Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart Summary and Analysis of Lines 2016-3140


As darkness falls, Lancelot encounters a knight returning from a day of hunting. The hunting knight, a family man with a kind wife, five sons (two knights and three squires) and two daughters, offers Lancelot lodging for the night.

At dinner, Lancelot learns that he is now in Gorre, and that this family is from Logres. Hence, they are amongst the captives that Méléagant boasted of - the family is treated as prisoners in Gorre, unable to leave, just like everyone else from Logres. The hunting knight recalls a rumor of a “great and powerful knight” who has come to recue the queen, whom Méléagant is holding captive (2123). The hunting knight then tells Lancelot of a much safer route to the Sword Bridge, but Lancelot refuses to take it because it requires a longer journey. He wants to rescue Guinevere as quickly as possible. The hunting knight therefore warns Lancelot that he will cross a piece of road known as the Stony Path, which is the width of a horse and “well / Watched and fiercely guarded” (2173-2174). At this point, two of the hunting knight’s sons ask permission to accompany Lancelot.

The following morning, Lancelot and the hunting knight's sons leave at dawn, soon arriving at the Stony Path. Immediately, a formidably armored knight emerges to fight them. This knight of the Stony Path taunts Lancelot, mocking his ride in the cart, but Lancelot knocks him down onto the rocks. Though other men swarm forward as if to attack, Lancelot calls their bluff, and he and his companions ride on safely. Not long after that, they encounter another knight who offers them hospitality. As Lancelot believes it is too early to stop for the night, he refuses the offer.

On the road, they cross paths with a treacherous squire who tells them that news of the great knight from Logres (Lancelot) has inspired the prisoners from Logres to take up arms. He directs them towards a battle raging in a nearby fortress. The party follows him quickly into the fortress, only to discover a trap. The gate shuts behind them; they are locked in. Not able to find an escape, the knights suspect there must be magic at work.

Fortunately, Lancelot has a magic ring, given to him by the Lady of the Lake, who raised him. It is able to undo any enchantment, but when he consults it, he realizes that there is no magic at work. They discover a small door at the side of their prison, and slash through it with their swords. Outside the prison, they discover the battle, and quickly locate their compatriots. Lancelot, of course, is phenomenally successful in battle. His success convinces the men of Logres that he is the rumored savior come to rescue them. Their new hope inspires a renewed strength, and they fight bravely until the battle stops when night falls.

Everyone wants the honor of hosting Lancelot that night, but he ends the argument by choosing to stay with a rich knight. The next two days pass without incident.

The following night, he lodges with a gracious lady and her lord, who are delighted to host him and the hunting knight's sons. During dinner that knight, an arrogant knight arrives and questions whether a knight who rode in a cart could ultimately achieve success. Lancelot does not respond, but everyone else at the table leaps to his defense, insisting he could not have truly committed a crime (as the cart incident suggests).

The arrogant knight then offers Lancelot a deal: he will ferry them across the river (thus allowing Lancelot to avoid the Sword Bridge), if Lancelot will promise to die afterwards. Lancelot declines the offer, and the arrogant knight challenges him to a duel. The duel is so violent that the horses die as the knights joust. The fight continues on foot, and Lancelot is frustrated that he cannot overpower his opponent. He becomes angry at the arrogant knight's mockery over the cart, and uses that anger to vanquish the other. Ever merciful, Lancelot offers to spare the arrogant knight on the condition that the latter willingly ride in a cart.

The arrogant knight refuses. As they bargain for his life, Méléagant's sister (though she does not identify herself yet) rides up on a tawny mule. She tells Lancelot that she has traveled far to solicit his help, and offers to “give [him] the greatest / Reward [she] knows of” in return (2805-2806). She also insists that Lancelot will one day need her help. He agrees to grant her request, and she asks for the knight's head, claiming she hates him. Lancelot is torn between his pity for the knight and his promise to the girl.

Lancelot resolves the dilemma by offering the arrogant knight a rematch. If the knight wins, he escapes; if Lancelot wins, the arrogant knight dies. Additionally, Lancelot agrees to handicap himself by standing still during the fight. Lancelot nevertheless wins, and the girl urges him to kill the arrogant knight. He complies, and Méléagant's sister renews her promise to later repay him.

Everyone celebrates, but Lancelot is anxious to continue on his journey. Their host offers them some beautiful horses, and Lancelot insists that the hunting knight's sons ride them.

