Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart Summary and Analysis of Lines 937-2015


Just before dusk, Lancelot sees a beautiful girl, “elegantly dressed and bejeweled” (940). The elegantly dressed woman offers to house and feed him if he promises to sleep with her. Lancelot tries to refuse the terms, but finally assents. They depart to her house, where there is a richly laid table in a hall ablaze with candles. He sees nobody else in the castle except her. She brings him a red cloak, and they eat. She retires, asking Lancelot to entertain himself outside until he thinks she is in bed, at which point he should join her.

When he thinks enough time has passed, he seeks her chamber. On the way, he hears her scream and rushes to find a rapist knight attacking her in bed, while others guard the assault. After a moment of internal monologue about honor, shame, courage, and cowardice, Lancelot storms past the guards and prepares to fight. Before the fight begins, the girl snaps her fingers, and they quickly leave. It turns out that Lancelot had been set up — the men were members of her household, organized to test his courage.

Lancelot reluctantly follows her to bed, but makes an effort not to touch her at all. When she realizes that he is thinking of another woman, she leaves him in peace.

The following morning, the elegantly dressed woman asks if Lancelot will allow her to join him. Lancelot is honor-bound to allow it, but chivalry also stipulates that if Lancelot were beaten by a knight while escorting the woman, the challenger could freely assault her.

They set off together, finally reaching a meadow with a stone and spring in the middle of it. The elegantly dressed woman sees a comb of ivory and gold lying on the stone, realizes it belongs to the queen, and leads them down another path so that Lancelot will not withhold his attention from her.

Lancelot eventually realizes that she has led him down a different path, and they turn back. When Lancelot finds the comb, the lady tells him that the strands of golden hair in it belong to Guinevere. He is so overcome with emotion that he nearly falls off his horse. The lady steps forward to catch him but realizes that it would be shameful to be saved by a woman, so she desists and claims she stepped forward merely to take the comb. After he takes the queen's hair from it, Lancelot gives the elegantly dressed woman the comb, and they ride onwards.

They soon encounter a knight who is armed and ready for battle. This suitor knight has desired the elegantly dressed woman for quite some time and sees now a chance to capture her, but Lancelot is confident in his ability to protect her. The path in the woods is too narrow to stage a fight, so the knights ride together until they come to an open meadow.

In the meadow, many lords and ladies are enjoying themselves, playing games and dancing. As the knights enter the meadow, the people recognize Lancelot as the knight who rode in the cart, and they speak disparagingly of him, certain he is a coward but worried he might also be a villain. The suitor knight rides across the meadow to his father, an old knight. The suitor knight boasts that he has won the woman, but the suitor knight's father understands that he has not yet fought for that honor. Realizing that his son could lose, the suitor knight's father suggests that the young man relinquish the woman without a fight.

The son refuses to listen to his father’s reason, so the older man ties the boy up. The challenge now withdrawn, Lancelot and the elegantly dressed woman continue onwards. The lords and ladies in the meadow decide that Lancelot must be honorable after all, if the old knight is willing to let the woman accompany him rather than stay with his own son.

They arrive at a monastery church. Lancelot enters to pray, while the woman waits outside. After he prays, Lancelot encounters an elderly monk, who leads him into the church’s graveyard. The tombs there are beautifully crafted, and Lancelot soon discovers that they memorialize not those already dead, but those who will one day be buried there. He reads headstones that name many of King Arthur's knights, and sees that the biggest and loveliest headstone has no name.

Lancelot inquires about this tomb, and the monk explains that the heavy stone's inscription reveals that whoever can lift it is destined to be a great liberator. Lancelot lifts it easily, and the monk is astonished. He then explains that this great liberator is also destined to be buried in that tomb. Though the monk begs to know Lancelot’s name, the knight refuses, and he and the lady ride on.

Shortly thereafter, the suitor knight and his father arrive at the church in pursuit of Lancelot and the lady. However, when they hear that Lancelot lifted the stone, they turn back, convinced they could never beat Lancelot in battle. The elegantly dressed woman continues to beg Lancelot for his name, and eventually asks for permission to turn back when he refuses to give it. He allows her to return home, and then rides on alone towards the Sword Bridge.


The episode with the elegantly dressed woman is interesting to consider as counterpoint to the episode with the flaming bed. In a superficial sense, the two situations are very similar — a beautiful stranger offers Lancelot a bed for the night. On closer inspection, however, this second situation differs in a critical way. In the first encounter, the bed (symbolic of his relationship with Guinevere) was forbidden and he slept in it anyway, subverting the demands of hospitality and obedience. In this instance, however, fulfilling his hostess's demands requires Lancelot to subvert the demands of fidelity to Guinevere.

In the end, however, Lancelot's worth as both lover and honorable man are proven by his behavior. His commitment to Guinevere is clear from the beginning of the episode, and is doubly proven in his reaction to the staged rape. He feels no desire when he sees the woman nearly naked at the hands of the faux-assaulter, nor does his desire mount when he is alone with her. His compulsion to both save her and then sleep with her comes from his honor, not his desire. He has promised to do the latter, and is instinctively drawn to do the former.

Overall, Lancelot operates in this scene under coercion, which is forced not by the elegantly dressed woman but by the exigencies of his codes of conduct. The question of force is paramount here: “He was sweating / Freely, but even suffering / As he was, he meant to honor / His pledge. Was he being forced? / Almost: he was forcing himself / To sleep with the girl; his promise/ Called him, and bent his will” (lines 1211-1217). Freedom - agency - is evoked by Lancelot’s sweatiness, and is opposed to force, to the bending of his will by these outside demands. His conflict is in many ways internal - his own sense of honor is battling with his personal desires.

