Once, while out adventuring, Lancelot came upon a valley. There an armored knight named Sir Pedivere, with naked sword in hand, was galloping after a woman with murderous intent. Sir Lancelot, following his knightly oath, rode in to intervene on behalf of the woman. The woman (who was wife to her assailant) accepted Lancelot’s protection. Pedivere pleaded with Lancelot that his cause was just. After all, he declared, she was unfaithful to him. Lancelot persisted in his defense of the woman, for not only did she protest these claims, but faithlessness is no reason to commit murder. Pedivere, seeing that his pleas would not effect Lancelot, consented to fight. As they both rode off to begin their tilt, in an act of treachery, Pedivere decapitated his own wife.
The murder, misogyny, and betrayal purported by Pedivere makes him a loathsome character. When I first heard this story, every fiber of my being longed for the catharsis of Lancelot running that dishonorable monster through. Pedivere needed to pay for his crimes.
Lancelot, sharing my opinion, rushed to slay the traitorous man. Pedivere, ever the coward, threw down his arms and begged Lancelot for mercy. Lancelot, bound by his oath, withheld his stroke, but began to plead with Pedivere to fight him. Lancelot, desperate to deliver justice, begged that he consent to a duel, where Lancelot would be without armor, and offered many other handicaps, but Pedivere, fearing Lancelot’s sword, refused. Because Lancelot decided long ago to always show mercy to those who ask mercy, Lancelot let Pedivere go, and carried on in anger and shame. This action of mercy brought Lancelot shame at the court of Arthur and caused a murderer to go free, but this action of mercy was in accordance with the principles of the Pentecostal oath.
This act of mercy is painful to read, much less act out, but according to the world of Le Morte D’Arthur, this act of mercy was an act of righteousness. Lancelot sacrificed his honor and his vengeance for doing what he had long ago decided was right. His act exhibits several important concepts about the moral system of Arthur’s world.
First, the decision to do what is right must be made before the moment to decide occurs. The passion of the moment would have dictated that Lancelot cut off the head of Pedivere, just as Pedivere had cut off the head of his wife. The passion of the moment, however, is only conquered by the conviction of the past. Because Lancelot had sworn the Pentecostal oath, because he had been previously convicted that showing mercy was good, he was able to act rightly. In the same way, we must make our decisions before the hour of decision, for otherwise the passion of the moment will make the decision for us.
Secondly, honor is not to be confused with virtue. Lancelot’s decision to spare Pedivere caused him shame among others. He lost honor from his action. Nevertheless, he did what was right. If our moral calculus is based on what others think, on how honorable we appear to society, our decisions are no longer done for what is right, but what builds up our reputation.
Thirdly, doing what is right can turn your stomach. Sometimes what is good is also difficult to accept. Lancelot would have certainly felt better about himself and his situation had he struck down Pedivere, but his conviction demanded that he act with righteousness, not act to appease his sensibilities. To kill an unarmed man without lawful action is to murder. By showing mercy, Lancelot was preserving a system of law and justice. ancelot sacrificed his sensibilities for the sake of society as a whole. Sometimes what is right requires us to do something that is disgusting.
Fourthly, right action is more important than consequences. In my last post we discussed the importance of examining the results of our actions. When it comes to demonstrating righteousness, however, we must abandon that process of decision making. We must do what is right regardless of how it will affect the world. Letting Pedivere go seems to be an unwise action. Lancelot, rather than trust in his ability to make Pedivere pay for his action, trusted in God to bless his righteous action. Sometimes we have to serve or work with disgusting things, but we must do what is right, and trust in God to make beauty spring from the dry and worthless dust of sin.
The story doesn’t end with Lancelot’s painful mercy. Pedivere was made to carry around his wife’s head with him, a grim reminder of his sin and unworthiness. This shame lead Pedivere to redemption, where he repented of his sin, and lived his life in righteousness. Pedivere, undeserving of such mercy, received mercy abundantly. The act of Lancelot not only saved Pedivere’s life, but it saved his soul. When we read this story, we should act like Lancelot, but we should see ourselves as Pedivere. We are all guilty of disgusting treachery. We all don’t deserve what we have. It is only through the grace of God that we are given what we are given. We bear the severed head of our trespasses around our neck, and we must continually remind ourselves to whom we owe our lives. We ought to show mercy not simply because it is right, but because we too have been shown mercy.
This story isn’t fair. No-one gets what they deserve or want in this story. But life isn’t fair either. Thanks be to God for His abundant mercy.