Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart Quotes and Analysis

“As Chrétien begins this tale / Of Lancelot, the Knight / Of the Cart, he declares the subject / And its meaning come from his lady. / She gave him the idea, and the story; His words do the work of her matter.”

Chrétien, lines 24-29

This declaration, which marks the end of the prologue, is significant because Chrétien explicitly insists that neither the story nor its meaning are of his invention. Many scholars believe that these lines, along with Chrétien's eventual relinquishing of the poem, suggest that he was uncomfortable with the exaltation of courtly love. It was not particularly unusual in the Middle Ages for writers to give credit for their stories to another (particularly if the work might draw the censure of the Church), or to build their poems around pre-existing stories. Nevertheless, these lines do express Chrétien's distance from the work, which provides insight into his frequent use of subversion throughout the text.

“Slowly, the queen approached, / And, sighing sadly, mounted, / Then spoke in a voice so soft / No one was meant to hear her: / ‘Oh, my love, if only / You knew, you’d never let me / Take a step into this man’s / Care!’ It was barely a whisper, / But Count Guinables, who stood / Close by, heard what she’d said.”

Guinevere, lines 205-214

These words, spoken before Guinevere mounts her steed to leave Arthur's court with Kay, reveal crucial information about the queen. Firstly, it is important to note the queen’s resignation; she has resigned herself to her eventual imprisonment, without outwardly fighting against it. This passivity suggests she has accepted her limitations as a woman, one who was expected to subsume herself to courtly demands. Secondly, this is the first moment in which Guinevere's affair is mentioned. As it is certainly Lancelot to whom she addresses herself (despite the fact that he is not there), the declaration suggests that the affair was something of an open secret at court (Duggan in Raffel, 227). This suggests that passionate courtly love was not something to be ashamed of. The presence and acceptance of courtly love - even when it exists outside the marriage bond - is introduced into the poem here, a mere 200 lines in.

“Offenders were punished / By being set in the cart / And driven up and down / The town. Their reputations / were lost, and the right to be present / At court; they lost all honor / And joy. Everyone knew / What carts were for, and feared them….”

Chrétien, lines 333-339

Several important themes emerge in Chrétien's description of the cart which Lancelot rides in order to progress towards his queen. Firstly, Chrétien underscores the deep shame that comes with riding in a cart. Even for the most ordinary of people, it meant the surrender of all honor and joy. Therefore, for the acclaimed knight Lancelot, riding in the cart means an eschewal of his very identity. Secondly, Chrétien's language introduces the centrality of honor in defining a person. Honor and reputation were of unparalleled importance to medieval sensibilities. By stressing how shameful it is to ride in the cart, Chrétien thereby stresses how noble it is of Lancelot to so quickly leap into it. The contrast later manifests into a discussion of Lancelot's inner conflict between honor and love. Eventually, Chrétien explores how Lancelot's devotion reveals both the joys of passionate love and the occasional perils of all-consuming obsession.

“Reason, which warred / With Love, warned him to take care; / It taught and advised him never / To attempt anything likely / To bring him shame or reproach.”

Chrétien, lines 364-368

This moment is one of several in which Chrétien personifies Love and Reason to explore Lancelot's inner conflict. Rather than being emotions felt by a person, Love and Reason are here treated as forces with tremendous power and agency. Love, both for Chrétien and within the paradigm of courtly love, was an inherently unreasonable thing. In particular, it was dangerous because it led a person to compromise his reputation as an honorable man. Ultimately, Chrétien's purpose in the poem is to advise mésure (or balance), to suggest that while Love is a wonderful virtue, it is best when matched by Reason. One must be aware of the world outside oneself, but one ought also to fulfill the demands of an inner life (i.e. love for another). In sections like this, Chrétien establishes that he wishes to explore bigger concepts than simply the behavior of his characters.

“The ancient monk was so / Astonished he almost fell over; / He’d never seen such a miracle, / And never expected to see one / As long as he lived. And he said, / ‘My lord, you’ve made me / Most anxious to know your name. / Would you tell me please?’ ‘Me? No, by God!’ Said the knight.”

Chrétien, an elderly monk, and Lancelot, lines 1920-1928

This passage, which occurs right after Lancelot lifts the mammoth tombstone, is important for several reasons. Most simply, Lancelot's strength establishes him as a great knight, one who will prove the savior of the people of Logres. However, the savior comparison deepens the moment, since it makes a Biblical allusion by comparing Lancelot to Christ. Scholar Edward Condren suggests that the allusion is deeper still because it is meant to be somewhat ironic: “the scriptural imagery emphasizes the contrast between Christ and this ineffectual knight” (451). Whereas Christ controlled himself, Lancelot acts impulsively from the grips of his obsession for Guinevere. Regardless of how one interprets the moment, is in an indication of how Chrétien could operate on several different levels at once, all while delivering to his audience the tale of heroes they undoubtedly sought.

