Centuries Ago, a Man Made a Piece of Armor That Changed the Course of My Life

I recently wrote a blog post about unintended consequences. I talked about my resignation to the fact that once I complete a manuscript and send it out into the world, I lose all control over how the audience reacts to it. I write the words, but it is the reader who draws meaning from them, filtered through the screen of their own life experiences, varied and vast and completely beyond my control.

And because I have an artist’s ego, I naturally assume that this experience is unique to me, or at least, to my particular corner of the art world.

When you’re done laughing, take a breath and read on.

There’s a reason the arms and armor gallery is in the Metropolitan Museum of ART, and not the Metropolitan Museum of practical military hardware. This is because medieval armor was, like a lot of art, a practically applied form of artistic expression, one that endeavored to work on multiple levels at once. You read about the masters, Koloman Helmschmied, Antonio Missaglia, creating masterworks that could turn an arrow amidst a field of cavorting mermaids and angels, figures from ancient Greek and Roman myth raised out of the hardest substance around.

Who knows what they were thinking? Maybe they thought they were praying, that each hammer stroke was a paean to the almighty. Maybe they thought it was an act of love, protecting the lives of their lords and monarchs. Maybe they were just trying to make a buck. But like the writer, I’m sure they had no idea how their work would be perceived, that a little kid, more than four centuries later, would look at it at and be . . . struck.

But that’s what happened.

My mom took me to the Met when I was knee high to a skeeter, ostensibly as a reaction to my burgeoning interest in Dungeons and Dragons. Like a lot of parents back before geek was chic, she didn’t feel like fantasy was a valid passion, that it should be tempered by “serious” pursuits, namely history. She could see the paladin on the cover of the basic rulebook, and she knew where to find something respectable in the same mode.

I don’t remember much about the trip. I do recall how imposing the place felt. Towering gray walls, reflective marbles floors that made your footsteps echo like gunshots. The whole museum screamed NOT FOR KIDS. I remember wanting to go home, I remember not wanting to disappoint my mother, terrified that I would. I remember turning the corner into the arms and armor gallery.

I remember the joint coming unglued, the needle skipping on the record. I remember time slowing down and my life changing forever.

A friend of mine, aged 4, told his father that when he grew up he wanted to be a John Deere tractor. We both had a good laugh at that, but I identified, because in that moment I wanted nothing more in the world than to be a suit of armor.

It’s not there any more, but front and center in the galley was an Austrian (read: Holy Roman Imperial) suit mounted on a mannequin horse. The helmet was an a plaisance tilting piece with a frog-mouth occularium, a fluted crown, and two giant striped antelope horns for a crest, gracefully curving their way toward the ceiling.

I was stunned. It was that moment that Lev Grossman talks about in The Magicians, where I suddenly realized that all the magic I was dreaming about in fantasy novels and role-playing games was real. It was tangible.

When I later told my mom that was what I wanted to be, she gently explained there were men under that metal. They were called knights.

And that was the last straw. Like all self-perpetuating cults, knighthood was tailor made to engage the young. Apart from the sheer awesome of the armor, it had a metaphysical underpinning, a code of chivalry, courtly love, songs and stories and legends. It was designed to indoctrinate noble children hundreds of years in their graves. It worked like a charm on a Jewish kid from Westchester in the 80s.

I devoured everything I could find on knighthood, moving from picture books to fictional narrative to historical monograph. As I grew, so did the obsession, becoming a scholarly bent. Knighthood came mostly to me through medieval legend, and so my love of the story grew as well, and in particular the fantasy epics and romances: Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur, Troyes Erec, Beowulf, Tristam and Isolde. You get the idea.

I was horrified to find that the knightly garter now girded the loins of musicians and poets, politicians and tycoons. I felt that strange sense that most nerds have, that I’d been born in the wrong century, missed my chance to be who I truly was.

And then I saw a pass-in-review of US Marines on television. The officer at the head of the platoon carried a sword. He was crowned with laurel. A shining eagle spread its wings from his brow. As he passed the reviewing stand, he raised a stiff hand to his temple, sketching the motion of raising a visor.

It never left me. More than 20 years later, I stood in my own pass in review, repeating the words of the Admiral, swearing me in as a knight of my own republic. The words on my lips were prescribed, “. . . support and defend the Constitution of the United States . . .”, the words in my mind were different, I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. Martin’s knightly oath, a song out of legend, words worthy of the occasion.

Four years later, a legend slinger myself, and a knight (as much as one can be in twenty first century America), I went back to the Met. I couldn’t have planned the drama better. There, in the middle of the main foyer now, was that exact same suit of armor, lance in hand, horns towering over me. I took a picture and cast my mind down the years and marveled.

There was no way the man who made that suit could have known what his art would do.

Thank god for unintended consequences.

Myke Cole is the author of the military fantasy Shadow Ops series. The second novel, Fortress Frontier is newly out from Ace.


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