Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Middle Shelf Story: Neil Gaiman's "Chivalry"

Few popular authors write much about aging, which is odd given that many more of their readers will undergo it than will ever foil a terrorist plot or argue a controversial case before a court of law or have a torrid fling with an 18th-century corsair with muscles in his earlobes. But the challenges of slowly losing the things and people you love to time crop up enough in Neil Gaiman’s fiction to make it if not a preoccupation, then at least an ongoing theme. “Chivalry” is a prime example.

Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat.
The short’s central premise is simple: Mrs. Whitaker, a lonely widow, happens upon the famous chalice while combing through thrift-store junk, buys it and plunks it on her mantelpiece, where it rests between a picture of her dead husband and “a small, soulful china basset hound.” It isn’t long, though, before Sir Galahad (or “Galaad,” as Gaiman prefers to spell it) turns up on a “Right High and Noble Quest,” which just happens to be procuring the Grail.

The doorbell rang.

Mrs. Whitaker answered the door. It was a young man with shoulder-length hair so fair it was almost white, wearing gleaming silver armor, with a white surcoat.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hello,” said Mrs. Whitaker.

“I’m on a quest,” he said.

“That’s nice,” said Mrs. Whitaker, noncommittally.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

Mrs. Whitaker shook her head. “I’m sorry, I don’t think so,” she said.

“I’m on a quest for the Holy Grail,” the young man said. “Is it here?”

“Have you got any identification?” Mrs. Whitaker asked.
Much of the story’s humor and pathos -- and there’s plenty of both -- comes from the juxtaposition of the two characters’ aims. Galaad, tall and young, with white-blond hair, clad in armor with a brilliant sheen, astride his massive warhorse Grizzel, seeks the satisfaction of his knightly errand. He tries to win over Mrs. Whitaker through lavish gifts, wooing her with gold and the ancient sword Balmung and a bevy of mythical offerings. For her part, Mrs. Whitaker wants none of it. She’d like it if you helped her pick slugs out of her garden and enjoyed a glass of homemade lemonade with her and told her how nice that silver cup looks above the mantle. Because all the magical doodads can’t bring back to her the things she once treasured that are now lost.

“And that’s all I have brought for you,” said Galaad. “They weren’t easy to get, either.”

Mrs. Whitaker put the ruby fruit down on her kitchen table. She looked at the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Egg of the Phoenix, and the Apple of Life.

Then she walked into her parlor and looked at the mantelpiece: at the little china basset hound, and the Holy Grail, and the photograph of her late husband Henry, shirtless, smiling and eating an ice cream in black and white, almost forty years away.
Gaiman chooses comedy over despair for the ending, and the tale’s better for it. Yet a sense of sadness lingers, and that’s how it should be. We rarely visit the house of mourning, and Mrs. Whitaker is a good guide for a culture which all-too-easily forgets that she even exists.

You can read “Chivalry” in Smoke and Mirrors
or M Is for Magic.


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I might have to check it out.

So far, the vast majority of Gaiman's short stories (unlike his novels) have struck me as disappointing.

But he did write that one where English pubgoers turn out to be acolytes of Cuthulu, which was absolutely brilliant (especially when read by Gaiman.)

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, that one was called "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar." You can listen to it here.

JBB2 said...

An audio presentation of "Chivalry," read by Jane Curtin, is temporarily available on the NPR site (from the "Selected Shorts" program), at http://bit.ly/fVi6y.

JBB2 said...

Oops...that was last week. You can find it at http://podcastdownload.npr.org/anon.npr-podcasts/podcast/4787204/510202/102229202/NPR_102229202.mp3

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks, JBB2! Downloading now ...

Melancholy Celibate said...

It's a long way after you wrote about Chivalry, but I just read the story this morning. It's a model of economy - that opening sentence - and quiet wit. And I quite agreed with you that it's a glimpse into a world that we don't examine often enough.
The hint in the story that Mrs Whitaker is happy to let the Grail become a metaphor for winning her honour struck me as even more touching. Galaad sets himself epic, heroic tasks, while her tasks are more mundane - slug hunting, and box shifting. And in the end, virtue is triumphant and wisdom prevails, as she turns away from her youth.
I've just found your blog - it's great. And now it's bookmarked!

Loren Eaton said...

Thank so much for stopping by!

This is one of my absolute favorite stories. Gaiman handles the proceedings with humor and gentleness, a rarity in any sort of fiction. I love it and am glad you do, too.