The Catholic Thing
Practical Romance Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Thursday, 30 April 2009

G. K. Chesterton speaks of the human need for “practical romance” — a mixture of something strange with something secure. And the key thing is to be held to account for the risks and rewards of the romantic adventure. Chesterton writes: “If I bet I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting. If I challenge I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging. If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing. . . . For the purpose even of the wildest romance results must be real; results must be irrevocable.” And marriage, he says, is the ultimate example of a real and irrevocable result.

Too many modern relationships are rather more informal; commitments are desultory. Why? The reasons are manifold. As Leon Kass has written, the so-called sexual revolution has led to an “erosion of shame and awe” with regard to sexuality, with all the familiar consequences: so many abortions, so many unwed parents, so many fatherless children, so many divorces, so much infidelity, so much voyeurism. Restraint is anathema, and with Edmund Burke we may lament that, not only is chivalry dead. Romance is moribund as well:

It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.
On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly.

So wrote Burke in 1790.

It may not matter who is to blame for this state of affairs, but ladies and gentlemen are called upon to make things right, although mostly in their own lives, since only there can romance be real and irrevocable. Their efforts may be edified by a very old story.

King Arthur loses a test of skill with a knight near Carlisle, and he will forfeit his life if he fails within the year to answer the knight’s remarkable, proto-Freudian question: What does a woman want? Arthur is stumped; all of Camelot is stumped, and—365 days having passed—as the king rides despondently to meet his fate, he comes upon a hag (called the “loathly lady”) who asks why he is so cheerless. He explains. The ugly old woman laughs her toothless cackle and says, “I can answer the question.” Arthur promises that if she saves him he’ll grant her anything. Her answer — and it’s the correct one — is that what a woman wants most is to have her own way.

The king is delivered, and he couldn’t be happier until he hears the hag’s quid pro quo: She wants to marry a knight of the Round Table.

Now of all the noble knights at Camelot, none was nobler than Sir Gawain, and he steps forward, ready to fulfill the king’s promise to the hag. Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, (for that’s the loathly lady’s name) are married, and on their wedding night, which Gawain has been dreading, she tells him that she is actually a beautiful woman — the most beautiful — and she may appear so half the day. It’s a curse of course. She is transformed before him, and he is indeed stunned by her splendor. So, she says, you must choose: Shall I be lovely during the day and loathly at night; or loathly in the sunshine and lovely in moonlight?

Either because of his inability to decide or because inspiration has broken through to the medieval male mind, Gawain tells Ragnelle that it must be her decision. This is exactly right: the curse is lifted, and she is beautiful always.

I admire Katherine Kersten’s description of ideal manliness from the standpoint of a “conservative feminist.” She will teach her sons that “while strength is good, the strong have a special responsibility to assist and protect the weak and less fortunate.” She will insist that her boys “understand the importance of behaving with honor under all circumstances, achieving self-mastery, and cultivating restraint.”

It’s not for me to comment broadly on women’s goals. I’ll let Mrs. Kersten do that. Her ideal woman is “the architect of her own happiness,” which she finds in her efforts to “fulfill her responsibilities, to cultivate wisdom, to develop her talents, and to pursue excellence in all her endeavors,” and that “no matter how frustrating others’ behavior may be, she refuses to seek solace in a life of rage and self-pity.”

Who better for a gentleman than such a lady, practical and romantic?

Brad Miner, the senior editor of The Catholic Thing, is the author of five books, including The Compleat Gentleman, a new edition of which will be published on May 6 by Richard Vigilante Books. He and his wife celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary yesterday.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Dan Deeny, April 30, 2009
Superb article. I will look for Sir Gawain's story. Is it Sir Gawain and The Green Knight? This story should be read in all high schools.
written by debby, April 30, 2009
all i can say is, WHY DIDN'T YOU HAVE MORE BOYS TO RAISE INTO WONDERFUL MEN????????????? you could adopt.....maybe the Pope would let JUST YOU be cloned! kidding aside, in all sincerity, what a gift your manhood is to all women! i hope you are a youth group leader. i hope you write more & are widely read by every young person. any ideas? so many young people need to hear these truths! love to you and all your family!!
written by David W. Rusch, April 30, 2009
I love this article. Ya know - I've never been practical in romancce :).

But ya never know!!!!!!
Noble Article
written by William Dennis, April 30, 2009
Welcome to the "American Babylon" as Father Neuhaus' last book is titled. This is the era of no real truth and that is the truth-- the age of rational irrationality. What is the purpose of a meaningless promise of fidelity, when chastity is viewed as a restriction of freedom. Our new found freedoms have put us in the prison of despair and robbed us of the pleasure of romantic adventure,trust and respect. The legacy of the 60's is nihlism and despair. It has turned our damsals into objects.
to Brad
written by debby, May 01, 2009
hey, i just re-read your article over the phone to my daughter who turned 21 on your 25th anniversary & i had one of my great ideas....she's a junior at Ave Maria University. why don't you run a "what a gentleman is" retreat for those students? the kids are great but they need Your H.E.L.P.
have you ever considered turning your book into a conference/retreat/seminar??? come on brad, use your Protestant evangelizing background!
and Happy Anniversary Dear Knight and Lady Miner!
Wife of Bath's Tale
written by Jeannine, May 01, 2009
No, this story isn't "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," though the Green Knight is a really good story. A version of this story appears in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as the Wife of Bath's Tale. And a very good one it is!
To Debby
written by Brad Miner, May 01, 2009
As always, thanks for your kind words. About a retreat at Ave Maria or elsewhere: I have spoken to groups of young men and . . . it has often not gone well. What's not in this most recent article is this: chivalry is the worldview of fighting men. Chivalry is Catholic at its core, but combative too. Many young men recoil at the militancy that is an inseperable part of chivalry. I have many broken bones and a cold stare. Are kids ready for that? I believe in love, yes, but in prowess too.
written by Karl, May 01, 2009
A wonderful article. I work in student life at a college and see a poverty of passion in the relationships between the young men and women. It seems there's no passion because there's no temperance, and there's no temperance because there's no courage, and no courage because there's no reason. Thanks for another great article. It definitely made me think and I will definitely show it to my students. Keep them coming!
Sources (for Dan Deeny)
written by Brad Miner, May 01, 2009
I'm sorry to be late in posting this response to Dan's question, which anyway is well answered by Jeannine. Yes, the very opinionated Wife of Bath tells the tale of the Loathly Lady and Gawain, but I mostly took my version from Thomas Bulfinch's THE AGE OF CHIVALRY. If you have kids, there's a very fine version by Selina Hastings, SIR GAWAIN & THE LOATHLY LADY.
Your Book
written by debby - again,sorry, May 05, 2009
well brad, lick your wounds and keep fighting. i will do my utmost to buy as many copies as i can afford and give them to young men. my 21yr old daughter is going to read it over the summer, altho i hate to say, her standards are already so high, i'm afraid she will be completely anti-modern-young men after reading the way they should be. what's a lady who is not called to relig/single life to do??? she's already convinced that any guy under 30 is a child. very scary

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