I feel like I’ve been trying to understand the paradoxical character of Sir Lancelot for nearly as long as this.
Lance is generally presented as the greatest Knight of the Round Table, yet he’s also one of the knights (along with Sir Mordred and his supporters) most responsible for destroying Camelot. He performs his chivalric role perfectly in terms of the martial aspects of the knight’s code, but conversely, his adulterous affair with the queen has mired Arthurian literature since his introduction by Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century AD–a body of legend that, despite its pagan origins, is predominantly dependent upon Christian values and morality.
As my students know (and are doubtless sick of hearing), when it comes to identifying the greatest of Arthur’s knights, I always argue for Sir Gawain.
Most famous for his role in the Pearl Poet’s “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Gawain was the queen’s champion before Lancelot was included in the canon. He fights two duels with Lancelot in Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in attempts to redeem the honor of the Round Table–but also for revenge, which is ultimately why he is unable to triumph despite being the physically more imposing of the two knights.
(Sir Galahad is worth mentioning as well, but he’s so flawless that I find him both unbelievable and boring. He’s also kind of an effeminate tool.)
Arthur is Gawain’s uncle, and Lancelot does kill two of Gawain’s cousins rescuing Guinevere from the execution grounds where she was to be burned for treason, but I didn’t understand how deep Lancelot’s personal betrayal of Gawain was until I sat down and actually read “The Knight of the Cart”, the first poem in which Lancelot is featured as the protagonist.
I once had issues with Chrétien de Troyes for introducing this character and thus bringing about the ruin of Camelot through adultery, but my abhorrence was admittedly narrow-minded. First, de Troyes could not have known what later poets would do with the character he created or how big a factor Lance would play in destroying Camelot. Additionally, from a meta perspective, this mythical kingdom had to be destroyed somehow in order for it to become legendary in the first place. With primogeniture as a factor, this also had to result from an issue with Arthur’s family line–essentially, there had to be something wrong with Guinevere in the queen’s role for her to not bear her husband any children. In Gregory of Monmouth’s Arthur, which was written before Lancelot’s introduction into the canon, the queen has an affair with Sir Mordred, who also attempts to court her in Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
Mordred really is a bastard.
Anyway, it’s easy to put the blame on de Troyes (who incidentally was writing for a certain countess who provided him with the theme for the poem) for creating Lancelot, but interestingly enough, the BBC series Merlin managed to write the Once and Future King into the same deathly corner whilst hardly including Lance at all:
Of course, that only worked because BBC canceled the show about 10 seasons too early, but I digress.
In my mind, Chrétien de Troyes got away with what he did for a few reasons. The first is that he’s one hell of a good storyteller, even in translation. I read “The Knight of the Cart” in one sitting on this computer and was transfixed, utterly immersed in the story of a character that I’ve spent most of my life hating. The second is that he creates numerous scenarios in which Gawain, the accepted badass of the time, cannot be directly compared to Lancelot. He also demonstrates in many scenes that Lancelot’s love for Guinevere is so desperate as to cause him extreme dishonor and hardship, so after awhile, it’s difficult not to want him to be successful in his quest for the queen. Lancelot truly suffers for love, and most of us, I think, can relate to that.
The story begins when Meleagant, the son of a neighboring king and a real douche bag, busts into Camelot in the same manner as the Green Knight in the Pearl Poet’s tale. He taunts Arthur about having numerous prisoners from Camelot and there being nothing the king can do about it, but then issues a challenge which Kay idiotically undertakes (against Gawain’s advice) which results in the queen being kidnapped.
Gawain and Arthur go after the queen, but become separated. Gawain then runs into Lancelot, who is in pretty bad shape and needs a horse to continue to pursue the queen. Because Gawain has two noble steeds, he gives him one, which Lance then loses in a battle where he meets a dwarf who promises to reveal to him the location of the queen if he jumps in a cart.
You with me so far?
Lancelot hesitates before jumping into the cart because doing so will cause him dishonor. Criminals were carted around and put on display in the Middle Ages. His love for Guinevere, however, overcomes his sense of chivalry, and he jumps in. When Gawain arrives and asks the dwarf what he knows, the dwarf asks him to jump in the cart as well. Gawain essentially tells him to shove off and just follows the cart on horseback, thus obtaining the same information while maintaining his dignity.
This scene serves to show the difference between these two characters, who are in many ways foils (especially later), but also to introduce the idea that creepy ass dwarfs serve as quest markers. This is not the last time a dwarf appears, nor is this encounter with a dwarf the most damaging Lancelot will have.
