Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart

Lancelot: Or, the Knight of the Cart Themes

The quest

The quest is an important theme in Arthurian romance. Indeed, in Lancelot, Lancelot's quest for Guinevere is a driving force, though it is by no means a static and unchanging entity. The first part is a physical quest - though driven by love, the knight tries to rescue Guinevere. However, once he finds her, he must continue to quest in order to deserve her love. Even after they consummate their relationship in the tower, he must continue to do her bidding, suggesting that the quest for love never ceases. Medievalist Edward Condren points out that the quest “does not seem to have been Chrétien's principle of aesthetic unity” (435). The quest, he argues, is not a singular or fixed entity in this romance, but is instead quite different for each character. Lancelot's journey serves to achieve different ends for different people, and other characters - such as Gawain or the hunting knight's sons - are driven to quest for their own ends.

Chivalry (and Honor)

Chivalry, the code of conduct by which medieval knights were bound, is unsurprisingly a major theme of the work. Intrinsic to chivalry is honor, which is really the guiding principle of chivalrous behavior. A knight was expected first and foremost to act honorably, whether in his treatment of women, his behavior in battle, or his presentation to others. Much of the action in the story derives from the fulfillment (or lack thereof) of honor. Part of Chrétien's subversion is that Lancelot must often eschew the demands of honor in order to show devotion towards his beloved Guinevere. The titular cart ride is the clearest example of this. Much of Chrétien's brilliance comes from paying homage to the codes of chivalry while suggesting that they often work in direct counterpoint to an individual's own desires.


Mésure, or balance, seems to the virtue that Chrétien most stresses in the text. Lancelot faces a persistent conflict between his Reason and his Love. Reason is not linked directly with honor or chivalry in the text - instead, it serves as willed intention, rather than a knightly instinct. It works in direct counterpoint to the passion contained in Love, which often gets someone in trouble. Lancelot's obsession with Guinevere almost leads him to suicide, for instance. The times when Lancelot triumphs are when he learns to balance his love with reasonable self-restraint, and indeed, both he and Guinevere seem to discover this lesson by the romance's end. While Chrétien does not didactically express this lesson, many characters suggest it through their failures or successes.


Though Lancelot's adulterous feelings for the queen serve as the romance's main motivation, Chrétien never directly addresses the moral question of marital fidelity. As scholar Edward Condren observes, “adultery is neither condemned or condoned; it is not an issue in Lancelot” (436). Nevertheless, questions of fidelity are writ large upon the text. One has to assume that a largely Christian audience would have been aware of this question at the time, by posing it in counterpoint to their expectations of courtly love. In other words, Chrétien forces his readers to engage their veneration of courtly love with their Christian morality. Are Lancelot and Guinevere being unfaithful to Arthur, or are they being faithful to their own hearts? Fidelity can also be understood in terms of the social codes. Lancelot persistently navigates the divide between the bonds of love and the bonds of knighthood, suggesting that fidelity is a slippery concept. Overall, Chrétien's subversion suggests that strict codes of any sort are open to interpretation, depending on the situation.


Though Chrétien subverts many social codes throughout the romance, mercy is always posited as a virtue. One of Lancelot's primary, unwavering strengths is his devotion to mercy, which separates him in every way from Méléagant. He frequently gives his foes second chances, and spares their lives when he can. Even though his uncertainty in terms of chivalry, love, and reason makes him an imperfect protagonist, Lancelot deserves the occasional comparisons to Christ mostly because of this virtue. From this metric, Chrétien is able to give his audience an undoubtedly heroic protagonist even as he subverts many of that hero's other qualities.

The Role of Women

Women occupy an important, if secondary, space in Lancelot, and it is important to consider they way in which they form a key part of the epic. Throughout his quest, Lancelot relies on the hospitality and guidance of a number of unnamed damsels and young girls. They provide him with food and shelter, and they continually direct him towards his beloved Guinevere. Most of the women are defined in terms of their purity. Even the elegantly dressed woman, who attempts to seduce him, ultimately abandons her plan when she notices the extent of his love for another. Mostly, these unnamed women are perfect examples of the courtly woman, who is amorous without being overly licentious. The namelessness of these women further highlights the degree to which they function as devices or representations, rather than as personalities. Indeed, some scholars note that their namelessness leaves open the possibility that some of them are in fact the same woman (Duggan in Raffel 236). They are not the stuff of great adventure; rather, they are there to help the hero on his way. Guinevere is a notable example, because she embodies these attributes while also transcending them. While she is beloved by most because of her strength and nobility, she also fulfills the stereotype of the courtly lover — capricious, scornful, and controlling. She is often as much a device as a character, in other words.


From the beginning, Chrétien establishes Lancelot as a text in which reality is hard to decipher. He is generally quite vague about the time and place in which the events occur, which creates a mythical, magical air in which the landscape constantly shifts. This is crucial because it marks this story as distinct from the historical nature of Arthurian legends before Chrétien. For scholar Derek Pearsall, the shifting nature of reality is one of the poem’s greatest achievements: “it is a beautiful and mysterious poem, and one that inaugurates all the characteristic strategies of the high Arthurian romance. Everything is enigmatic and unexplained….Meaning is always elusively beyond reach” (29). This sense is further expressed through the namelessness of characters, and their frequent reappearances. The mythic air importantly allows Chrétien to suggest that no one standard can be used to judge anything - codes of conduct and morality are also shifting paradigms, and a character's actions can always be judged from different perspectives. Lancelot is both the hero and the fool; reality is always a matter of perception. In other words, by putting his story firmly in the realm of myth, Chrétien allows himself to explore the codes that define his reality in a much less defined manner than would otherwise be expected.