Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Examine the role of namelessness in Lancelot.

    Namelessness is woven throughout Lancelot, including in the protagonist, who is not named until he reaches Guinevere in the heart of Gorre. Similarly, Guinevere, though named, is often simply referred to as “the queen.” Throughout, there are knights, ladies, dwarves, and children who are never named. Indeed, it is unclear whether each time Chrétien brings in a lady or a child, he is describing someone new.

    There are several ways to understand this decision. Namelessness arguably thrusts greater importance onto the deeds of any particular character. Every time Lancelot is referred to as “the knight of the cart,” the reader is reminded of the shameful act he has committed for love. In other words, we are reminded that his behavior defines him, rather than his name. Similarly, the good-nature of Méléagant's sister is allowed to define her, instead of her relationship to her dastardly brother. By giving characters credit for their deeds and not their reputations, Chrétien argues that codes of conduct are less important than conduct itself, which is often to be judged based on context.

    One might also argue that Chrétien is making a statement about the agency of particular characters in the world. Chrétien often personifies Lancelot’s emotions, as if they are active forces that cannot be controlled. If one considers the name as a primary signifier of agency, then the namelessness underscores the power of these emotions and the ultimate powerlessness of a character like Lancelot. Finally, one can see namelessness as a comment on characters who are plot functions rather than personalities. This interpretation is most often true for women.

  2. 2

    Examine the role of the author’s voice throughout the text.

    The author’s voice — at first Chrétien’s, in the final lines, Godfrey de Lagny’s — is pervasive throughout the text. From the first, the author is careful to establish the limits of his responsibility for the story, making it very clear that he has only versified material given to him by his patroness. Throughout, he speaks directly to his readers, sometimes explaining the limits of his knowledge or the reason he has shifted subjects. Never is the reader allowed to slip thoroughly into the world and reality of the characters. Instead, the reader is constantly reminded that he or she is hearing a story. The function of this approach is two-fold. First, it suggests that the story might have been read aloud. Second, it ironically adds a level of verisimilitude by drawing attention to the artifice of the storytelling. By claiming he does not know every detail, the author suggests that he does not invent the story, but rather re-tells it.

  3. 3

    Comment on the nature and efficacy of the romance's vague setting.

    The vague and sometimes magical setting is one of the features that most defines Lancelot as a romance. Considering that most Arthurian legends had previously been related as histories or chronicles, this choice underscores Chrétien's desire to re-invent the legends as more mythical, archetypal tales. By making Lancelot's journey more epic, he makes it more universal. Moreover, true to Chrétien’s fashion, a vague setting requires more work from the reader; he or she must fill in details that might otherwise be given. Finally, the vague setting allows Chrétien to redefine the standards by which he judges Lancelot's behavior. Some situations beg to be judged from strict morality, while others have more elusive standards that the audience must investigate. All of this contributes to the interesting and unique relationship Chrétien creates between the reader and the text.

  4. 4

    Should Lancelot be considered a hero? In what ways is he not entirely a hero?

    In the most obvious fashion, Lancelot is a natural hero because of his strength and honor. Further, he fulfills the expectations of a courtly lover hero because of his devotion to his beloved Guinevere. However, his heroism is harder to defend when once considers his lack of inner control. One of the qualities that defined the medieval hero was a mésure, meaning a type of balance. In other words, one of the great virtues of the hero was his ability to dominate his emotions with reason, to exhibit balance between his passions and reason. The hero with mésure is in control of himself at all times. Lancelot clearly struggles with this virtue throughout the romance, although he grows into it by the end. Like so many other aspects of Chrétien’s text, Lancelot’s heroic status is not a clear cut issue.

  5. 5

    Discuss the reasons that Chrétien might have ceased composing Lancelot.

    As we know so little about Chrétien, it is difficult to know why he did not complete the poem himself. He might have died or be coerced into ceasing by the Church. However, one can conjecture that Chrétien's unfinished romance is evidence of his own moral stance. Medievalist and Arthurian scholar Wendy Knepper argues that Chrétien's refusal to finish the epic himself is indicative of his “refusal to espouse Marie de Champagne’s views on courtly love” (54). This is a common argument. The text certainly does exhibit some skepticism about strict codes of courtly love. However, it is intriguing to consider that Chrétien, who so deliberately avoids crafting a didactic poem, would have ceased composing over a moral issue.

