Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart Summary and Analysis of Lines 4114-5051


Word of Lancelot’s triumph quickly spreads throughout Gorre. As Lancelot travels towards the Sunken Bridge to find Gawain, the citizens of Gorre attempt to capture him, fallaciously believing King Bademagu would sanction it. Lancelot's insistence that Bademagu has granted him safe passage does not assuage the angry citizens, and a false rumor soon reaches King Bademagu and Guinevere, claiming that Lancelot has been not only captured, but killed.

Guinevere is so distraught at the news of Lancelot’s death that she almost dies from grief and guilt over her coldness towards him. She contemplates suicide, but then decides that a life of suffering would prove a more fitting punishment. After her second day without eating or drinking, a rumor of her death spreads. Lancelot hears of it, and grows equally distraught. He attempts to kill himself by tying one end of his belt around his neck and the other around his saddle, so that his horse will drag him to death. However, his companions see him fall from his horse, and rescue him. Filled with shame and regret, Lancelot falls into a reverie, contemplating his life and love for Guinevere.

Fortunately, both lovers soon learn that the rumors were false. Soon afterwards, Lancelot returns to Bademagu’s castle. Bademagu is furious and shamed that Lancelot encountered difficulties after the king had guaranteed his safety, but Lancelot insists he not take any rash action against anyone.

Finally, the moment arrives when Lancelot and Guinevere are reunited in happiness. When Lancelot asks about Guinevere's previous coldness, she replies, “Didn’t the cart / Shame you the least little bit? / You must have hesitated, / For you lingered a good two steps. / And that, you see, was my sole / Reason for ignoring your presence” (4491-4496). In other words, she was upset that Lancelot hesitated before leaping in the cart, even though he knew the dwarf would bring him towards her. Lancelot begs her forgiveness, and she grants it.

Worried about being too conspicuous, they make plans to meet in secret that night, when Lancelot will meet Guinevere at her window. That night, Lancelot feigns extreme fatigue, and retires early. Once everyone else has gone to bed, he slips out and enters the orchard beneath Guinevere’s window through a broken segment of wall. She appears at the window in a snow-white gown, and the two clasp hands through the window bars. She explains that despite her desire to be with him, the iron bars cannot be moved and she shares a room with Sir Kay. Undeterred, Lancelot breaks the bars, so focused on sleeping with Guinevere that he does not realize how badly the iron cuts his fingers in the process.

The two finally sleep together, spending all night wrapped in each other’s arms. Kay is not woken by their lovemaking. For Lancelot, the encounter is elevated to an almost religious experience; when he leaves her arms, he bows and crosses himself as if before an altar. He returns safely to his room after bending the bars back into place, and only then realizes that his fingers are bleeding. He does not regret the pain, and thinks nothing further of it. Guinevere awakes happily the next morning, also blissfully unaware of Lancelot’s blood spread on the curtains and on her bed.

Checking in on the queen, Méléagant discovers the blood staining the room. Unfortunately, Kay’s wounds had re-opened during the night, covering his own bed in blood as well. Méléagant assumes that Kay has slept with the queen. Guinevere denies the accusation, claiming that she suffered a nose bleed during the night. Unconvinced, Méléagant accuses her of dishonor and infidelity before his father, who initially disbelieves Méléagant but is unable to deny the evidence once he sees it himself.

Again, Guinevere defends her honor and Kay’s, insisting that Kay is too honest a man for such depravity, and that she would never sell her body like that. When Méléagant insists Kay be punished and the queen be shamed, Kay requests the opportunity to defend himself in combat. However, he is too weak from the strain of his newly re-opened wounds, so Guinevere suggests that Lancelot fight in his stead. She sends for him in secret, and he soon arrives in the hall.

Chivalry stipulated that this kind of challenge take place under oath, so they send for the relics on which to swear. All beg God to ensure justice through the combat, and the battle then begins. Lancelot and Méléagant are as evenly matched and ferocious as before. King Bademagu begs Guinevere to stop the fighting, and she agrees. When Lancelot hears her request, he immediately stops. As before, Méléagant continues attacking, until his father convinces him that he will earn more honor by waiting to defeat Lancelot at King Arthur's court, as they had previously agreed.


In the first part of this section, rumors prove to have an extreme power. For Chrétien, rumors are not only expedient in terms of progressing the plot; they also allow him to explore the importance of the interpretive act. Though rumors are by nature mutable, changing as they move from person to person, they are accepted here by their audiences as absolute truth. Both Lancelot and Guinevere face great despair when they hear of the other's death, never for a moment doubting the veracity of the claim. How a person interprets a rumor - whether to spread it further or to accept it as truth - helps to understand who they are in this romance.

For instance, the rumor of Lancelot's death reveals to the audience that Guinevere's obsession for Lancelot is equally to his for her. Her beauty diminshes when she believes him dead (4197, 4199). Literally, this phrase communicates that her anxiety and guilt have caused a loss of appetite, resulting in pallor and listlessness. However, the phrase also suggests a conflation of inner and outer beauty. When she believes herself sinful, she loses her outer beauty as well. She is tainted by her actions - and they are literally embodied in her. The truth of the rumor does not matter - her own guilt is so honest and persistent that it immediately responds as though the worst had occurred.

