylward writhed upon his couch.

Conan Doyle does not expand upon the subject more than that. It is for those who are receptive to take note. How the insight rings true. How petty are most of our discomforts and complaints, and how we undermine the nobility of our spirits by dwelling on them.
Is this not a characteristic of the gentleman that he accepts hardships without complaint, that he accepts what he finds and adapts himself readily to it? His mind is focused on what is required of him as a gentleman, that is, what he must do for honour and for right and for those weaker than himself. And for these reasons he is a natural born leader and is considered of a finer essence by those who can only complain or dwell on petty things.

It is to be regretted if a party of people are together for a whole day without their conversation touching on what is right and wrong and if they take pleasure merely in shallow talk. Confucius

There is no such thing as being a gentleman at important moments; it is at unimportant moments that a man is a gentleman. At important moments he ought to be something better. G.K. Chesterton


susan said...

Hello Alex!

I have to confess, I've never read anything by Conan-Doyle. And I have a degree in Victorian Lit!

This essay inspired me, and I will be going to the library to check him out.

And maybe read him at the ice hotel, which I am dreaming about 24/7.

Thank you.

Alex said...


With a degree in Vic Lit maybe you can help me?
Do you know of Patrick O'Brian's Aubry/Maturin series? I am addicted. Read them 4 times. Do you know of any comparable writers?

Mariana Soffer said...

Good story, and even better ending, you are asking a lot from a person by claimming to be like that. But I guess you are right, we should all aspire to be excelent beings, the best that we possibly can.

Alex said...

Yes, it is asking a lot not to 'stoop to notice' things that annoy the hell out of us.
For example today for me seemed to be one long single annoyance. I am extreemly discouraged. I am far, far from the ideal of chivalry of squire Nigel. But at least I am aware there is an ideal and I am aware that I am far from it.

susan said...

Alex, not offhand, but will be going to the university library on Saturday.

Regarding Chivalry- if you are a good father and husband, surely that should suffice since there are no dragons?

Anonymous said...

Alex: You might give George MacDonald Fraser a try. Check out his book Flashman.

Alex said...


Thanks and yes, I have read most of Fraser's Flashman books a long time ago and I liked them, but he is a rake and that is wearing after a while.
I have also tried Bernard Cornwell but could never forget I was reading a novel.
Forester is good but doesn't have O'Brian's humour and humanity.
I found a 'Guide to the best historical novels' on Project Gutenberg: I will surely find some forgotten gems there.
But where?

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond