This is the final essay I wrote for my graduate program in Mythological Studies. I had finished all my course work and the comprehensive exams but had one last class I had missed taking during my first year. So I took The Arthurian Romances of the Holy Grail course as an independent study. It was strange not having lectures to attend, but I had a great prof to work with. However, honestly, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the course. I didn’t really know anything about the Arthur and his knights outside of Disney’s Sword and the Stone. Wow was I in for a surprise! What rich, wonderful, exciting literature I encountered! So, below is my essay about my now beloved Lancelot and his tale by Chrétien de Troyes. Enjoy!
Reason and Love in “The Knight of the Cart”
The love, romance, and adventure depicted in the Arthurian romances have captivated readers for centuries and remain a powerful force in the literary world. Chrétien de Troyes, noted as a “remarkably influential author” (Lacy and Grimbert xi), is one of the most celebrated writers from the twelfth century, renowned for being the first author to pen the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere. Though he is a key figure of Arthurian studies, relatively little is known about him, and there is much speculation about why he did not personally complete one of his most popular stories, “The Knight of the Cart” (hereafter referred to as Lancelot, the title most commonly used in the related scholarship). As varied as the speculation about Chrétien himself is the diverse interpretations of his tale of courtly love and romance. These details in conjunction with the mythological and psychological elements in Lancelot – including but not limited to love, death, the underworld, and the union of opposites – place it as an incredibly rich text worthy of analysis. In one of the finest collections on Chrétien, A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes, the editors note that “[e]ven Chrétien specialists surely find the volume of critical studies on Chrétien daunting, and students, however diligent, will find it virtually impossible to select the most useful scholarship and to read and master even a small volume” (Lacy and Gimbert xi). This task, like Lancelot’s adventures, has been both challenging and rewarding, and while there can be no definitive analysis of Lancelot, the exploration herein will address the romance as a reflection of its times, an examination of courtly love, and a truly mythic adventure into the depths of the underworld, where both love and death await.
One unchallenged fact about Lancelot is that Chrétien wrote it under the service of Marie de Champagne. Known for her appreciation and encouragement of literature, Marie was also an influential figure in Andreas Capellanus’s The Art of Courtly Love. It is unknown exactly when each piece was written, but best estimations place Chrétien’s writing of Lancelot anytime between the 1160s and the 1180s (Lacy and Grimbert xii), and while The Art of Courtly Love was probably written later, it “was almost certainly intended to portray conditions at Queen Eleanor’s court at Poitiers between 1170 and 1174” (21). Regardless of exact dates, each text demonstrates the notion of courtly love prevalent at the end of the twelfth century, a time when “a new art of love, fin ‘amor (true love) . . . which glorified amorous passion” was emerging (Harf-Lancer 29). The unique and defining characteristic of courtly love, however, is that it is “extramarital,” as defined by Ovid, whom Parry attributes as the originator of courtly love (Capellanus 5). So how is it that Chrétien, “viewed as the poet of love in marriage” (Bruckner 141), was the first to bring the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere to life?
Debate in Chrétien scholarship explores why he discontinued his work on Lancelot, though it is a curious fact that Marie even selected Chrétien as the writer of this tale. It is accepted in scholarship that the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere is “against [Chrétien’s] own moral convictions” (McCash 22). Was his patron Marie aware of his personal beliefs when she told him the legend? Did she simply disregard his views, or did he hide them? Or, perhaps, was he not even as opposed to courtly love as scholars now believe? Of course, answers to these questions will never be known, but the speculation creates a stimulating setting for the creation of a story that embodies courtly love – which itself encourages debate in its own right about love and honor. As Bruckner asserts, Chrétien himself “offers not answers but questions” in Lancelot (155).
That Chrétien himself did not pen the ending of Lancelot is clear although the reasons remain unknown. Parry states Chrétien left the work unfinished because of his dislike of the subject (Capellanus 13), but Lacy and Gimbert review other speculations about why Chrétien stopped writing the tale (22). Since the order in which he wrote his romances is unknown, it is possible that his own illness simply prevented him from writing anymore (22). Others speculate that Lancelot was nearly completed when Marie’s own husband died and that Chrétien discontinued writing it because she feared if the work were to be printed in her widowhood that many would suspect she had been unfaithful to her husband (22). Despite speculation about Marie, Chrétien, and his intentions or feelings in writing about this theme, the value of courtly love in the character of Lancelot himself never wavers.