It should also be noted that public humiliation was one of the torments that Christ endured. Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot is absolutely a Christ figure, as becomes more and more evident as the text goes on. (At the same time, he’s an adulterous Christ figure. Makes perfect sense, right?) His entry into a kingdom from which none return and his freeing of the prisoners there represents the harrowing of hell, and the prophecy surrounding this act deals with him being the only man who can lift the lid off a tomb. He has random followers throughout the text and is taken from the followers and imprisoned. He receives a full stigmata between the spear wound he receives from sleeping in the wrong bed when he and Gawain are shown hospitality…
and the wounds he receives on his hands and feet from crossing the sword bridge, which King Bagdemagu, Meleagant’s father, basically sets up as a way for knights with ridiculous amounts of chivalry to enter his realm without fighting his army.
Lancelot faces this test alone, as he and Gawain split up and take different routes. Gawain, unfortunately, doesn’t manage to get across his trial, the water bridge, which turns out to be more difficult than Lance’s despite sounding less crazy in the beginning.
All of these trials, again, are controlled by Bagdemagu, who turns out to be one of the most chivalrous figures in the text. Meleagant is probably the [CENSORED] that he is because there’s no way he could ever live up to his father, who takes the queen and Kay, who is also a prisoner, into his castle and shields them from his son. Lancelot eventually gets there after rescuing maidens who are single and interested–that he treats with disdain. It becomes painfully apparent as the tale goes on that Lance could have any woman that he wanted, but he only wants Arthur’s wife.
He eventually does spend the night with her in Bagdemagu’s castle after securing her release from captivity through single combat with Meleagant, who he defeats and spares. (It should be noted that he was so distracted by Guinevere’s presence that he almost lost and had to shift Meleagant over so he could view them simultaneously to continue fighting.) Of course, Meleagant manages to get a second bout with Lance by accusing the queen of adultery with Kay, whom Lancelot champions. This happens because Lancelot injured himself getting into Guinevere’s chamber and bled all over her sheets when they made love in her bed. Sexy, right? As Kay is still recovering from his injuries at this point, he appears to be the culprit.
Guess who wins the fight but is too noble to kill his opponent? That’s right. Lance. Is Meleagant done making trouble? Hell no. Lancelot ends up betrayed by another creepy dwarf, imprisoned in a tower like Rapunzel, and half dead before he has the chance to face Meleagant a third time, and this time back in Camelot.
And if Lancelot didn’t make it in time? Well, Meleagant was going to fight Gawain, who would have killed him in three seconds. In fact, if Gawain had crossed the sword bridge and gotten to the Bagdemagu’s castle first, he probably would have just slaughtered Meleagant the first time, rescued the queen (without banging her) and Kay (who is apparently an idiot in all of de Troyes’ poems about Arthur), and brought them back home straightaway.
Of course, then we wouldn’t have much of a story, right?
Again, Chrétien de Troyes is very careful with these two characters. Gawain facilitates Lancelot’s quest. Lancelot’s concern for Gawain leads other knights to save him from the water bridge, but Lancelot himself is not present because he’s already been kidnapped. Lancelot wins a tournament in secret despite Guinevere asking him to “do his worst to prove his love” (one of my favorite scenes from the film A Knight’s Tale is based on this section of the poem), but while Gawain is at the tournament, he remains a spectator and never faces Lance. During Lancelot’s imprisonment, the knight calls for Gawain to rescue him. It becomes evident that while the people of Bagdemagu’s realm are constantly praising Lancelot as the best knight they have ever seen, Lancelot himself places Gawain in that esteem.
The line that threw me for an emotional loop is in the area of the poem where Lancelot returns to fight Meleagant. Gawain is ready and more than willing to champion Lancelot, but Lancelot demands to be able to fight his own battle and put an end to the black knight’s atrocities. Chrétien de Troyes writes that Gawain would not have wanted to inherit the throne of Camelot (he is, after all, Arthur’s next of kin and the wisest of the knights) unless he had Lancelot at his side.
These two men who fought to the death (Gawain dies later from Lancelot’s blow) in Le Morte d’Arthur, what is considered the definitive Arthurian text, were best friends in de Troyes’ story. Moreover, in his vision, Lancelot was never supposed to cause the ruin Camelot or supplant Gawain–Gawain was supposed to be king, and he was to serve him as his finest knight.
The idea that the poet who created Lancelot envisioned an entirely different end for Camelot than Mallory makes the events of Le Morte d’Arthur that much more poignant, the annihilation of chivalry that much more apparent, and the death match between these two great knights that much more unnecessary. It also makes Gawain’s dying act, which was to write to Lancelot with his own blood to beg for him to return and save Arthur, that much more powerful.
Yes, I am now going to read every scrap of the Old French works concerning Arthur that I can get my hands on. Another degree or another book series is brewing. Maybe both.