The small squire grips her shield tighter and starts down the trail, as the trees close overhead. She has prepared herself for the unknown, but not for the path to be quite this gloomy. It doesn’t occur to her that she has played in these woods all her life; now she’s on a journey, and if she lives up to her code of chivalry, she’ll be knighted by the end of this quest. As she passes under each branch, she recites the code: “Be loyal to the King. Fight against evil and hatred. Do not give up in the face of danger. Do not boast. Protect the poor and needy. Give generously to all. Be gentle and courteous to ladies. Right what is wrong. Be ready to die for your people.” And one more provisional order for this particular quest: “Don’t be tempted to stray from the path.”

She hoists her shield higher on her shoulder, swings her bag of provisions jauntily, wonders if she’s traveled long enough to warrant a bite of the juicy apple that keeps bumping against her leg. She jumps back as a stranger steps from the shadows, stooped, haggard, and – ah! – unarmed. “Good day, sir,” she inquires in her bravest voice. “Are you well?” “I am so very hungry,” answers the shabbily dressed fellow. “Could you spare me a bite to eat?” “Here, you can have my apple, it’s very good,” replies the small squire, bestowing her gift with a wobbly smile. She skip-marches down the path, unaware that her lovely apple has met with six others in the stranger’s pack, and will be joined by four more by evening’s end. He can’t afford to enjoy one, even though he is getting rather hungry, because the next squire will be coming down the trail as soon as the last one is out of sight.

Young squires return victorious from a quest. All photographs by Martin Huleatt. Used by permission.

Over a small rise, our knight-in-training encounters an old lady whose barrow of rocks has spilled all over the road. The poor woman is so tired, yet she must bring her load home before nightfall. The young squire jumps to the task and soon has the barrow filled, offering to push it where it needs to go. But the grandmother graciously declines, saying she’ll manage fine from here, and she waves her thanks till the dauntless young squire reaches the bend in the road, then begins to lift the rocks back out of the cart – at least so it appears to the squire as she looks back once before turning the bend. But perhaps it was just a trick of the shadows.

Our adventurer is wandering through the prettiest nook in the woods, and perhaps her guard is down, because when a wood nymph with silky lavender locks and a winning grin lilts from a thicket, “Lollipops! Come sample my lovely lollipops!” her front foot is off the path and into the high grass at once. Luckily her back foot lags a little, while her conscience consults the code. No, that nymph is flitting from tree to tree, each one further from the path. Such lollipops are not in the squire’s lexicon. Right foot rejoins left on the narrow road to knighthood, and the tempting call of the siren, though suspiciously louder and more incessant now that it has been refused, can be safely ignored.

Victory! At the forest’s edge await Arthur and Guinevere, a cohort of fellow squires, and a bevy of knights and ladies – all, as fate would have it, parents of the courageous questers, standing ready with hugs and congratulations. A knighting ceremony ensues, followed by a banquet, jousting tournament, archery, and general merriment.

With this initiation, my first-grade daughter joins a long line of Bruderhof kids knighted during summer camp – including, once upon a time, myself.

Bruderhof schools keep their doors open in summer, though the kids join the rest of the community for lunch, and take a midday hour to chill at home. Activities range from hiking to gardening, swimming, camping, and nature study. Some of the older groups might practice and perform an outdoor play. But the younger ages will often theme their summer around a storybook they’re reading together, usually one of courage and adventure, be it Robin Hood and his merry men, cowboys of the old West, or knights of the Round Table. Hands down, the happiest summers of my childhood were spent in Camelot, Sherwood Forest, and along the Oregon Trail: wearing green and swinging out of trees, shooting homemade bows and arrows, or slapping on a Stetson and learning to ride an ornery pony. Oh, the wide-open plains of southwest Pennsylvania!

The happiest summers of my childhood were spent in Camelot, Sherwood Forest, and along the Oregon Trail.