“Evil deeds shame men / More than good ones help them. / Courage and virtue are lesser / Powers than evil and sloth: / Consider how easy it is / To sin, and how hard to do good. / I’ve a lot to say on these subjects, / Which would take me too much time--/ And besides, I’ve other matters / On my mind—so back to my story.”

Chrétien, lines 3180-3189

This excerpt represents one of the text's more didactic moments . Here, Chrétien uses direct address to consider the nature of virtue. Goodness, he explains, is more difficult than evil is. The question would have been one much on the minds of Chrétien's medieval audience. What this passage reveals is that Chrétien's goals are larger than simply relating a heroic tale, but that he wishes to plant those ideas into the story rather than discuss them explicitly. It provides insight into his moral compass, thereby making his achievement all the more impressive. He gives his audience the tales of heroes that they seek, while frequently subverting the ideals of romance in order to force that audience to consider their own opinions on virtue and vice.

“Lovers are obedient men, / Cheerfully willing to do / Whatever the beloved, who holds / the entire heart, desires. Lancelot had no choice, / For if ever anyone loved / More truly than Pyramus / It was him.”

Chrétien, lines 3805-3812

Chrétien here makes clear his purpose to present Lancelot as the ideal courtly lover, which is likely what his patroness expected of him. He suggests what courtly love taught: that men should be obedient to their beloved above all else. Lancelot certainly fulfills this ideal on several occasions, and Chrétien means us to understand him as a paragon of such a courtly lover. To stress the point, he alludes to Pyramus, a character from Roman mythology. The couple who gave Shakespeare the model for Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe were desperate lovers forbidden to be together because of family rivalry. They killed themselves when unable to be together. By comparing Lancelot to Pyramus, Chrétien makes his point abundantly clear - Lancelot is the ideal courtly lover. However, the comparison also utilizes a slight subversion, since the allusion to suicide reminds us of the cost of single-minded obsession, something Chrétien subtly attacks in other parts of the poem.

“‘Indeed? 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.”

Guinevere, lines 4491-4496

The two steps mentioned here have become a significant focus in scholarship on Lancelot. Lancelot’s decision to leap into the cart is clearly one of the text's most significant, as it both introduces the conflict between Reason and Love, and gives the otherwise nameless knight a signifier for the first half of the romance. The conflict is further explored through the hesitation of two steps, which Guinevere sees as an insult to their love for one another. She understands that he need not make every decision based on courtly expectation (which would preach maintaining honor above all else), but she likewise expects him to be excessive in the other direction. Neither has an understanding yet of mésure; both think in strict terms of the dichotomy between Love and Reason. As they mature in the poem, they will learn that the best course is to stay true to one's passion while acting with outward appearance somewhat in mind.

“And as he passed through the window / He bowed and crossed himself, / As if acknowledging / An altar.”

Chrétien, lines 4725-4727

This passage, which occurs as Lancelot leaves Guinevere's tower prison in Gorre after they sleep together, is one of the many instances in which Chrétien explores the excessiveness of Lancelot's obsession. In many ways, the religious imagery would fulfill his patroness's desire, since it compares Lancelot's courtly love to the heights of Christianity. However, the action is explicitly heretical, since adultery broke a sacrament of the Church. Therefore, Lancelot's devotion here is meant to both praise and attack his love. Chrétien reveals his ability to please his audience while also subverting the very virtues they wish to celebrate.

“If Reason hadn’t restrained / The wild passion she felt, / The world would have known her feelings, / Which would have been folly indeed.”

Chrétien, lines 6851-6854

Here, Chrétien reveals that Guinevere has grown throughout the poem, since she can now show mésure. Unlike Lancelot, who has continued to battle with his inner conflict between Love and Reason, Guinevere understands that she must balance her passion with a reasonable recognition of her situation. It is not a question of adultery, however (especially if we accept that the affair might have been an open secret in Arthur's court). Instead, it is a question of behavior; a woman was expected to show restraint, so to have openly embraced her lover would have been seen as immoral. Guinevere's feelings are not compromised by her reason, but she does act prudently so as to protect herself and her lover. This is perfect example of how mésure functions as a virtue.