Later that knight, they come to the Sword Bridge, “a single / Gleaming sword-blade crossing / that ice-cold water” (3026-3028). Across the bridge, they see a pair of lions waiting to attack. His companions urge him to reconsider, citing the wind, the danger, and the lions as reasonable arguments to proceed very carefully. Lancelot replies that he trusts God to keep him safe, and they are sorry for having questioned him. Lancelot then climbs onto the blade with bare feet and hands. He is in immense pain as he slowly crosses, but love “turned his pain to pleasure” (3120). Safely on the other side but terribly injured by the blade, he realizes that the lions had been conjured by magic, and are not real.


The opening vignette of this section, in which Lancelot is shown hospitality by the hunting knight and his family, strikes a different note from the other examples of hospitality that Lancelot has so far been shown. The richness and generosity is similar to that of previous incidents, but the purpose of Lancelot’s stay in this house has less to do with a demonstration of his valor and virtue, and more to do with the equipping of a knight. In other words, he is invited not because he proves himself, but because this family needs him.

The family tells him both how the people of Logres are trapped in Gorre, and of the obstacles that separate him from his Guinevere. Their indictment of the people of Gorre, and particularly of Gorre's malevolent prince Méléagant is acrid: “this infidel race / Worse than the Moslem hordes” (2139-2140). Crusader rhetoric, which relied upon the presupposition of a Muslim's ignoble character, was writ large upon the sensibilities of the high medieval audience, and no doubt this comparison would have inspired a visceral and fervent reaction from Chrétien's audience.

In the course of the conversation, Lancelot again proves himself the rash and devoted lover, choosing to brave the Stony Path even though it is more dangerous, simply because it is faster. Perhaps it is this bravery which inspires the hunting knight's sons to join him as squires. Though they all know of the cart incident, they do not permanently ostracize him, but instead honor him with their presence.

The cart incident remains a thorn in Lancelot's side. It is both a mark of narrative efficiency and an indicator of the centrality of a knight's reputation in the Middle Ages that this incident is known to everyone. Even people leagues away from the scene of the cart, who offer no logical explanation for knowing of it, cite it to him. This is important because it allows Chrétien to continue exploring the themes of shame and valor, but also suggests that a warrior (whether for Christ or a king) carries both his sin and virtue with him throughout his life. We are always defined by what we have done. The knight of the Stony Path tries to mock Lancelot with the incident, but Lancelot diffuses the mockery through his prowess.

When Lancelot denies the offer to stay the night because he believes it too early to stop, the interaction foreshadows the trickery that soon follows. In every other case thus far, an offer of hospitality is made at the perfect moment; here, this knight offers the temptation of early and easy shelter. Lancelot declines it from courage and honor, which inspires his foes to then trap him by tempting those very virtues. They tell him of a battle where his presence is needed, and through this ruse are able to ensnare him.

The scene of his captivity is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it allows Chrétien to discuss Lancelot's lineage, reminding his audience that Lancelot was raised by the Lady of the Lake. Such moments have proven crucial towards allowing scholars to construct a cohesive picture of the Arthurian legends, and the connections between characters and incidents. This is particularly central considering the variations in spellings and nomenclature one finds amongst the many romances and stories. Secondly, the fact that Lancelot and his companions immediately suspect magic reminds us how central the belief in such powers were to their world. Without the power of magic, many of these legends would lack their mythic power and significance.

The entrapment episode can also be read as an extension of the harrowing parody described in the analysis of the last section. The dungeon is evocative of Christ’s tomb, from which Lancelot emerges,

moving from the darkness into the light. This messianic motif continues to resonate after their jailbreak, as Lancelot dominates in the battle and inspires the people of Logres through the promise of salvation. They seem to recognize him as their Messiah: “He’s come to lead us out / Of exile and end the misery / We’ve suffered so long” and “All had heard he would come, / All had longed to see him” (2418-2430).

If Lancelot is a savior, then those he is meant to save show themselves to be all too human when they argue over who will lodge him. Encoded in their bickering is Chrétien's critique of their gentility. Rather than considering what is best for Lancelot, they selfishly push for their own honor. Chrétien, in the voice of Lancelot, observes: “these noises / You’re making tell me the smartest / Man among you is a fool” (2476-2478). He again highlights the limitations of strict adherence to the codes that regulated the lives of the medieval gentility. By attempting to conform to the social expectations, they degrade themselves.

