Who's Your Daddy?: New Age Grails

Article excerpt

In Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father's Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood, Robert Lewis, Pastor-at-Large for the Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, incorporates a new age mythopoetic analysis of castrated masculinity doused with buckets of non-denominational Christianity to argue that, by following the child-rearing examples of medieval knights, twenty-first century fathers can prepare their sons for clear, inspiring, biblically grounded lives. This article interrogates the absences around which such medieval fantasies of knighthood cohere. (LF and MBS)

Although it is a narrative about genealogy, the Morte Darthur has, at its center, the figure of the absent father. Young boys are raised by men other than their fathers-Arthur is raised by Hector, Gawain is raised by Arthur, Gareth is raised by his mother, Galahad is raised by a collection of religious figures, most prominently Cistercian monks. Yet there seems to be a constant longing for the father: to be one's father, to surpass one's father, to avenge one's father. Many knights seek the approval of a father long dead, a father they hardly ever knew-a kind of mourning, perhaps. Mordred and Galahad get to know their fathers under very different circumstances. Mordred comes to the court of a father who refuses to acknowledge him as a legitimate heir. Galahad meets and is knighted by a father who represents the very vices he has been taught to reject. The search for the Holy Grail is inextricably tied up with the search for the 'proper' relation to the absent father. Both Mordred and Galahad ultimately seek to repudiate their fathers. Aristocratic masculinity, the hegemonic masculinity of the Middle Ages, is defined through primogeniture by the link to the father but frequently marked by his absence. For this reason, it is occasionally shocking to discover the extent to which contemporary medievalisms draw upon aristocratic knighthood as an exemplar of the proper relationship of father to son. This essay examines why some late twentieth-century writers searching for an antidote to paternal failure in their own time look to the medieval romance, ironically a genre rife with parental loss, indifference, neglect, and even outright violence,1 for a paradigm to reconfigure the modern family, a paradigm that deploys an imaginary relationship designed to structure normative gender and authorize a hegemonic masculinity conceived as timeless and static.

In the early 1990s the New Age, mythopoetic men's movement, inspired, perhaps, by the success of Joseph Campbell's popularizations of Jungian psychoanalysis,2 looked to the past, including the European Middle Ages, to reinvigorate white masculinity in an America dramatically changed by rapidly advancing technological shifts as well as the challenges of the civil-rights and women's movements. In Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), which would became the most famous of the treatises giving shape to this movement designed to put men in touch with their inner warrior, poet Robert Bly channeled a Brothers Grimm folktale to critique parenting practices-most particularly the relationships of fathers to sons-in the aftermath of the industrial revolution.3 For Bly, men had become distanced both from the land (from nature) and from their sons. He worried that as men increasingly submitted to the pressures of modernity, as they complied more and more with the demands of the workplace, sons fell under the influence of women, mothers and teachers ill-equipped to guide them into proper manhood. Bly's mandate, that men reclaim their own masculinity, return to the land, and become more central to the educations of their sons, resonated for a generation of cubicle workers for whom the sun had been replaced by florescent lighting; it resonated for a generation of men who believed themselves increasingly disempowered both by technology and feminism. Bly offered a reactionary patriarchal politics, sugar-coated with New Age feel-good aphorisms and tales plundered from ancient traditions around the globe. …