The reader might actually pity this poor knight, who is pulled in so many different directions. However, Chrétien comments on Lancelot's discomfort by ironically comparing his silence in bed to that of a monk’s. Lancelot is anything but a monk (read: chaste). At the moment that the author makes the comparison, Lancelot is lying in the bed of a woman who has offered him hospitality in exchange for sex, while his greater quest is in pursuit of his king's wife. In this one-line, seemingly offhand comparison, the author encodes quite a complex social commentary. Chrétien’s genius lies in his subtlety and deft irony. This moment in the text is typical of the romance as a whole; scholar Edward I. Condren remarks,

“virtually every scene in the poem appears to be constructed around a dramatic highlight consistent with any one of a number of themes we have come to expect of medieval romance. But as the scene progresses, or gives way to another, the familiar tradition yields to a subtler undercurrent which contributes to an unexpected theme unifying the whole poem, a theme which shows the social order in an inverted condition where the wrong people or the wrong values control one action after another” (Condren 437).

In other words, Chrétien is able to both fulfill the demands of romance while subverting them in an amusing and profound way. This comparison between Lancelot and a monk serves a microcosm of what he does throughout the poem.

This role of this particular woman is both to clarify Lancelot’s character and to further exhibit how he navigates the competing forces (chivalry and his personal desires) within himself. Both in the woman's castle and during their journey afterwards, Lancelot proves his worth as both lover and knight. He fulfills the demands of chivalry by protecting her, but fulfills his duty to his beloved by remaining aloof from his companion. One particularly fabulous personification of love stands out as indicative of the overarching richness of this portion of the text: “Love kept scratching open / The wounds he’d suffered for Love” (1341-1342). Love causes him inner turmoil because he is spending time with another woman, and yet he is willing to suffer its attacks so that he can also act as honorable knight.

The retrieval of Guinevere’s comb demonstrates the obsession of "Our Knight," as Chrétien so often refers to Lancelot. Like he does in the comparison to the monk noted earlier, Chrétien describes Lancelot’s obsession with the comb in religious terms, describing it as a relic. As his readers would have been both well acquainted with the symbolic and ritual power of “true” relics, and well aware that religious devotion to such a decidedly secular, lustful object could be considered as tantamount to heresy, the comparison serves doubly to underscore both the depth of Lancelot’s devotion and the absurdity of it. Lancelot, as scholar A.H. Diverres astutely notes, may be valiant, but he also has “one serious weakness: he is lacking a quality considered by Chrétien to be essential to courtly love in a chivalrous setting, namely mésure” (Diverres in Owen 28). In other words, his virtues may be commendable, but his inability to keep them balanced is a bit ridiculous. He cannot control himself as a lover.

However, Lancelot is a model of mésure (self control and balance) in terms of battle, as shown in his near-altercation with the suitor knight. There, Lancelot keeps his cool, “paying no / Attention to this loud boasting, / But quietly, clearly disputing / The claim: ‘Not so fast, my friend. / Don’t waste so many words; / Speak with a bit of balance’” (1599-1604). The suitor knight is one who lacks mésure here, so blinded he is by the prospect of winning the woman he loves. In many ways, he is guilty of the same lack of control that Lancelot is as a lover; in the same way that Lancelot could not be deterred by the bed, the suitor knight is not deterred by his father's advice. His passion overwhelms his reason.

The father and son also serve as foils to and a foreshadowing of another father and son who feature later in the romance: Bademagu and Méléagant. Both fathers attempt to balance the extreme passions of their sons, which creates an interesting parallelism.

The final episode of this section is the miracle that Lancelot performs at the Church, which marks him as a savior. Lancelot, indeed, does end up fulfilling the role of liberator when he rescues the people of Logres from Gorre. Though it may appear that Chrétien is establishing Lancelot as a Christ-like character, the reality is unsurprisingly subtler and more subversive than that. D.D.R. Owen’s analysis of this section of the romance identifies an extended allusion to and “parody of Christ’s Harrowing as set out in the [apocryphal] Gospel of Nicodemus” (Owen 42). Owen is referring to an aspect of medieval theology known as the Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ was thought to have descended into hell between the times of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, thus bringing salvation to those righteous individuals who had already died (including Hebrew prophets and other Old Testament figures).

Chrétien here employs a technique that he has used before - the use of religious imagery and allusions (which would have been incredibly familiar to his readership) to make a point about Lancelot’s shortcomings. Condren emphatically argues that Chrétien’s aim is not to render Lancelot as Christ-like: “to assume that Lancelot represents Christ is to miss full half of Chrétien’s poem. The incapacity that completes the other half of the poem’s recurring pattern is simply that he is not Christ” (Condren 451). Lancelot pales in comparison to the Savior of the World, and the way in which Chrétien employs said comparison challenges the heroism and virtue ascribed to the courtly lover in his day. Lancelot might save the people of Logres - which confirms his strength as knight - but he does so as an addendum to his own selfish desire to reunite with his liege's wife. Acting as savior was never his primary motivation (unlike in the case of Christ, where the salvation of mankind was first priority). By comparing the two salvations, Chrétien leads us to recognize the selfishness of the courtly lover while also allowing his protagonist to be a heroic figure that would delight an audience. As he does so often, he fulfills the expectations of the form while also subverting them.