In Lancelot, the leading knight is defined as one of “great goodness” (Chrétien 234) who is “brave” (243) and completes the “boldest deed” (when crossing the Sword bridge) (247). During his adventures to rescue Guinevere, Lancelot stays at one household wherein all of its members agree upon this description of him: “if all the world’s knights were assembled in a single place, you’d not see a fairer or nobler one” (240). As Chrétien’s narration continues in this section, he describes Lancelot as “fair” and “good,” and directly speaks to the readers: “I trust you will believe my description of all this” (240). Chrétien’s limited use of the first person voice throughout the text is clearly his own voice and not that of a fictional narrator. This is set up in the very introduction when he attributes details of the story to Marie de Champagne (207). When Chretien describes Lancelot in passages like this with such praise, it is difficult to believe that Chrétien himself was so strongly opposed to courtly love.
Regardless of the virtues Lancelot is ascribed throughout Chrétien’s text and by many scholars, the fact remains that he is an adulterer – a term which Bruckner points out is never used in the text itself (154). Bruckner concludes that “Lancelot does not [recommend or disapprove] of courtly love, rather it aims at a wider ethical problem, the contradictions of human experience explored within a secular and courtly ideal” (154-155). This is a further reflection of the period Chrétien was writing in – a time when there was a disconnect between “individual consent and parental choice in contracting marriage” (Kelly 59). Because marriage was typically arranged and amor was just developing, courtly love explored “a doctrine of paradoxes, a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent” (F.X. Newman qtd. in Lupack 84). This description immediately reflects a paradoxical theme present throughout Chretien’s work.
Pairs of opposites are prevalent throughout Lancelot, which is first depicted in the very title “The Knight and the Cart,” for one would not typically find a knight willing to ride in a cart! The cart encompasses the opposite of everything Lancelot represents as a strong and noble knight. Chrétien clearly describes the shame of the cart throughout the text, and indeed Lancelot himself even briefly hesitates to ride in the cart (which is the catalyst for later heartache and confusion with Guinevere), but the power of the shame of riding in a cart is perhaps most poignantly demonstrated in the following instance: Lancelot defeats an opponent and when the man begs for his mercy, Lancelot tells him he may live if he is willing to ride in a cart (Chrétien 241). The opponent refuses to do so, choosing death over the shame. This scene emphasizes at once the great disgrace of the cart and the power of Lancelot’s love. Despite his initial hesitation, Lancelot unabashedly accepts the stigma that the ride in the cart assigns him, driven deeply by love for his Queen.
Furthermore, not only is Lancelot’s story titled “The Knight of the Cart,” but that is how Chrétien identifies him until the moment Queen Guinevere reveals his name nearly half way through the text (252). Up to this point, Lancelot has refused to give his name to those he has met during his adventure, even those who offer him assistance. This evokes the mythological motif of true names having power over the individual. In some myths, one’s true name is a guarded secret. The concealment of Lancelot’s name is akin to the secretiveness of his love for Guinevere, and for her to be the first to name him to the readers is further representation of her role as the one who truly knows and loves him.
Chrétien’s use of the humiliating cart as a symbol of his brave knight functions like the “oxymoron” as it was used in “Oriental religious texts . . . to point past those pairs of opposites by which all logical thought is limited . . . beyond ‘names and forms’” (Campbell, Masks 188). As Campbell further indicates in The Power of Myth, “every act in life yields pairs of opposites in its results.” Therefore it is fitting that courtly love (the primary force behind Lancelot’s quest) embraces opposites (as identified above by Newman). These opposites are not something to be resolved but something that is symptomatic of the threads of life and our perception. Courtly love is all at once a deep sign of devotion and “hersey . . . punishable by death” (Campbell, Power). This punishment of courtly love further connects love to its “twin,” identified by Smith as death (176). The cart itself also has “mythic overtones . . . linked to death” (Bruckner 140). In this romance, threats of death abound.
Death is an essential theme in Lancelot because his adventure includes a journey into the underworld. As Smith clearly identifies, “the unconscious [is] represented in this tale by the underworld into which Guinevere is abducted, and into which Lancelot descends in order to retrieve her” (Smith 49). Indeed, Lancelot’s descent from Arthur’s court and his return in the end encompass the Nekyia, the underworld motif that is also representative of the unconscious. Since any descent to the underworld and/or the unconscious is representative of death, it is necessary for Lancelot to face death. Two particular events on his journey highlight that he has entered the realm of the underworld.
