New Worlds: Codes of Honor
Hello, everyone! You may notice that your regularly scheduled New Worlds Patreon essay is in a different place this week. That’s because Book View Cafe, its usual home, has been having massive and ongoing problems with Hostgator, which as of me posting this are not resolved. (And even when it seems like they’re resolved, the site keeps going down again.) So this week I’m posting here on my own blog, and will continue to do so until I’m sure things are stable again over at BVC. (If you’re a regular reader of Swan Tower who doesn’t normally click through to BVC for my Patreon essays, welcome, and I hope you enjoy!)
With that out of the way, let’s get down to business!
Sometimes when we talk about a code of honor, we mean an amorphous thing, a vaguely agreed-upon set of standards that have never been formally defined. Other times, we mean a very well-defined thing, with a name and specific tenets known to all.
. . . or do we?
Let’s take a look at bushidō, the Japanese samurai code. It literally means “way of the warrior,” and it is one of the most emblematic aspects of traditional Japanese culture. Its tenets are righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor, loyalty, and self-control.
But when did this get established? Was it in the seventh century, when the samurai class first arose? Was it in the twelfth century, when the first shogunate (military dictatorship) was established? Was it in the sixteenth century, when Japan was torn apart by war?
It was in 1899, after Japan began to modernize and the privileges of the samurai class had been abolished.
The term got used in one seventeenth-century text, but bushidō wasn’t a word in general usage until the twentieth century, after Nitobe Inazō wrote the book Bushido: The Soul of Japan. Prior to that there was certainly a sense that samurai ought to behave in a particular fashion . . . but much of that sense still dates to the Tokugawa period, i.e. the seventeenth century onward, when Japan enjoyed relative piece and those much-vaunted warriors were transforming into bureaucrats.
In other words, a great deal of what we think of when we say “bushidō” is a product of nostalgia. It’s people projecting back on the good ol’ days, an idealized image of what it meant to be a member of a particular group. Much the same is true of chivalry; it’s always been nostalgic, a product of writers (whether modern, nineteenth-century, Renaissance, or medieval) imagining a still-earlier era when the world was a more virtuous place.
Which isn’t to say there’s no truth to these ideas at all. Bushidō might be a modern word and a nostalgic set of rules, but if you dig back into the actual writings of the periods when samurai were warriors first and foremost, you’ll easily find praise for virtues like courage or fanatical loyalty to one’s lord. European knights were similarly expected to be courageous and obedient to their lords, pious and honest, etc. These ideas didn’t come out of thin air; they arise from historical truth, which then has the rough edges sanded off and some holes patched here and there.
Where things get weird is when you try to build fiction off the idea that a society like that really and truly existed in exactly the form described. In the game Legend of the Five Rings, whose setting is based on a fantasy version of Japan, a seven-tenet version of bushidō holds sway, and the writers have sometimes taken this to a ridiculous extreme. Because loyalty is such a pre-eminent concern, for example, being made rōnin — a masterless samurai — is literally a fate worse than death, and it’s nearly impossible for a rōnin to join most of the clans. In historical Japan, by contrast, being rōnin was more like unemployment: not an ideal situation, certainly, but men became rōnin and then swore to a new lord without it being a huge deal. Even more egregious is the notion that, because courage is a tenet of bushidō, samurai never retreat from battle — not even for intelligent, tactical reasons. (Fortunately, more recent editions of L5R have dialed these interpretations back to more reasonable levels.)
Chivalric romances read weirdly in part because they are chivalric. A society in which knights behave according to the virtues we attach to that word winds up not looking much like real medieval society at all, because real knights only followed some of those virtues some of the time, and often in different ways than the romances depict. This isn’t just a matter of reality being grittier and scuzzier than our literary constructs: there are also pragmatic concerns like economy and weather that simply don’t play any role in the chivalric image of the world. Lancelot never had to worry about trail rations or snowstorms that hit when there’s no convenient castle to shelter in. The elite of the antebellum American South tried to hold up chivalry as an ideal to live by, but that kind of gentility required the presence of an enormous slave class to prop it up — and women of color were most definitely excluded from the protections chivalry theoretically offered to their sex.
Even when we’re talking about a code that may exist in reality somewhat as it does in fiction, things look weird. This is the case with omertà, the southern Italian ideal that says true men should solve their grievances directly, without recourse to the authorities. A whole society that follows that sort of code would be utterly anarchic; when only part of society does that, the rest stare at them wondering why they consider it a heinous offense to report even the crimes of their enemies to the police. But omertà is a limited code, focused more on silence than a whole package of behavior, and even then it gets breached all the time.
When it comes to handling this stuff in fiction, a writer has some interesting options to play with. Is the code of honor in question a work of nostalgia, projecting clean ideals onto a past that was nothing like so tidy? Are people in the present day of the story trying to live by a set of rules their forebears dishonored more often than not? Or are you building something on the explicit premise of “what if this were really true,” the way L5R does? What are the tenets of that code, and what happens when they run into parts of reality that aren’t covered by the rules? Who is expected to follow that code, and who gets left outside its protection? Does it have metaphysical force, the way the Honor stat does in the L5R roleplaying game , or is it purely a social construct?
The only thing I don’t recommend doing is taking the concept entirely at face value, with no critical thought at all. Unless — and this is always the disclaimer on my New Worlds essays — you’re writing something that isn’t meant to feel like a realistic world. If you’re doing allegory or surrealism or something else in that vein, it can work just fine to say “the tenets are X, Y, and Z, and everyone obeys them perfectly.” But realistic societies, even when fantastical or science-fictional, are messier than that.