Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart Summary and Analysis of Lines 3141-4113


Having crossed the Sword Bridge successfully, Lancelot looks up to see an incredible tower. In its window appears King Bademagu, Méléagant's father and, as the narrator assures us, an infinitely more honorable knight than his son is. Méléagant has grown furious at seeing Lancelot survive the Sword bridge, as he realizes that he might lose Guinevere. Bademagu, however, recognizes Lancelot's worth, and counsels his son to relinquish Guinevere without a fight. Despite Bademagu's persistent arguments and insistence that he will aid Lancelot, Méléagant refuses to surrender the queen.

King Bademagu rides out to meet Lancelot, and offers his whole-hearted assistance to the knight. He expects Lancelot to recover before confronting Méléagant for the queen, but is suprised to learn that Lancelot will allow no such delay. Bademagu tries unsuccessfully once again to reason with both Lancelot and Méléagant, but both are insistent on fighting. Realizing that reason will not prevail, Bademagu sends an old Christian man to apply some balms to Lancelot’s wounds.

The following dawn, the knights prepare for their confrontation. Word of the battle had spread, so people have traveled from far away to watch. The opponents take the battlefield, but hold until King Bademagu is safely ensconced in the tower, sitting next to Guinevere.

On their first pass, the two knights collide so forcefully that their spears and shields break, and they are both tossed from their steeds. Neither missing a beat, Méléagant and Lancelot continue to fight like a “pair / Of wild Boars” (3612-3613). For a long while, neither knight gains an advantage. It occurs to a wise girl in the audience that Lancelot might gain some vigor once he realizes that Guinevere is watching. She wants to call to him, but does not know his name. Therefore, she rushes to the queen in the tower, and asks Guinevere for Lancelot's name. For the first time in the romance, we learn Lancelot's name when Guinevere tells the wise girl.

The wise girl then calls Lancelot’s name, and informs him that Guinevere is watching. The effect is immediate. Lancelot finds his beloved's face in the tower window, and is so struck that he fights backwards so as to keep her in his sight. He loses a bit of ground because of this, and the wise girl shouts that he is acting stupidly. Shamed, Lancelot takes her advice to “do your fighting with your face / turned to this tower, so you’ll see her / Better! Let her shine on you!” (3708-3710). Lancelot regroups, and begins to win the battle.

Realizing his son will lose and suddenly filled with pity, King Bademagu begs Guinevere to ask Lancelot's mercy for Méléagant. Because the king has treated her so honorably during her imprisonment, Guinevere agrees. Their conversation is loud enough that both Lancelot and Méléagant overhear them. Though Lancelot immediately ceases fighting in order to honor Guinevere's wish, the devious Méléagant strikes another blow, at which point Bademagu rushes onto the field to save his son from further dishonor.

Méléagant refuses to admit that he was losing, so his father has him escorted off the field. As is customary, peace negotiations follow. The terms stipulate that Lancelot gets the queen, but Méléagant reserves the right to challenge Lancelot at any time and any place within a year’s time. At that time, Lancelot must comply if he wishes to preserve his honor. Overjoyed that their savior has triumphed, the people of Logres celebrate their new freedom to leave Gorre.

Lancelot is overjoyed and nearly falls to his knees when he reunites with Guinevere, but she refuses to either make eye contact with or speak to him. Though crushed and confused, Lancelot does not ask her what offense he has given. As she leaves the room, his “eyes, and his heart / as well, followed her out” (3977-3978). Neither Bademagu nor Lancelot can understand the queen’s behavior, so Bademagu suggests that Lancelot visit Kay to inquire about the reason.

Kay tells Lancelot about their imprisonment, about both King Bademagu’s honorable behavior towards them and Méléagant's despicable treatment of them. While Bademagu saw to their every need, Méléagant tried to persuade the doctors to poison Kay’s bandages. Finally, Kay asks after the rumor of Guinevere's coldness towards Lancelot. Kay has no idea why she has behaved this way.

Lancelot resolves that someone should go in search of Gawain, who has not been seen since he split from Lancelot to brave the Sunken Bridge. Lancelot asks Bademagu for permission to leave; it is granted, and Lancelot departs. Guinevere resolves to remain where she is until Gawain returns.


The section opens with the introduction of King Badegmagu and Méléagant, a father and son who are reminiscent of the suitor knight and his father, whom Lancelot encountered earlier. From both pairs, the reader is left with a clear understanding that wisdom, reason, and mésure are qualities often associated with age, or at least with maturity. The young are rash and driven by their passions, while their elders show restraint. Indeed, in this way, Méléagant serves as something of a foil for Lancelot; both single-mindedly and relentlessly pursue the queen. Where Lancelot's motives are pure - he is driven by love and honor - Méléagant's are impure - he is driven by lust and jealousy. Interestingly, however, while Méléagant is clearly a villain — merciless, stubborn, and unreasonable — Lancelot does not appear unambiguously as a paragon of virtue and heroics, precisely because he does not possess enough mésure to elevate him into the ranks of truly worthy role models and heroes.