Early in Lancelot’s adventure, when he is on his path to find Guinevere, there is a moment where he takes his horse to drink from the water and is so distracted by his thoughts of love that he does not hear the guardian that forbids his entrance into the ford. Breaking this barrier signifies not only the adventure of the hero and the crossing of a threshold a la Joseph Campbell’s hero journey motif, but it also illuminates Lancelot’s psychological state. To begin with, he is so consumed by love that he is completely unaware of his surroundings. Such obsession and preoccupation are very characteristic of courtly love, and these moments are essential for a text dealing with this theme. As Capellanus outlines in the rules of love, “A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thoughts of his beloved” (186). When Lancelot finally hears the guard, he jumps “to his feet like a dreamer from sleep” (Chrétien 217), a description that further conjures images of the unconscious realm of the underworld.
It is also significant that Lancelot does not hear the guard until he shouts for a third time, a number that repeats throughout the text and bears mythological significance as it represents both the “intellectual and spiritual order” and is related to the three stages of being – birth, life, and death (“Three”). I briefly want to identify other important times when Chretien specifically writes the number three, bringing this specific grouping to his readers’ attention: when the dwarf, Gawain and Lancelot arrive in the cart (212); when the three girls cry at the funeral procession Lancelot and Gawain see out the window (214); in a meadow when three knights point out Lancelot as the knight of the cart (228); when Lancelot is accompanied by two riders (235); the “ointment of the three mary’s” (249); and when Gawain orders three men to bring him his armor when he plans to battle Malegnant in Lancelot’s place (290). The significance of each cannot be discussed in the scope of this paper but is worthy of future study.
Water is another important element introduced in the scene with the guard of the ford. Here, Lancelot is crossing a threshold of water, which “[u]sually we interpret . . . as the unconscious” (von Franz 101). The symbol of water is also utilized in one of the key trials of his journey – crossing the sword bridge – which exemplifies both his presence in the underworld and his dedication to Guinevere (“I would rather die than turn back” [Chrétien 245]). Water itself holds the tension of opposites as it can be “either the great healing factor, or poisonous and destructive . . . according to the context” (von Franz 101). In its destructive state, water can drown people “in the unconscious” (101). At hen Chrétien identifies that Lancelot “would rather maim himself than fall from the bridge into the water from which there was no escape” (Chrétien 245), we know the stakes are high and that this water is clearly destructive. Lancelot is risking death at every level.
This epic moment with the sword bridge is so popular and important in literature that Chevalier and Gheerbrant specifically cite the incident in the symbolic definition of “bridge,” declaring that it “symbolizes the passing from one state of being to a higher state” (“Bridge”). This transformation (yet another element of the underworld journey) is the ultimate test of his devotion of courtly love and, despite its associated shame, solidifies his position as the most honorable knight. Bridges, which are commonly recognized as a representation of a “trial,” can also “symbolize the transition between . . . two conflicting sets of desires” (“Bridge”). We constantly see Lancelot’s battle between Honor and Love, as is first exemplified in his hesitation to step into the cart. He is both knight and lover. While Kelly argues that Lancelot is “lover before he is knight” (59), Lupack asserts that “Lancelot as lover is inseparable from Lancelot as knight in service to king and country” (90). It is certainly a fine line to distinguish in this noble knight: surely he would complete this task for the love of his king (as Gawain himself encounters a similar trial at the underwater bridge in his attempt to retrieve Guinevere for the King), but we know he completes it because love compels him to do so. As Ovid’s description of courtly love indicates, the lover will “perform all sorts of absurd actions” (Capellanus 6).
