Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart Summary and Analysis of Lines 5053-6234


Lancelot once again begs permission to seek Gawain; both Bademagu and the queen grant it. He travels to the Sunken Bridge, and encounters a devious dwarf as he arrives. The devious dwarf claims to have news of Gawain, and promises to bring Lancelot somewhere safe where he can divulge his information. Lancelot accompanies the devious dwarf, unaware that he is being led towards a trap.

When Lancelot does not return, his companions realize the knight has been fooled, and decide to find Gawain so that he can help them rescue Lancelot. They complete the journey, and find Gawain trapped in the water, having fallen from the Sunken Bridge. After rescuing him, they explain the situation, and Gawain prepares for action. He suggests that they return to Bademagu’s castle, since the king would likely have the best sense of where the devious dwarf has taken Lancelot.

When they arrive, King Bademagu and Guinevere are both dismayed, though the queen endeavors to hide her emotions so as not to encourage rumors. Everyone suspects Méléagant of the ruse, and the king immediately dispatches scouts throughout the kingdom.

Not long afterwards, a small boy arrives with a letter bearing Lancelot's seal, and addressed to Guinevere. The letter tells of Lancelot's safe return to Arthur's court, and begs that Guinevere, Kay, and Gawain return as well. All are relieved by the news, and immediately set off for home.

When they arrive, King Arthur is overjoyed to see them, and immediately assumes that Gawain is their savior. Gawain explains that Lancelot is the true hero, and they then realize that the letter was a forgery. Lancelot has not been seen at the court.

In the meantime, the young, unmarried women of Logres are planning a tournament, hoping to find husbands amongst the competing knights. They ask King Arthur if Guinevere might preside over the tournament, and he assents. News of the tournament travels quickly throughout the lands, and reaches one of Méléagant's stewards, who is also Lancelot’s jailer deep in Gorre.

When he hears of the tournament, Lancelot begs the jailer's wife for permission to leave and compete, promising he will return immediately once the tournament is finished. Though she knows her husband will be frightened of upsetting Méléagant, she eventually agrees, and lends him the jailer's red armor and horse.

Lancelot arrives at the tournament, which is being hosted in Noauz by the Lady of Noauz and the Lady of Pomelegoi. He initially passes unnoticed, but a rascally herald recognizes him, and promises not to reveal his secret. Nevertheless, the boy immediately runs through the village, warning all the other knights that this new arrival will "cut them down to size." The other knights do not understand him, but are perturbed at the insinuation.

In the tournament, Lancelot performs well, thereby gaining much public support, and Guinevere suspects that he might be her beloved. To test his identity, she sends a young messenger girl to ask this knight to fight badly, knowing that Lancelot would gladly suffer the shame of defeat for her sake. Lancelot does indeed fight poorly upon hearing the message, and the crowds begin to despise him where they had previous honored him for his strength.

The next day, a rumor spreads that this red knight has fled in disgrace, but he returns to fight again. Guinevere sends the same young messenger girl with the same message, and asks the girl to take note of the knight's reaction. When he hears the message, Lancelot agrees to honor the request, and the young messenger girl brings word to Guinevere. Pleased, the queen sends the girl back with orders for Lancelot to fight as well as he can.

Lancelot resumes his triumphant performance, and the crowd is again enchanted by him. In fact, all the young women are so taken that they vow not to marry unless they can marry him. Lancelot wins the tournament, but before anyone can learn his identity, he escapes back into the woods.

In the meantime, the jailer’s wife has confessed to her husband. Angry and scared, he immediately informs Méléagant, whose wrath is mollified by Lancelot's promise to return - he knows that Lancelot will honor his promise. They decide, however, to redouble the security of Lancelot’s imprisonment, building a tower unlike any seen before. Once Lancelot returns and is safely ensconced in his cell at the top, Méléagant had the doors walled over, and swears the masons to secrecy about the tower's existence.

(At this point, the authorship changes; Godfrey of Lagny finished the poem).

Knowing Lancelot to be firmly imprisoned, Méléagant rides to King Arthur’s court and demands Lancelot appear to battle him as promised. When they tell Méléagant that they have not heard from him, the devious knight insist his foe appear within one year's time at the risk of losing his honor. Gawain offers to stand in the place of Lancelot if that knight cannot be found, and Méléagant accepts these terms.


In many ways, Lancelot should have been more suspicious when the devious dwarf promises him information about Gawain. The only other dwarf that he encounters in the text is the one who drives the pillory cart, and that fellow causes the knight much pain and trouble. Nevertheless, Lancelot gladly accompanies the devious dwarf, perhaps suggesting that a certain level of bravery is often matched by a gullible nature.