The encounter with the arrogant knight reveals a stunning display of restraint on Lancelot's part. Instead of angrily leaping to his defense, “our knight answered that he wasn’t / Anxious to injure himself: / He wouldn’t risk his neck / Like that, no matter the cost” (2641-2644). His response indicates a developing sense of mésure, that essential heroic quality that Chrétien seems to value. Interestingly, it is not Lancelot-the-lover who is showing signs of restraint; it is merely Lancelot-the-knight. He himself is willing to be insulted, but would be less likely to show such restraint were his love or lover insulted. This restraint so becomes Lancelot that he appears particularly splendid in his the armor he borrows for the battle with the arrogant knight. So shocking and unbelievable is this new virtuous appearance that Chrétien addresses the audience directly: “Believe me, it’s the truth” (2681).

Chrétien’s depiction of the battle with the arrogant knight is particularly rich; vivid metaphors and similes abound. For instance “they hammered / At one another faster / Than gamblers rattling dice”, and “our knight stabbed / And struck till the other, like a swallow / Helpless in front of a hawk / …had no choice / But to beg for his life” (2707-2709, 2747-2753). Interestingly, it is not until Lancelot allows himself to become angry over the cart insults that he triumphs. This poses a poignant counterpoint to the virtue of mésure. While it is preferable in normal circumstances, it does not allow victory in battle. Instead, Lancelot must allow himself to grow indignant before he can dominate his foe.

Again, Lancelot is asked a favor from a young girl who suddenly arrives. When Méléagant’s sister (who does not yet identify herself) arrives on a donkey, the image is meant to evoke Christ, who entered Jerusalem on such a humble animal. The comparison, which would not have been lost on medieval audiences, foreshadows her eventual role as Lancelot’s savior (an event which she hints at in lines 2807-2808).

Working in counterpoint to such humility is her request: she wants the arrogant knight dead. Again, Chrétien personifies emotions to illustrate Lancelot's dilemma: “Pity and Generosity / Pulled him in both directions. / If he gave her the knight’s head / Pity would suffer and die, / And if he refused her he’d kill off / Generosity” (2844-2849). Lancelot once more appears not as a rational agent, but as a field in which emotions war and act upon him. In other words, Chrétien suggests that humans are often at the mercy of their emotions, rather than master of them. His ultimate solution - to fight the arrogant knight again, this time placing upon himself a handicap - again shows how Lancelot has matured into a model of mésure. Though a modern audience might scoff at the justice suggested by trial-by-combat, it was considered a just trial in medieval times. By allowing the knight's prowess to determine his fate, Lancelot removes the decision from the realm of his emotions.

The Sword Bridge proves to be as formidable as everyone said it would be. In fact, Chrétien offers two contradictory but equally horrific descriptions of it: one in which the water beneath it is “black and boiling,” and one in which the water is “ice-cold” (3015, 3029). The contradiction is an excellent example of the setting's vagary, which scholar Pearsall notes is typical of romance as a genre (Peasall 22). The inconsistency in the description actually serves to heighten Lancelot's heroism in braving the bridge. Crossing water of either condition would be grueling; describing the water in both ways makes it seem like Lancelot has endured both, rather than just the one.

The danger posed by the bridge and the lions (which turn out to be a mirage) offers an opportunity to consider the relationship between reason, cowardice, bravery, and faith. Reason and Love have often been opposed to one another throughout the text, but Chrétien does something slightly more interesting here. Reason is never evoked directly as Lancelot’s friends are trying to get him to stay on the bank, though it is implicit when they exhort, “Don’t / Commit so grave a sin / Against yourself” (3079-3081). Lancelot trusts instead in his faith - were he to avoid the bridge, it would be a triumph of Reason, and hence a sign of doubt in God's power.

This response is peculiar, because Lancelot has not thus far typically relied on God as a justification for action. Instead, he has usually justified his actions by relying on Love. Therefore, Chrétien in this scene draws a connection between Love and Faith. For Lancelot, Love is an expression of God, a fact which becomes abundantly clear as he searches for the stamina to get across the bridge. While the exchange before the crossing might make it seem like he would draw on God for strength while enduring the pain, he instead finds comfort in love: “But Love, who had led him / There, helped him as he went, / And turned his pain into pleasure” (3118-3120). This kind of conversion from pain into pleasure resonates in the medieval tradition: it is typical of the way saints described their asceticism and self-flagellation. Lancelot’s self-sacrifice would be laudable and holy, were it done in God's name, rather than in Love's. The incident does not definitively reflect Chrétien's feelings on the relationship between Love and God, though it does reveal the complicated understanding that both he and his era had of the relationship.