Another threat looming over Lancelot as he crosses the sword bridge are the two lions that await him on the other side. Though they are ultimately mere illusions, Lancelot chooses to cross the bridge while believing they are material foes. The threat of death could not be more prevalent here as an unarmed Lancelot crosses the sword bridge, hovering over waters of a deep abyss, anticipating to be greeted by two ferocious beasts. That Chrétien chose this animal and not any other is significant as well. To begin with, the lions are a reflection of Lancelot himself because “the lion is burdened with . . . virtues and defects [that] are inherent in its status[:] he may be as admirable as he is insupportable, and facets of his symbolism waver between these two extremes” (“Lion”). Like Lancelot, the fearless knight of the cart, the symbol of the lion encompasses opposites. Furthermore, both Christ and the Buddha have been identified with the symbol of the lion (“Lion”). Themes from both Christianity (as detailed by Smith in Sacred Mysteries) and Buddhism (as detailed by Zimmer in The King and the Corpse) are prevalent in Lancelot. This can most readily be identified in Chrétien’s recurring use of the number three, which has significance in both Christianity and Buddhism. The lion itself also has a relationship with the number three in Buddhism: “The arms of Ashoka [a Buddhist king] comprised three lions seated back to back on a pedestal [and may represent] the teachings of the Buddha [Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha] (“Lion”). (Smith also expands on the relationship between Lancelot and “the three temptations of the Buddha” ).That Lancelot sees two lions is indicative of the theme of duality that is thread throughout the text. Furthermore, in Ancient Egypt, “lions were often depicted in pairs” and represent the opposites “birth and death . . . yesterday and tomorrow . . . exertion and rest” (“Lion”). Lancelot’s trial over the sword bridge clearly symbolizes his trial in the underworld while touching on the other key themes in the book: courtly love, death, and their duality.
After succeeding in this great feat at the sword bridge, Lancelot faces the man who is holding Guinevere, Meleagant, “son of the king of Gorre” (Chrétien 215). As Kibler’s footnote indicates, Gorre may be a reference to the Celtic underworld (512). On every level, Chrétien has made Lancelot’s position in the underworld clear. The immediate description of Meleagant then shows us that Lancelot has met his shadow figure. The prince is described as “treasonous and disloyal” with a “wooden heart . . . utterly void of kindness and compassion” (Chrétien 246). The shadow figure is also indicative of the unconscious realm of the underworld, and we see in Meleagant everything that Lancelot is not. Meleagant ultimately becomes the one that holds Lancelot captive in the underworld, and he is the figure that Lancelot defeats at Arthur’s court after his escape, touching on another important element the hero motif: “the hero . . . discovers and assimilates his opposite” (Campbell, Hero 108).
An even more important element of the hero motif that Lancelot attains is the meeting with the goddess, also identified as the sacred marriage. Though sex is not Lancelot’s goal in his love for Guinevere, the consummation of their relationship is the purest celebration of it. As highlighted in the great lyrics of the troubadours, who sang of courtly love in the twelfth century, the “aim [of courtly love] was neither marriage nor the dissolution of the world. Nor was it even carnal intercourse . . . The aim, rather, was life directly in the experience of love” (Campbell, Masks 178). This experience of love is most prevalent when Lancelot and Guinevere make love after he breaks through the barriers on the window to enter her chamber. This union, which calls to mind the alchemical coniunctio, also serves as further representation of “the bringing together of the opposites” (von Franz 164). Though their act is adulterous, it could not be more pure. Chrétien describes Guinevere’s anticipation of her tryst with Lancelot: “The queen was most eager for the arrival of her joy, her lover” (Chrétien 261). According to Baumgartner, “Chrétien’s entire work was organized . . . around the quest for ‘joy.’ To affirm and construct oneself as a hero in this universe, ideal yet full of risk” (226). He is a hero in his quest to save her, and he is complete in his union with her. Once the lovers unite, Chrétien explains that their “joy” was unlike that ever known before, but says he will keep the details a secret (265). Indeed, as Smith identifies, “the ineffable joy of the ‘Liebstod,’ of love in the domain of death . . . transcends the categories of reason, and . . . we must remain silent [about this] genuinely sacred mystery” (52).
Throughout the romance, Chretien has emphasized the tension of opposites that culminate in the love affair of Lancelot and Guinevere. He emphasizes the most important terms with capitalization, not uncommon in the period, and gives true characterization to the terms Reason and Love (212), Generosity and Compassion (242), Nobility and Cowardice and Sloth (246), Love and Hatred (253), Life and Death (260), Cowardice and Courage (278), and Fortune (286). His final emphasis lies on Reason, which prohibits Guinevere from demonstrating public affection for Lancelot (291). As encapsulated by these terms of opposites, whose presence and function could yield yet another project, Chretien’s Lancelot reflects the concerns of twelfth century love while also touching on the timeless mythological motifs of love and death as explored in every hero’s journey.
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