Lancelot's immediate acceptance of the rumor of Guinevere's death speaks to his own obsession, and also allows Chrétien to explore the importance of perspective in discerning truth. When Lancelot believes her dead, he for the first time wonders whether her coldness reflected the shame he suffered by riding in the cart. He justifies his actions, however: “Nothing / Done in the name of Love / Can be held against a lover: Whatever a lover does / For love is love, and is right” (4363-4367). In redefining morality in terms of love, Lancelot underscores Chrétien’s argument that truth is dependent upon perspective. The argument is further apparent when Lancelot muses about the incident: “she should have known it was done / For Love, had she seen it correctly” (4380). Seeing an act is not what is important; what matters is seeing correctly. Perspective matters, and varies depending on the context. In reflecting on this idea, Lancelot proves his own point, since he has pinpointed the incident that upset Guinevere, but not the exact reason. He does not have her perspective. Of course, all of Chrétien’s ideas on perspective underscore his larger point: the codes which bound the medieval elite did not always embody the same truths and values. What they considered necessary and central - like the idea of honor - were not as universal as they might have believed.

The night spent in Guinevere’s tower room is one of the romance's most significant. The poetry of this section is particularly gorgeous and evocative. For instance, “then finally the thick, dark / Night fought the day / To its knees and slowly covered it / Over with its heavy cloak” (4550-4553). Guinevere appears to her lover in a snow-white gown, which symbolizes her purity and virginity. She is, of course, not a virgin, nor is she particularly pure (considering her adultery). However, her gown's color suggests that her love for Lancelot is transcendent, meant to be judged by its own standards. Similar to the way religious imagery has functioned throughout the romance, the heavy religious imagery throughout the scene signifies Chrétien’s ironic and critical treatment of the courtly love tradition, and of the behavior that it sanctioned. Love here appears as its own religion, which is of course necessary, since strict Christianity could never sanction this affair. The queen’s naked body is “the holiest relic;” leaving her bed is “some terrible martyrdom;” and her chamber is “an altar” to be bowed before (4660, 4697, 4726). Yet again, Chrétien is able to conform to the expectations of his audience, while also criticizing their desire for those very elements.

Chrétien leaves the dirtiest details to the imagination, but sex pervades the scene's symbolism. The bloodied curtains and bed are perhaps the most important of these symbols. The blood comes from Lancelot’s fingers, but bloodied sheets are closely tied to questions of virginity. In some time periods (including the middle ages), a bloodied sheet on a wedding night was taken as proof of a woman's virginity. As Guinevere has been established as virginal through her gown, this symbol serves to reinforce the idea that their love is sanctioned and pure. Of course, the world outside their room considers the blood as a reflection of illicit behavior, again suggesting that the purity of the lover's world stands in stark contrast to the expectations of larger society.

The bloodied sheets and curtains also play a prominent role in Chrétien’s exploration of perspective, truth, and interpretation. They are the first clue to Méléagant that anything is amiss when he enters Guinevere’s chamber. As critic Paul Strohm contends, “he is condemned to an act of interpretation, and carries it forward in the most reasonable and empirical way, only to fall short of anything approaching an account of what has actually transpired” (203). Though Guinevere offers a falsehood (a nosebleed) as explanation, Méléagant chooses to focus on a different falsehood (a liaison with Kay.) The symbol means something different to everyone.

The question of adultery, therefore, is not as straightforward as one might anticipate in such a highly Christian time period. This ambiguity, too, plays into the larger theme of interpretation, by remarking on the limits it imposes on any situation. Lancelot and Guinevere certainly commit adultery, but the romance suggests that their affair transcends conventional morality. However, adultery barely plays into the accusations. As critic Edward I. Condren astutely observes,

“not even when Guinevere is caught almost literally red handed is her possible shame called adultery. Méléagant, believing that Kay has slept with Guenevere, complains not of the Queen’s having broken her conjugal obligations but only of Kay’s having failed in his knightly duty by not guarding her properly” (436).

He further points out that Guinevere never insists on her fidelity to Arthur as evidence of her character, but only asserts that she “does not expose her body on the marketplace” (436). As much as anything else, fidelity appears to be a matter of interpretation. It is not the primary sin that anyone is thinking of.

Like other knightly confrontations in the romance, this matter of love, shame, and honor is to be resolved on the battlefield. Unlike previous encounters, however, this one is sworn under oath, meaning it is expected to be adjudicated by God. Swearing on relics alludes to how Guinevere's body had previously been compared to a relic, thereby placing has as central to the oath. They are literally and figuratively swearing over and for her body. Chrétien constructs a difficult situation for himself here - to have Lancelot triumph would be to suggest that God allowed the false party to win (since Guinevere was in fact guilty of sexual activity), but to have Méléagant win would be an unsatisfying development and a suggestion that their affair is unholy. Luckily, the voice of Reason (King Bademagu) halts the battle, suggesting that in a world so full of interpretations and mutable truths, violence in the name of immutable values is not the wisest course of action.