Chrétien de Troyes begins with a nod to his patroness, the Countess Lady Champagne, explaining that he has written this romance because she desired it. He flatters her at first, though he insists he will not flatter her in the same way others do. For example, he asks, “Should I say: ‘This lady / Is worth her weight in queens, / One gem as good as silks / And onyx?’ No, I won’t, / But even if I don’t, she is” (16-20). He further insists that he is not responsible for the story's plot; he has merely articulated what the Countess desired.
His purpose and artistic debts outlined, the author begins the tale. It opens on Ascension Day in King Arthur’s court. The king and his court have just enjoyed a sumptuous banquet when a “singularly well-equipped knight / Entered, armed to the teeth / And armored from head to foot” (44-46). (The knight is Méléagant, though we do not learn his name until later.)
Méléagant informs Arthur that he holds many of the king's people captive, but that the king can do nothing to broker their release. However, Méléagant offers to free the prisoners if King Arthur will send one of his trusted knights alone into the woods with Guinevere, the queen. The knights will then battle to decide whether the captives be released or Guinevere be added to their number. Méléagant then departs.
Kay, the king’s steward, then angrily tells King Arthur that he is leaving court. The king, upset and confused, asks Guinevere to beg Kay to stay. When the queen prostrates herself before him, Kay agrees to remain in the king's service if Arthur will grant him whatever he demands. Arthur agrees, and Kay requests that he and Guinevere ride out together to fight Méléagant. Upset at the prospect of failure, but bound by his honor, Arthur reluctantly agrees. Before leaving, Guinevere whispers regretful words of love to her horse, though they are directed to an unidentified person. One of Arthur's vassals, Count Guinables, overhears her words. Guinevere and Kay then set off.
Sir Gawain is shocked by the events, and asks Arthur for permission to follow them and protect the queen. Arthur assents, and Gawain and his knights ride off. They soon see Kay’s horse, riderless, emerge from the woods covered in blood, and they realize that Guinevere has been captured by Méléagant. Moments later, Gawain and his party encounter Lancelot (though he remains unnamed), who is exhausted, disheveled, and on foot. Lancelot begs of Gawain a horse; when Gawain agrees, Lancelot mounts the closest one and rides off. Gawain soon follows.
Lancelot rides his new horse to death, and then encounters a pillory cart, which is normally reserved for transporting criminals. It is driven by a cart dwarf who claims he has information about Guinevere’s whereabouts, which he will reveal if Lancelot rides the cart.
Though he briefly hesitates from the shame of being carried, Lancelot jumps into the cart. After a while, Gawain catches up, but refuses the cart dwarf's offer; instead, he rides behind them. The cart dwarf drives until the evening, when he arrives at a castle. The knights disembark, and are graciously hosted by the beautiful woman (the lady with the bed) who lives there. After a feast, she orders two beds prepared for them, with a third bed, the most beautiful of the three, set nearby but forbidden to them. When Lancelot insists he will sleep in it, she mocks him for having been carried by the cart. Nevertheless, he climbs into the sumptuous bed.
At midnight, a flaming spear is launched at Lancelot. It pins him to the bed and sets the sheets aflame, but Lancelot awakes and throws it from himself without leaving the bed.
In the morning, Lancelot and the lady with the bed speak at a window. At a distance, they see a funeral procession headed by Guinevere and a knight. When her figure disappears from view, Lancelot attempts to leap out the window after her. Gawain convinces him to hold, chastising him for being so willing to end his own life.
Gawain and Lancelot set off. They soon encounter a little girl with news of the queen. In exchange for the information, Lancelot offers to one day perform whatever favor the little girl requests. It is from her that Lancelot first learns the name of Méléagant, who is the son of the king of Gorre. Gorre, she explains, is a land from which no one who enters returns. She further explains that, without permission, there are only two passages to Gorre: the Sword Bridge and the Sunken Bridge. Though both are dangerous, the latter - which involves crossing a narrow bridge that is already underwater - is a bit safer. Lancelot offers Gawain his choice, and Gawain chooses the Sunken Bridge. Noting that his way is slightly shorter, Lancelot happily sets out for the Sword Bridge.
Lancelot rides on in a deep reverie. He arrives at a river guarded by a dangerous sentinel and a little girl, but is so lost in his thoughts of the queen that he fails to heed the sentinel’s warning to stop. The dangerous sentinel knocks him into the water, the shock of which brings him back to reality. In order to continue, Lancelot must defeat the knight. He prevails in battle, and is about to kill the sentinel when the latter begs mercy. As Lancelot will not kill him under those circumstances, he decides to take the sentinel as prisoner. The little girl then asks for the sentinel’s freedom in exchange for “whatever you want, whenever / You ask it, if I possibly can” (lines 925-926). At these words, Lancelot recognizes her as the little girl from before, to whom he promised to grant a favor. He keeps his promise by granting the man's freedom. The girl and the sentinel hurry off, and Lancelot rides on.
From the very beginning of the romance, Chrétien de Troyes employs subversion. Nothing is as straight-forward as it seems. Take, for instance, the introduction, in which the author insists he will not flatter his patroness, and then informs the reader what compliments he will not give, effectively complimenting her. Right away, the author has made his delight in irony and subversion clear. Scholar Wendy Knepper suggests that this instance further serves to establish Chrétien's authority as author: “by using negative language to stress both his dissimilarity to other writers and his unwillingness to flatter, the narrator emphasizes his exclusive right to describe the true worth of his lady” (Knepper 56). This subtlety and complexity immediately reveal Chrétien’s formidable skill and mastery of his craft.