In his description of Bademagu’s assessment of and behavior towards Lancelot, Chrétien communicates a great deal about ideals and honorable comportment. He writes that Bademagu instantly comprehended Lancelot’s worth:

“the King / Knew without a doubt / That knight who’d crossed the bridge / Was as worthy as anyone ever / Born, for no one stained / With sin would have dared that journey: / 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” (3176-3185).

While Lancelot is not primarily a didactic tale, this moment does reveal Chrétien's occasional impulse towards moralizing. What begins as Bademagu’s assessment of Lancelot’s character lapses into a direct address to the audience on the nature of virtue and the serious wages of sin.

The audience at the battle reveals a strong faith in their savior. Not only have they traveled from miles around, but a few girls have actually walked there shoeless and in hairshirts. These were typical symbols of extreme piety in the Middle Ages, particularly among pilgrims seeking penance and salvation. The suggestion is that these girls have undertaken a sort of pilgrimage to attend Lancelot, as if he were a saint. The frequent subversion of religious symbolism that occurs throughout the text here takes on new life. Though he is about to enter a violent battle, Lancelot has inspired great faith and piety. No matter his own accomplishments or failures, he has now engendered an increased faith in others.

Almost exactly half-way through the romance (at line 3666), the knight of the cart is finally identified as Lancelot. Significantly, it is Guinevere who identifies him. It is through his beloved that Lancelot reclaims his identity for Chrétien's audience. He is no longer the Knight of the Cart. Scholar Edward I. Condren explores, however the paradox present in both of his names. There is a basic paradox in the name "Knight of the Cart," since a knight would never actually ride in a cart. Such shame is antithetical to his nature. Yet Lancelot chooses shame as an expression of his love, which is more important to him than the honor of his knighthood is. However, the paradox also applies to his given name: Lancelot. "Lance," in French, means a lance or a spear, which connotes force and strength, while "–ot" is a variation on a diminutive suffix, suggesting something else entirely. (Condren 452-3). His name contains both a comment on his strength and on his subservience. Though he now has a name, our knight has not changed in essentials; he still embodies the same contradiction in terms; he is still one in which Love (which requires subservience) always triumphs over Reason and Honor (the virtues most commonly associated with a strong knight).

There is a similar paradox in his affection for Guinevere, manifested in the moment when the wise girl reminds him that the queen is watching. While her presence empowers him, it also debilitates him for a moment. His love easily slips into an obsession. When the wise girl shames him, it reminds him that he must balance his love with his honor, and he momentarily chooses to emphasize the latter for the sake of the battle.

When Bademagu begs Guinevere to intercede for his son, he knows that her words will sway Lancelot. Chrétien writes, “Lovers are obedient men, / Cheerfully willing to do / Whatever the beloved, who holds / Their entire heart, desires. / Lancelot had no choice, / For if ever any loved / More truly than Pyramus / It was him” (3805-3812). Chrétien here defines Lancelot as a courtly lover, and indeed, the allusion to Pyramus makes it clear that Lancelot is meant to be seen as the ideal courtly lover. Pyramus, who took his life when he thought his lover Thisbe dead, is an archetypal lover, whose story has been alluded to or reworked in countless adaptations, including Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. To compare Lancelot to Pyramus — indeed, to suggest that he “loved more truly” than Pyramus — is to quickly and forcefully represent to the audience how Lancelot should be perceived. For all the complications that Chrétien subtly uses to paint Lancelot, he also knew that his audience wanted an unsubtle ideal represented.

The expectations of courtly love also help to explain Guinevere’s scorn for Lancelot. Though it seems surprising, it is totally acceptable within the code of conduct for the female courtly lover (Noble 1972, 534). Lancelot has not shown total devotion (we later learn his grievance was hesitating before leaping into the cart), which means he has loved imperfectly. King Bademagu allows a critique of such behavior when he calls Guinevere “capricious” over her behavior (line 3995). Considering how closely Bademagu has been presented as an embodiment of Reason, Chrétien suggests through him that such excessive courtly behaviors are unreasonable.

The final act of this section — Lancelot’s departure in search of Sir Gawain — can be read in at least two ways. It is possible that this decision represents a moment where the bonds of friendship and knightly conduct take precedence over the immediate concern of reconciling with a lover; in other words, it is arguably a moment in which Lancelot shows maturity and restraint. However, considering that Guinevere has expressed a desire to remain in Gorre until Gawain's return, Lancelot's decision could simply be motivated by a desire to please her.

Whatever the motivation, the journey is a plot device more than anything — Lancelot has to leave in order to move the plot forward. The departure makes possible a rumor of his death, the queen’s subsequent mourning, and the lovers’ ultimate reconciliation.