The second tale fron Neil Gaiman‘s collection of short stories, Smoke and Mirrors, is multifaceted as well as entertaining. “Chivalry” is about a lot of things. Like a lot of Gaiman’s work, it’s about love. It’s about growing old, about the mundane vs the fantastic, and about perception. And above all, it’s fantastic.
:There was a moment, then, when it all came back to her – how it was to be young; to have a firm, slim body that would do whatever she wanted it to do; to run down a country lane for the simple unladylike act of running; to have men smile at her just because she was herself and happy about it.”
In “Chivalry”, the elderly Mrs. Whitaker buys the Holy Grail at a second-hand shop, and is visited three times by one of the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Galaad, who would like to reclaim it.
Mrs. Whitaker’s a great character. Though Gaiman goes to great lengths to show how typical and boring her life seems from the outside, he also takes great care with the peace and security with which she approaches it. In her world, even the visits from the magical Galaad become cyclical and everyday, and she approaches them with the same evenhandedness that she does her whole life. It’s peaceful, but not the stifling sort of peace many elderly characters are forced to endure in literature: it’s a kind of doneness that’s comforting to someone so secure in herself. The Grand Quests are over now, not because she’s been left behind but because she left them behind. And though her reaction to the apple, and the youth and eternal life it offers, is fear, there’s a sense that her fear is not misplaced. For she is perfectly happy without it – her fear is in the temptation of going back, when she really doesn’t need to. She’s warm, and thoughtful, and her rapport with Galaad is very intriguing.
Galaad is also a very interesting creation, filled with the stereotypical nobility while still being a kind young man. The style of the tale mostly glosses over his characterizaton, but he was enjoyable to read.I love the details in how a knight would do in a small English village in modern times, with the sugar cubes and the local children bonding with Galaad’s horse Grizzel. He’s principled; he could have taken the Grail by force or by trickery, but instead risks his life to find grand and noble things to replace it with. The funny thing is, he’s thinking too big: Mrs. Whitaker is not a queen or a grand figure in the workings of the gods, but a woman merely looking for something for her mantlepiece. Her life is at a different scale, and he’s unable to see that, to the very end.
The key to this tale is how its written, and Gaiman shows his skill here. This story is all about the details, not because its key to the story that Mrs. Whitaker’s daughter-in-law only likes modern things, but because it fills up this world and gives us a sense of her life. Mrs. Whitaker’s life is all details, all small things, and while at first one can be expected to read that as a boring life, it quickly becomes clear that she deeply values it. Gaiman does this by noting everything as if it’s important (because it’s important), like the quality of Marie’s amateurish attempt at makeup, or the romance novels Mrs. Whitaker buys and never reads, and her kindness to the slugs in her garden.
Mrs. Whitaker’s life, in fact, resembles most people’s lives who don’t live in fiction. Small pleasures, a cyclical life where every day, week, month is likely to look like the last few.To see that respected, glorified even, in the face of grand adventures is a little gratifying. One might read this and think, perhaps its alright that I’ve never climbed Mount Everest or battled a dragon. I’m happy.
Mrs. Whitaker, here, makes a choice: to forsake the apple of youth and move forward with her simple life. Like Belinda, and like most of Gaiman‘s protagonists in Smoke and Mirrors. Not all; some, after all, are defined by never having had a choice, and that indeed is where the tragedy finds them. But he likes to offer them a choice. And where that choice leads them is often, good or ill, what they’ve earned.
Mrs. Whitaker could have chosen a second youth, running and romances, excitement and novelty, but instead chose to keep her life as it was. This is the second story in a row where, having not read the story I would have disagreed with the protagonists’ choices… the wonder of Gaiman is that he makes me question those certainties. He makes me think.