Thursday, October 6, 2011


Richard the Lionhearted

I have a little confession to make. I have always liked men with a bit of scruff.  I once read a funny blog ("Stuff Parisians Like") about Paris men which argued that a good scruff sends Parisian men to the very top of the sexiness scale. It read as follows: "With just a scruff, Parisian men manage to attract women, express their inalienable freedom and stop time."  Wow. That's quite a claim. If it's true, I wonder why more men don't sport a little scruff. There is something about a man with a couple of days of beard that suggests a ruggedness or capacity for adventure that is just plain manly. It is especially sexy in a Frenchman bred in the city, as it marries both refinement and ruggedness, gentlemanly, old-world manners and an adventurous soul: ingredients, which, when combined, make for the best kind of men.  At least in my view. And in the view of a lot of women I know.

Maybe, in part, it's the confidence it implies, without the need to scream defiance, just the willingness to be oneself, wearing the marks of a civilized manner lightly, but not so lightly that the bush is completely overwhelmed. Or maybe this kind of man implies he can keep his woman safe from harm, but not too safe, and not safe from Life. You know the type, noble in spirit, but he's a little bit bad, too. Or at least he could be, and wouldn't. Perhaps it recalls the Indiana Jones type: educated, capable of capturing the heights of intellectual pursuits, or soaring poetry, without sacrificing any of the rough and ready quality that makes a man a man.  (And it doesn't hurt that Indiana saves his lady, too, my daughter just reminded me).  The kind of man that can climb mountains, lead you to summit the dangerous or icy parts because of his courage and character and strength, and then come down for dinner and choose the perfect wine to complement dinner that doesn't yell pretense, just pleasure.   The kind of man you'd like to climb with if you were going to summit yourself. A man with a steely backbone ("of heart", the root meaning of the word courage) and a capacity for sweetness ("with heart", the root meaning of the word courtesy). Lionhearted.

I am not the first, and won't be the last to apply this term to a man. Students of history will immediately recall that amazing son of the great Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and her second husband King Henry II (a manly sort, and of heart but not with heart) who became King of England: Richard the Lionhearted. When I was in graduate school, I visited the spot in Austria, at Melk, where he was imprisoned, and I have long remembered that romantic old story I first heard there, and which I have told to my children since they were small.  The old tale describes the quest of his liege and trouver (travelling minstrel), Blondel, who, legend has it, found his King in the castle after a long search by singing the ballad written by Richard himself.  Blondel went about the country singing the verses until one day they were answered from on high, and looking up, he discovered his King, hanging out the window and bellowing the verses. He was subsequently ransomed by his country, and freed. It is doubtful whether this is a true tale, but it is a pretty one nonetheless, and one which suited the nature of the King, or at least his legend.  Here was a King, born of a mother who had begun and encouraged the courts of love in Southern France, and a father who was virile and strong, and he combined the best of both parents. if perhaps inherited a few of their vices. He was strong, and true, and of heart, a courageous leader in battle. But he was also with heart, and though hardly perfect, a benevolent ruler for the most part, as capable of great feats in battle as he was composing ballads in the best knightly troubadour style. In fact, it is this knightly quality to which we allude when we say Lionhearted.

Statue of Richard the Lionhearted in front of the British Parliament

On my walk the other day, I was pondering this, and it occured to me that the same thing could be said about food. What makes food sexy? Is there a way of cooking that is Lionhearted? Of course, there is that quality of Volupte', for which there is no adequate English translation, but suggests a quality of sensuousness without indulgence, a capacity for cooking with great heart without overwhelming the heart with richness or  preciousness. It's the kind of food that's cooked with flawless technique, but isn't always safe and isn't afraid of being rustic.  Flawless technique translates into perfectly executed, but not overwrought, teased and towered such that one wonders if the original ingredients are even recognizable. It's the kind of cooking that respects the ingredients, so that their true character shines out, but applies to them a seasoned skill capable of sacrificing pretense to pleasure.  Lionhearted cooking is of heart, courageous in the sense that it is not a slave to any master other than technique applied with wisdom, but also with heart, having great capacity to make of life, art.  It is rustic, tied to the earth, but bearing the refinement of centuries of layered culture.  The cook, or the chef, is less concerned about impressing than about pleasing.  Perhaps, he or she has left behind his or her ego, and is striking out to bring pleasure and love to those for whom she or he cooks. When I think of this kind of cooking, what comes to mind is the cuisine of Tuscany or of Provence, and I am not surprised that both are as widely beloved as they are, for they combine the best qualities, not unlike the ideal man I described at the outset.  We find this kind of food immensely appealing.

In C.S. Lewis' wonderful Narnia series, of which many movies have been made, he describes Aslan, the Lion, who is the Christ-figure in the books, as anything but a safe Lion.  Lewis, ever the thoughtful theologian with the most wonderful imagination, understood that to step out in faith is to live a life that is not safe. Christ is not safe, and he calls us to live courageously, of heart, and let go of the lifelines we have long thought kept us safe.  Why? Because it is only as we do this that we are able to climb. We are asked to step out and lose our lives to find them, to climb without the safety of the rope that ties us to the ground. But we are still climbing on the earth, tied to its physicality, tied to its beauty and its challenges, and gloriously so. And so we climb together with heart, having the courtesy, or mutual love for each other, that is one of the keys to the summit.  Lionhearted.

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