Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart
|French literary history|
Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (French: Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette) is an Old French poem by Chrétien de Troyes. It is unknown exactly when the poem was composed, only that it would have been between 1175 and 1181 (most likely 1177). It was composed before or at the same time as Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, (Le Chevalier de Lion), the two serving as companion pieces with overlapping narratives. The story is an Arthurian legend, and one of the first to feature Lancelot as a prominent character. The narrative tells about the abduction of Queen Guinevere, and is the first text to feature the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. While little is known about the life of Chrétien de Troyes, it can be said that his writings impacted the Arthurian canon, establishing Lancelot’s subsequent prominence in English literature. Chrétien was the first writer to deal with the Arthurian themes of the lineage of Lancelot, his relationship to Guinevere, and the idea of courtly love. It is believed that Chrétien did not complete the text himself, eventually disagreeing with the story's heavily featured theme of courtly love.
The action centers on Lancelot's rescue of the queen after she has been abducted by Meleagant, the son of Bademagu. The abduction of Guinevere is one of the oldest motifs in Arthurian legend, appearing also in Caradoc of Llancarfan's Life of Gildas, and carved on the archivolt in Modena Cathedral. After Chrétien's version became popular, it was incorporated into the Lancelot-Grail Cycle and eventually into Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The story deals with Lancelot's trials rescuing Guinevere, and his struggles to balance his duties both as a warrior and a lover bound by the conventions of courtly love.
Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart, begins with Guinevere being abducted by Meleagant, who tricked Arthur into allowing him to do so. After Gawain protests Arthur’s decision to let them go, Arthur obliges to let Gawain go after them. While Gawain is looking for the pair, he runs into the then unnamed Lancelot who, after riding his horse to death, convinces Gawain to lend him a horse. Lancelot then speeds after Guinevere. When Gawain catches up to him, Lancelot has worn out his new horse to death just as he did his previous one.
Lancelot encounters a cart-driving dwarf, who says he will tell Lancelot where Guinevere and her captor went if Lancelot agrees to ride in his cart. Lancelot boards the cart reluctantly since this is a dishonorable form of transport for a knight. Gawain, not about to demean himself, chooses to follow them on horseback. Along this journey they encounter many obstacles, with the most prominent one coming from other people being unwilling to talk to Lancelot due to his implied low status because of the cart. His first trial comes when a maiden offers a bed for the knights, but refuses to let Lancelot lay on it. It is then revealed to be a trap to kill the knights, but it does not faze Lancelot.
After many more encounters with beautiful women and rude knights, Lancelot and Gawain decide to part so that they may cover more ground. Lancelot finds Guinevere in the castle of Gorre, but is then driven away by her coldness, which is later revealed to be due to his initial hesitation to enter the cart. Lancelot leaves to find Gawain but is then drawn back and Guinevere apologizes to him.
They spend a passionate night together after Lancelot breaks into her tower. He injures his hand during his break-in, and leaves blood all over Guinevere's sheets. Lancelot sneaks out of the tower before sunrise, and Meleagant accuses Guinevere of committing adultery with Kay, who is the only wounded knight nearby. Lancelot challenges Meleagant to a fight to defend Guinevere’s honor.
After Meleagant’s father interferes, Meleagant and Lancelot then agree to fight in a year's time. Over this year's time, Lancelot is tricked by another dwarf and forced into imprisonment while Guinevere is allowed to return home. When it comes time to duel, Lancelot bargains with his captors to let him go and fight, and he promises to return.
When he finally did fight the tournament fighters, Guinevere asks for him to lose to prove his love. He obliges and when he starts to lose, Guinevere changes her proposal, now hoping for him to win. Lancelot complies and beats the other tournament competitors, and afterwards he returns to his captors.
Meleagant finds out from the captor's husband, that his wife was the one who agreed to release Lancelot temporarily (to fight at the tournament). Meleagant orders Lancelot to be locked away in a master craftsman's castle. Chretien de Troyes ends his section with Lancelot imprisoned.
Godfrey of Lagny continues the story from here: The woman whom Lancelot saved from kidnapping (she ordered Lancelot to sever her stalker's head), was actually Meleagant's sister; Meleagant's sister searches for Lancelot in order to return his favor. She finds an axe, and the rope used by Lancelot to pull up food, pulls up the axe instead. Lancelot hammers his way out and escapes with her to a secluded home that she owns.
Meanwhile Gawain prepares to battle Meleagant, since Lancelot is missing (a one year rematch after the second duel, was established). Lancelot arrives on time and fights Meleagant, who loses his temper and arm, and then is beheaded by Lancelot. Guinevere embraces Lancelot restrictively (they are in public) in the end.
While little is known definitively about the life of Chrétien de Troyes, many speculative theories exist based on his work. He was employed as a writer by aristocrats of Champagne, explaining the champenois dialect detected in his work, and he usually crafted stories based on material that was presented to him. The Knight of the Cart is believed to have been a story assigned to him by Countess Marie de Champagne, and completed not by Chrétien himself, but by the clerk known as Godefroi de Leigni.
A twelfth-century French writer usually functioned as a part of a team, or a workshop attached to the court. It is believed that in the production of The Knight of the Cart, Chrétien was provided with source material (or matiere), as well as a san, or a derivation of the material. The matiere in this case would refer to the story of Lancelot, and the san would be his affair with Guinevere. Marie de Champagne was well known for her interest in affairs of courtly love, and is believed to have suggested the inclusion of this theme into the story. For this reason, it is said that Chrétien could not finish the story himself because he did not support the adulterous themes.
Chrétien cites Marie de Champagne in his introduction for providing his source material, although no such texts exist today. No recorded mention of an Arthurian knight named Lancelot precedes Chrétien, but he is believed to be derived from a Celtic myth. Chrétien first mentions a character named “Lanceloz del Lac” in Erec and Enide, who he lists third among Arthur's knights after Gawain and Erec. He next mentions him in Cligès where he is defeated by Cligès in a joust.
Courtly love was coined by the medievalist Gaston Paris in 1883 to help understand the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere in Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart. Alexander J. Denomy describes courtly love as, “…a type of sensual love and what distinguishes it from other forms of sexual love, from mere passion… is its purpose or motive, its formal object, namely, the lover's progress and growth in natural goodness, merit, and worth”(44). In the Knight of the Cart, Lancelot has become entranced by Guinevere and in more ways than  one, is ruled by her. As the queen, Guinevere maintains power over the kingdom as well as Lancelot. When Meleagant questions their love and her adultery to the king, Lancelot challenges Meleagant to a battle to protect Guinevere’s honor. Lancelot has no shame in showing his affair with the queen, “Lancelot’s love explodes into romance without any beginning revealed or end foretold, fully formed and symbolized by the extraordinary fullness of his heart” (Lacy). This introduction of the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot appears in many other stories after this poem was written.
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