When Lancelot was eighteen years old and itching to become a knight, Viviane told him these qualifications for the order:
At the beginning all men were equals; but when envy and covetousness grew, when force triumphed over right, it became necessary to appoint defenders for the weak against the strong. They were called knights. The strongest, ablest, and best were selected for this purpose. A knight must be merciful, kind-hearted, liberal, just, and fearless. Shame must be harder for him to bear than death. He is a defender of the Holy Church. In those early days nobody, unless he was a knight, mounted a horse. The arms a knight carries are designed for special purposes. As the shield covers the knight, he must protect the Holy Church from robbers and infidels. As the hauberk guards the knight's body, he must safeguard the Holy Church. The helmet shields the knight's head; the knight must shield the Holy Church from all who attempt to injure her. As the fear of the lance-head drives back the unarmed, the fear of the knight must prevent all evil-doers from approaching the Holy Church.
The double-edged sword, the most honourable weapon, is used to kill by stabbing and to strike right and left. Its two edges signify that the knight is the servant of God and the people. The sword's point is the symbol of obedience. All people must obey the knight. The horse which carries the knight is the servant of God and the people. The people enjoy the knight's protection; they must provicde him with the necessities for an honourable life. As the knight guides his horse, he must lead the people. He must defend the clergy, the widows, orphans, the tithes, and alms.
The Church must maintain the knight spiritually. The knight must posess two hearts, one soft as wax, the other, hard as diamon [or, lodestone]. Inexorable towards the wicked, the knight must be merciful towards the good. He must have no pity for the evil-doer, and not be hard towards those claiming pity and compassion. Such are some of the obligations of a knight. A knight who fails to fulfil them disgraces himself in this world and loses his place in heaven.
As examples of worthy knights, the Damsel of the Lake then cited John the Hircanian, Judas Maccabeus and his brother Symon, and King David – all in the Old Testament time when the Israelites fought their enemies; and, after the Passion of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea, his son King Galahad, and their descendants King Pelles of Listenois (Pellam) and his brother Alain le Gros.
Helin le Blank, Galahad, and Percivale were all dubbed knights at age fifteen (some sources say Galahad was eighteen). Lancelot, as appears above, was dubbed in his late teens. I believe that age twenty-one was usual in historical practice for a young man who had come up through the standard education of page, squire, and bachelor; I suspect that fifteen was unusually young even in romance and legend, and is mentioned as showing that the youth was a prodigy.
Young knight were often put to the worse in jousting, for fighting on horseback required experience. Because of their youthful strength and agility, they were good on foot. Thus, older knights might seek to gain glory by jousting with younger, but then refuse to fight the younger knights on foot. Sir Mordred (probably still in his earlier promise, before his wickedness came to the surface) explains this to the damsel Maledisant:
[La Cote Male Taile] is a good knight, and I doubt not but he shall prove a noble knight; but as yet he may not yet sit sure on horseback, for he that shall be a good horseman it must come of usage and exercise. But when he cometh to the strokes of his sword he is then noble and mighty, and that saw Sir Bleoberis and Sir Palomides, for wit ye well they are wily men of arms, and anon they know when they see a young knight by his riding, how they are sure to give him a fall from his horse a great bufflet.
But for the most part they will not light on foot with young knights, for they are wight and strongly armed. For in likewise Sir Launcelot du Lake, when he was first made knight, he was often put to the worse upon horseback, but ever upon foot he recovered his renown, and slew and defoiled many knights of the Round Table. And therefore the rebukes that Sir Launcelot did unto many knights causeth them that be men of prowess to beware; for often I have seen the old proved knights rebuked and slain by them that were but young beginners.
Malory also remarks that the knight “was never formed that all times might stand, but sometimes he was put to the worse by mal-fortune; and at sometime the worse knight put the better knight to a rebuke.”
Sir Dinadan, after egging King Mark on to fight Lamorak, rails at Mark for being bested:
Then Sir Dinadan mocked King Mark and said: Ye are not able to match a good knight. As for that, said King Mark, at the first time I jousted with this knight ye refused him. Think ye that it is a shame to me? said Sir Dianadan: nay sir, it is ever worship to a knight to refuse that thing that he may not attain, therefore your worship had been much more to have refused him as I did; for I warn you plainly he is able to beat such five as ye and I be; for ye knights of Cornwall are no men of worship as other knights are.
And because ye are no men of worship ye hate all men of worship, for never was bred in your country such a[nother] knight as is Sir Tristram.
Dinadan was never a man to fight needlessly, and his opinion as to the glory of refusing single combat with a better knight may be strictly a personal excuse rather than a widespread sentiment. As for the latter part of his statement, similar gratuitous expressions occur so often in Malory’s work [despite the fact that the Cornish knights who appear as characters seem no worse as a body than any other group of knights] that I believe “Cornish knights” jokes must have been to Malory’s generation what “Polack” jokes are to ours; perhaps every generation has its butt for such jokes, whether it be the Cornish knight, the Irishman, the moron, the Pole, the Italian, or the mother-in-law.
Weapons might be poisoned. Sir Marhaus carried a venomed spear into battle with Tristram. It did not save Marhaus, but Tristram could not be healed of the wound until he went into Ireland, where the venom had come from, and was cared for by La Beale Isoud. Marhaus had been accounted a noble knight and had been a member of the Round Table, and I recall no censure of him for carrying a poisoned weapon, even though this trick might have been a holdover from an earlier version of the Tristram tale in which Marhaus lacked the noble history he has in Malory.
Lancelot remarked, after Meliagrant’s archers had shot his horse from ambush,
... it is an old saw, A good man is never in danger but when he is in the danger of a coward".
Another point to remember is that
when men be hot in deeds of arms oft they hurt their friends as well as their foes.
Again, Lancelot is talking, and he certainly ought to know.
Simply being wounded need not keep a good knight down. King Mark needed Tristram to fight the Saxon captain Elias, but Tristram was lying abed, sorely wounded from the previous day’s battle. At Mark’s plea, Tristram agreed to get up and fight again,
for as yet my wounds be green, and they will be sorer a seven night than they be now; and therefore ... I will do battle-to-morn [against Elias].