Chrétien de Troyes’s romance, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (Le Chevalier de la Charrette in French), was written in the late 12th century, sometime after Louis VII’s daughter Marie became the Countess Marie de Champagne through her 1164 marriage. The text was likely composed before 1180 (Loomis 1949, 8-9). Though no extant copy of Lancelot remains, scholars do not doubt either its authorship or its provenance. Modern versions of the poem are either a composite version of the work, compiled from many existing manuscripts, or they are taken from one or two “best” manuscripts.
This romance is one of five Arthurian romances that have been attributed to Chrétien de Troyes, though it differs somewhat from his others in both theme and tone. Indeed, Chrétien himself left the text unfinished; the last 1000 lines or so were composed by Godfrey of Lagny. The reason Chrétien stopped writing is unclear, though many scholars suggest that Chrétien was uncomfortable condoning adultery and the ideals of courtly love that his countess so clearly wanted him to explore (Noble 534ff.).
Interestingly, it is in this romance that Lancelot first appears as a major character of the Arthurian canon. Indeed, some scholars argue that he appears for the first time overall here. Others, however, such as Roger Sherman Loomis, argue that various Welsh texts feature characters who can be understood as precursors to Lancelot (190-191). To be sure, Chrétien asserts in his prologue that he did not create the subject matter of The Knight of the Cart; rather, his patroness provided it to him. Based on the evidence, Loomis believes that Marie simply asked Chrétien to versify a pre-existing prose source (11). It is also possible that this story has an origin in the oral troubadour tradition that flourished through the Middle Ages.
As alluded to above, the text itself is something of a departure from the other romances in Chrétien’s corpus. Lancelot's elusive sense of vagary sets a distinctive tone. There is, for instance, very little sense of time or geography, and many characters remain nameless for long periods of time, their actions generally unexplained (Pearsall 2003, 22). These qualities mark the story as a romance - indeed, one of the first romances - rather than as a chronicle or a history, the genres in which Arthurian stories had been previously related.
The tale is also unique in its lack of didacticism; there is no clear moral or code of ethics to direct the plot. Chrétien’s earlier romances, if not obviously or overwhelmingly didactic, do treat subjects like love and adultery in ways much more in line with the prevailing morality of the day (Duggan in Raffel 1997, 226-7).
In a good translation, the text remains as compelling today as it did to its first audiences. Chrétien proves in this text his mastery of paradox and ambiguity - as Lancelot finds himself compelled by conflicting codes and expectations, the modern reader can certainly relate.
**The reader should note that this Classic Note uses the spellings and modernizations that Burton Raffel has employed in his 1997 translation. Not all translators have drawn on the same manuscript sources or the same standards of modernization.**