Gawain, as a secondary savior, is a logical choice, but he seems to lack one of Lancelot's primary virtues: love. This is the reason that he was unable to rescue Guinevere. The fact that he was bested by the Sunken Bridge, whereas Lancelot conquered the more dangerous Sword Bridge, suggests that prowess is not enough in this world. Instead, one needs a commitment to Love, the virtue that helped Lancelot cross the Sword Bridge. Nevertheless, Gawain proves himself an honorable knight both when he immediately leaps to Guinevere's aid, and when he refuses to take credit for rescuing her after they return to the court.

Guinevere's reaction to Gawain's arrival both confirms her devotion to Lancelot, and reveals her keen sense of duty. Moreso than Lancelot is, Guinevere seems bound and compelled by those courtly codes of conduct which conflict with the demands of true love. Chrétien writes, “rejoicing at the sight of Sir Gawain / Was required, and she did her best,” despite the overwhelming grief and worry she feels for Lancelot (5203-5204). Lancelot does not have such qualms or compulsions towards fulfilling the code. The closest he has yet come was the two steps of hesitation before leaping into the cart, and whenever that code has conflicted with his love, the latter always triumphs.

If Lancelot and Guinevere reflect the ideal of courtly love, then this difference is indicative of the larger differences between the role of the male and the female courtly lovers. Courtly love stipulates that the man be totally devoted to the woman and to Love; the female courtly lover is marked by and praised for her capriciousness. Guinevere is not compelled by Love to deny all her other obligations, as Lancelot is. However, the fact that she finds it difficult to carry out those duties speaks to the depth of her love for Lancelot. Further description of the queen, “whose face / No longer bore the color / Of a rose,” suggests the degree to which her love is completely embodied in her person. It is not an emotion isolated in the mind, but a force that has penetrated every fiber of her being (5252-5254). In many ways, one can see in this difference a certain patriarchal instinct. A woman must protect her sexual reputation, and so outwardly showing grief for her departed lover is dangerous. A man has the opportunity to defend his reputation by sword, and so has more freedom to devote himself fully towards the unwavering demands of courtly love.

In one sense, the tournament serves as the focal point of the narrative's second half, for it validates Lancelot as the honorable hero. It in many ways mirrors the first half of the story. In both sections, an unidentified knight (Lancelot in both cases) must prove to Guinevere the extent of his love by allowing himself to be shamed before others. In both sections, it is the Queen who recognizes and identifies the knight, underscoring the fact that he begins and ends in her. So the tournament serves to reinforce the story's main trajectory, by recreating it in a different context.

The tournament also provides a glimpse of courtly life. The women who organize the tournament view the virtue of a lover in an entirely different way than Lancelot and Guinevere do. Their values, which the audience is meant to view as ideal, are based around obligation to one's lover. The unmarried women of Logres consider a lover's virtue as defined by his capacity as a knight. They organize the battle specifically to seek out husbands in men who will arrive to stress their own valor. These men, it is implied, value the code of a knight over the devotion of the lover.

Lancelot sees the tournament differently, as the ground on which to demonstrate his worth as a lover. Therefore, his great triumph comes not in vanquishing his opponents, but in following Guinevere's instructions. Indeed, his proof of love in the second half is even more compelling than it was in the first - in the latter, he hesitated two steps before accepting the shame of the cart, while he here does not hesitate at all before ceding his spot as forerunner. When the young messenger girl confirms his immediate willingness to be shamed, Guinevere sees that he has grown in his love. And indeed, Lancelot has grown as a lover and matured as an exemplar of courtly love, which ironically means he adheres less to reason than he had previously done.

Rumors again feature prominently in the tournament scene. Here, the rascally herald's rumors suggest Lancelot's arrival to Guinevere. Rumors are a de rigeur part of court life, and speculation about Lancelot’s identity grows all the more urgent when he fights well, thus making him a target of the women’s matrimonial schemes. Having only a day before despised his very existence, these foolish young women vow to marry nobody but this mysterious knight. The rapidity with and degree to which their opinion of Lancelot changes (“What a terrible wrong we committed, / Scoring such a man, / For surely he’s worth a thousand / Of anyone out on that field”), can be read as an indictment by Chrétien of the vapid and fickle nature of the courtiers who comprised his primary audience (5994-5997). It is also a criticism of virtue based on knightly valor, since that means a man's true character is ignored in favor of his temporary performance on a battlefield.

Lancelot is ultimately successful in every way at the tournament. Guinevere is convinced of his devotion to her in “both body and soul”, and he has once again proven his abilities as a warrior (5884-5885). He further proves his honor by keeping his promise to the jailer's wife. Naturally, his virtue stands in stark contrast to Méléagant's cowardice.

Finally, it is worth noting here that the authorship of the romance changes in this section, for reasons unclear to scholars.