Admittedly, I was a kid with a runaway imagination, and I came by it honestly. My paternal grandfather, John Bazeley, hailed from Merrie Olde England, reveled in tales of Sherwood, and was in fact passionately devoted to the idea of redistributing the ill-gotten gains of the wealthy to those whom they had exploited. In another age, however apocryphal, he might have signed on with Robin’s men, though there could have been one hitch; he was also rather proud of the family name, which in its Norman form Basilia dates back to sometime in the 1100s and has a crest which involves such flourishes as: “Azure, three Fleur de Lys Argent, and a Hand holding a Chapeau between Two Branches of Laurel.”

My grandmother was, if possible, even more romantic. Perhaps we could blame it on her name: Marguerite Gwladys Dering (I always thought that ought to be prefaced by the word Lady, but she went by Peggy – shortened to Pegs by her sisters Josephine and Yvonne, also known as Jo and Bobs). When she lent me her beloved King Arthur storybook, given to her by her father on her ninth birthday, she told me it was the only possession she had left from her childhood.

The author’s daughter awaits her turn to be knighted.

When she contracted some dread childhood fever at age ten, all her toys and books were thrown out for fear of contagion. She grabbed this one precious volume off the heap and, in tones as regal as the Lady of the Lake’s, declared: “It shall not burn!” Her father did the courtly thing, patiently fumigating every page with a hot poker. In fact, the book was in more danger from the poker than anyone was from possible contagion, but it survived, and so did a good story. I had my turn to pore over the well-worn pages and the forty-eight gorgeous “color plates,” clasping the handle of an imaginary sword as it emerged from the waters of a lake and declaring it Excalibur.

A century post-poker, my daughter follows suit. Then she suits up in her knight gear – actually more of a Shieldmaiden-of-Rohan look – and goes questing. Or, likely in future summers, Sherwooding or cattle-herding.

Now, as in my own childhood, neither teachers nor kids make any of these themes a gender-specific thing. “We’re cowboys this summer!” is the blissful announcement to parents some June evening, and then girls and boys alike get busy learning the songs, building a chuck wagon, making a prairie camp, figuring out saddles and tack. Or, “We’re learning chivalry!” There’s going to be a castle somewhere, and our very own shields to make and inscribe. There will be grand forest adventures, but also stars to earn through the age-old virtues of honor, honesty, valor, and loyalty.

There will be grand forest adventures, but also stars to earn through the age-old virtues of honor, honesty, valor, and loyalty.

Young knights may earn stars around their community by opening doors for the elderly, offering to push someone’s wheelchair, or running helpful errands. King Arthur may notice and add a shiny star to a shield, but it may also happen that nobody notices at all, and that star is between the knight and the person she assisted. It’s still there.

What is honor? It may be something as humble as not taking the last cookie on the snack plate because a friend also looks hungry. Loyalty comes in many guises, such as walking with the squire who is falling behind on a longer quest. Or rejoicing in the knighthood of Sir Robert who just made it back from the hospital in time for the ceremony, and celebrating what he contributes to the Round Table. And valor too is open to interpretation. It’s not only found in daring a path through a dim forest, but in facing up to a fellow knight who’s become a bit of a braggart. You might think of courtly dignity in the modern terms of self-respect.

These lessons in character are vividly illustrated by the heraldry that each child chooses and paints on her personal shield. My daughter chose a camel and an apple, and while I was delightedly picturing those two items in close proximity, she informed me that in heraldry, a camel represents patience and perseverance, and an apple, happiness and peace. (She also threw in a big red Saint George’s Cross for strength.) I was glad my amusement hadn’t reached the surface yet, and as she shot out of the room to tell her dad, I thought on the meanings of her first and second names – this surprise child, who does nothing slowly or in half measures. Grace of God and Happy One.

Camels and apples. Perseverance and peace. What did my daughter learn this summer? To shield, help, and uplift. Perhaps next year she’ll be herding hypothetical cattle or building a bower in the greenwood. The virtue of such shared imagination is more than reenacting might-have-beens. It’s experiencing what could be, a joint lesson in the starting point for all adventures, all beginnings: “I am here on this beautiful earth for some good reason. Others will need my help on the road and I will need theirs. Forward!”