Several other important effects are accomplished in the prologue. For instance, Chrétien introduces a gem metaphor, comparing his patroness to a precious stone, and writing that “her work and wisdom” has “polished” the story (22-23). The extended metaphor establishes the luxury of his Lady Champagne's court, and will continue to resonate throughout the text. The metaphor will also be used throughout to emphasize value or truth; many of the women who host Lancelot will be described in terms of their riches. Because he establishes in the prologue that jewels signify not just wealth but also virtue, Chrétien is able to comment on the virtue of Lancelot's hostesses by describing their material possessions.
Finally, perhaps the most fascinating element of the prologue occurs when Chrétien disabuses himself of responsibility for the romance. He writes that his mistress has provided him with both the story and its interpretation; he has merely rendered it into verse. Medieval notions of ownership and authorship were quite different than they are today, and such eagerness to distance oneself from the text is fairly typical of medieval texts, particularly when the material was controversial and might cause the writer trouble with the Church. However, this is only the first instance of many distancing techniques that Chrétien uses throughout - he later asked someone else to finish the romance, and often lapses into didacticism during it. This persistent distancing has lead many scholars to believe that Chrétien himself was uncomfortable with the ideals of courtly love that he was being asked to celebrate. Indeed, most of what scholars have been able to piece together about Chrétien de Troyes is information gleaned from the prologues of his various works.
Whether he was uncomfortable with romance or not, Chrétien shows great skill at honoring its conventions while also commenting on them. It is useful to first understand chivalry - which is a complicated and detailed code of conduct - most simply as a form of obedience. This obedience was owed to one's liege, lover, or even enemy. The author seeks in this romance to explore how such obedience can quash one's individual desires, and how one cannot be both an obedient knight and a committed lover.
For instance, in Méléagant's challenge to the court, the author explores this conflict. First of all, Arthur appears as a weak monarch, so bound by his chivalrous code of conduct that he is unable to protect his queen from either the nameless challenger or even his own steward’s brashness. Here, Chrétien is subverting the very ideals he is ostensibly meant to praise. His depiction of Arthur works as a comment on the single-mindedness with which the ideals of chivalry were pursued among the medieval aristocracy. From one perspective, he betrays his love for his wife because he refuses to compromise his chivalrous duty. Also important is the fact that Méléagant is as yet nameless, a technique that Chrétien employs throughout the text to highlight the actions of his characters, so that they are defined by behavior and not by lineage or reputation.
The author also establishes the adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere - arguably the romance's most famous element - immediately through foreshadowing. As the queen mounts her horse, she whispers, “Oh, my love, if only/you knew, you’d never let me/Take a step in this man’s/Care” (209-212). She is certainly referring to Lancelot at this point, since there is no other logical explanation for her comment. Further, she is overheard by Count Guinables, which suggests that her affair with Lancelot was something of an open secret (Duggan in Raffel 227).
The most resonant moment in this first section of the narrative occurs when Lancelot decides to ride in the pillory cart. It must be understood that Chrétien’s audience would immediately understand such a cart as reserved for the most ignoble of criminals. It is not merely suggestive of shame and guilt; it confirms that those who ride it possess such vice. Everything about riding the cart is antithetical to the chivalrous expectations of a medieval knight, who was expected to act always with his reputation in mind. The gravity of taking such a ride is not lost on Lancelot, the paragon of obsessive love; he hesitates before hopping in. In that moment, the author explains that Love and Reason are warring within Lancelot. This personification of emotion is a technique that Chrétien employs readily throughout the text, especially with regard to Lancelot. Reason very rarely, if ever, wins the conflict, and the whole exercise underscores the extent to which Lancelot is impelled by forces beyond himself. This, too, is a central theme of medieval romance.
His moment of hesitation will prove important - Guinevere will later act coldly towards him because of it. More importantly, his decision to ride the cart will saddle him with lower expectations throughout the quest; he will be known as "The Knight of the Cart" until his lover and Queen names him. Scholars have written much on the significance of this moment, and indeed, it is moments like this that reveal Chrétien's literary genius for subversion. Scholar Edward Condren draws attention to the careful construction of this scene. First, before getting into the cart, Lancelot has lost not one, but two horses. As the horse is tied symbolically to virility and sexual appetite, and as horsemanship was considered an essential quality in a knight, this all suggests Lancelot's ineffectiveness and emasculation as both a lover and a knight (Condren 445). As Condren remarks, “the particular literary skill in this paradox is Chrétien’s strong suggestion that commitment to love has caused the emasculation…[which is an example] of a single theme—the man whose commitment to one code of conduct unfits him for another” (445-446). In other words, Lancelot cannot be both a chivalrous knight and a committed lover. He must emasculate himself as knight to fully devote himself as a lover.
As Lancelot continues on his journey, this paradox continues to manifest. The episode with the beautiful woman and the forbidden bed foreshadows Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. As Arthur’s wife, Guinevere (and her bed) are decidedly off-limits for Lancelot. That he takes the bed anyway indicates his transgressive relationship with the queen. Lancelot’s actions in pursuing forbidden love (both literally with the Queen and metaphorically with the bed) reveal that he chooses romantic love over the demands of obedience required by chivalry.
Finally, it is worth exploring the limits of Lancelot’s obsession. He is so foolhardy that he almost kills himself by leaping out a window after her. Later, he almost dies before the sentinel because he is lost in reverie. Both incidents suggest that he values his life less than he values his thoughts of the queen. However, he remains a great knight, both in terms of might and mercy. He defeats all of his enemies in his section, but spares the sentinel both from mercy and from his promise to the little girl. In these ways, he remains an ideal representation of chivalrous knighthood. This is a Lancelot very much at odds with the cart-riding, love-sick creature. What is fascinating and ironic, however, is that it is only because of his love-sick nature (manifested in his daydreaming) that he ends up in a position to exhibit these knightly qualities. The author establishes him as a man of both worlds, and will continue to explore the inner conflict between these qualities as the romance progresses.