  6. 6

    Examine Chrétien’s treatment of faith and religion in the text.

    Many scholars believe that Chrétien was a member of the clergy, partly because his text is peppered with religious allusions and imagery. None of his characters is without faith - even Lancelot at his most manic and obsessed prays for the Lord's blessing. In these ways, Chrétien expresses an attitude that would have been expected in the highly Christian Middle Ages.

    However, Chrétien does subvert some of his religious imagery to make sharper points than simply the virtue of religious devotion. For instance, not all of Lancelot’s religious energy expresses sanctioned piety. In fact, Chrétien uses religion to criticize the extent of Lancelot's obsession with Guinevere. After he and the queen sleep together (thereby committing adultery), Lancelot glorifies and adores her as a sacred object, likening her to a relic. Such a veneration of flesh would have been considered heretical. By employing such a comparison, Chrétien reveals that obsessive devotion does not necessarily indicate a hero. Through this and other examples, Chrétien suggests a deep faith that is nevertheless critically skeptical.

  7. 7

    Discuss the idea that Lancelot reveals his character through the incident with the cart.

    Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the question of Lancelot's hesitation before boarding the pillory cart. This attention indicates how fully the moment defines and explains the knight. First, in the sense that he exhibits a triumph of love over reason, by choosing to ride towards his queen even at the cost of his own reputation, the moment certainly illustrate his priorities. However, the hesitation also reveals that he is a natural knight, one who feels compelled towards the reputation and strength expected by chivalry. Ultimately, the moment reveals both the complications in Lancelot himself and in the ambiguous portrait Chrétien paints of him. Where he meant his audience to understand Lancelot as a paragon of courtly love, he also meant them to see that no person can be totally devoted to any one ideal.

  8. 8

    Manipulation is one of Chrétien’s key vehicles for driving the action forward. Discuss.

    Manipulation seems not only useful to Chrétien’s plot, but also normal in his world. The whole plot is precipitated by an act of manipulation - Kay manipulates Arthur into accepting Meleagant’s challenge. In this case, Kay takes advantage of the fact that Arthur will always honor his word, as he is an honorable man. Arthur's unwavering dedication to his code ironically makes him into a weak man, unable to defend his wife. Guinevere also manipulates Lancelot, playing on his devotion as her lover. Her manipulation is less devious than Kay's, but reveals the limits of a woman's agency in the Middle Ages, as well as the games expected of courtly lovers. Even Méléagant has to commit multiple acts of manipulation before he finally dies. Characters throughout the work use manipulation to their own ends, and the fact that Chrétien rarely punishes them for it suggests that it was a normal expectation of courtly life to work in intrigue.

  9. 9

    In what ways is Méléagant a foil to Lancelot?

    Though Méléagant and Lancelot are obviously opposed in a strict villain/hero dichotomy, their differences are more intriguing when they are compared in terms of their relationship to Guinevere.

    The chief difference between the two is that Méléagant is motivated by lust, not true and abiding love, as Lancelot is. Moreover, while love often trumps reason in Lancelot’s case, it has not driven him to abandon his sense of mercy. He is a fair and merciful opponent to Méléagant, even when the villain does not deserve it. To that end, Chrétien uses Méléagant to suggest that the limits of Lancelot's love (and the way it compromises his identity) do not lead him into the realm of selfish villainy. The selfishness of lust will always be morally dwarfed by the virtue of love, even when it proves something of a liability to the lover.

  10. 10

    What is Chrétien's argument about reason and passion?

    Though Lancelot is markedly un-didactic, Chrétien does ultimately make the argument that mésure - a balance between reason and passion - is the ideal. In Lancelot, love frequently overpowers reason, to the point that it compromises him, putting him in difficult situations and almost leading him to suicide. At times, Chrétien presents him as a fool because of this obsession. There are several characters who seem to serve as a mouthpiece for the counter argument, with King Bademagu being the best example. Ultimately, both Lancelot and Guinevere demonstrate a bit of mésure, suggesting they have not compromised their love, but have learned to consider the outside world in relation to it. After displaying these qualities, their story ends, suggesting that Chrétien views this as the endpoint for a hero.