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One of the key indicators of the effectiveness of a romantic tale is whether those who hear it fall entirely under the spell of the hero as he takes on an idealized, larger-than-life status, becoming everything which the listener could ever want in a lover. Lancelot, paramour of Queen Guinevere and one of the great romantic figures of medieval literature, is therefore portrayed as exemplifying the courtly values so vital to the age in which Chretien de Troyes was writing. It seems likely that Chretien depicted his character thus very deliberately, not only to please the lady for whom he was writing the story, Marie de Champagne, but to enrapture a larger, predominantly female audience as well. One of the more fascinating episodes in the tale, one which clearly demonstrates Lancelot’s idealization as a male romantic figure, is that in which a nameless girl approaches Lancelot, demanding that he sleep with her in return for lodging, and later subjects him to a test in order to determine his strength of character. This short episode has both a practical aspect and a larger thematic one: practical, in that the episode demonstrates Lancelot’s desirability, both physically and as a paragon of chivalry, and thematic, in that the test to which the girl subjects the knight serves not only as a test of his worthiness of her, but as a divine test of honor, determining whether Lancelot is worthy of his quest and, ultimately, whether he is worthy of the great gift of Love which has been bestowed upon him.
The episode serves, outwardly, as a mechanism by which Chretien can convey to his audience Lancelot’s extreme physical allure, as well as his equally attractive commitment to chivalric values. Chretien makes sure to acknowledge that the girl who approaches Lancelot requesting his company in her bed is “most comely and attractive,” and that “many would have thanked her five hundred times for such an offer,” indicating not only that Lancelot is the sort who would attract such a woman, but additionally that he is of supreme strength of character to reject such an offer, begging: “My lady, I thank you most sincerely for your kind offer of hospitality; but, if you please, I would prefer not to sleep with you” (p. 219). Indeed, Lancelot is so desirable that Chretien intimates that the girl “would love him so much that she would not want to let him go” (p. 219). The episode, then, clearly announces Lancelot as an idealized male figure who is so attractive to women that even beautiful ones request his body as a condition of hospitality.
Lancelot’s idealization in this episode goes beyond mere physical attractiveness; here, perhaps more than anywhere else, he is portrayed as a stereotypical — almost comically so — paragon of chivalric virtue. He comports himself to what is in his estimation the most courtly degree possible, determined to fulfill his promise to the girl in the most chivalric way he can think of. He recognizes that he must keep his promise at all costs, but manages nevertheless to maintain his loyalty to his great love, the Queen. Lancelot holds this balance by first expressing his thanks for the offer of hospitality, but telling the girl that he “would prefer” not to sleep with her, careful at all times to demonstrate honor and respect (p. 219). When the girl insists that he must sleep with her, “the knight, when he saw he had no choice, granted her what she wished, though it pained him to do so. Yet if it wounded him now, how much more it would do so at bedtime!” (p. 219). Lancelot recognizes the importance of keeping one’s word, but his heart never leaves his Queen. When he re-enters the house with great reluctance after dinner, he cannot find the girl, and goes in search of her, determined to be a man of his word though it pains him to do so. “Wherever she may be,” he says to himself, “I’ll look until I find her” (p. 220). When he finds the girl naked, pinned beneath a would-be rapist, the sight “evoked no lust in our knight, nor did he feel the least touch of jealousy” (p. 221). Though Lancelot wishes only to go in search of his Queen, he is so chivalrous that he condemns himself for his moment’s hesitation before going to the girl’s aid: “I am greatly shamed even to have considered holding back — my heart is black with grief” (p.221). Thereafter, he keeps his sights firmly on the goal of rescuing she who had offered her hospitality, and allows no lustful thoughts to enter his mind. Finally, when the girl calls on him to fulfill his promise at last, Lancelot does so with the greatest possible amount of loyalty and chivalry:
In the midst of his sufferings his promise overpowered him and urged him on… He lay down with great reluctance… He carefully kept from touching her, moving away and turning his back to her. Nor did he say any more than would a lay-brother, who is forbidden to speak when lying in bed. Not once did he look towards her or anywhere but straight before him. He could show her no favour. But why? Because his heart, which was focused on another, felt nothing for her; not everyone desires or is pleased by what others hold to be beautiful and fair (p. 222).
The great chivalry which Lancelot shows the girl who has offered him lodging in return for a bedmate demonstrates the knight’s supreme strength of character, showing him to be extremely desirable not only physically, but as the epitome of courtly virtue.
Something vital to take note of, particularly in this episode, is Chretien’s often ironic attitude towards his characters. Chretien certainly did not approve of adulterous love, as evidenced by his distaste for Tristan and Isolde, and his attitude towards Lancelot is in actuality somewhat negative. It is indeed quite comic, wallowing in Lancelot’s anxiety at being forced to sleep with a beautiful lady, but it is nevertheless important to keep in mind for whom Chretien was composing this tale. He was commissioned to write Lancelot’s story, regardless of how personally reprehensible he may have found it, and he thus was responsible for conveying the story which he had promised: the tale of a chivalrous, courtly lover who must sway the imaginations and hearts of the ladies who hear it, particularly Marie de Champagne. Chretien’s true attitude towards his subject comes out through his ironic take on Lancelot’s undying devotion, and certainly makes itself apparent when he is ultimately unable to finish the story, but the intent of the episode is nevertheless to convey Lancelot’s chivalry and loyalty towards his true love. In this episode, he is trying — and whether he is successful is certainly questionable — to portray Lancelot in keeping with the story he had promised his patroness, but it is perhaps because of his extremely ironic tone towards the character that he abandoned (or was asked to abandon) the story. Chretien’s intentions for the story were to provide Marie de Champagne with the tale that she had requested, and regardless of his own personal beliefs, which can clearly be seen throughout “The Knight of the Cart,” the episode was designed to portray Lancelot in a positive light.
The second function that Chretien intended for this brief episode in “The Knight of the Cart” was to determine not only whether Lancelot is worthy of the girl who tests him, but whether he is worthy of Love at all. At times it even seems as though the test is on direct order of the Queen. Though logistically this is unlikely — impossible, even — it is such a perfect test of Lancelot’s loyalty and chivalry that the idea must at least be mentioned. It appears that Lancelot passes his test of honor in the eyes of the girl who offers him lodging, at least, for she declares: “Of all the knights I have ever known this is the only one I would value the third part of an angevin” (p. 223). However, the larger question is whether Lancelot is able to pass the more meaningful test: proving himself deserving of the great gift of true Love.
The episode, with its numerous unreal elements, has an otherworldly, mysterious feel that suggests a divine test. When Lancelot enters the bailey with the girl he discovers that “there was no one within, apart from him for whom she had been waiting” (p. 219). Upon entering the building “they saw a table covered with a long, wide cloth…There were lighted candles in candelabra and gilded silver goblets, and two pots, one filled with red wine and one with white…They neither saw nor found valet, servant or squire therein” (p. 219-220). The strange image of a beautifully laden table combined with the total absence of anyone besides the knight and the lady who is to test him lends the episode an odd supernatural feel, as though the girl was indeed sent for a divine purpose, to determine Lancelot’s true worth.
Lancelot has an acute awareness of the duty which he bears as a result of being the recipient of the touch of Love, and he is determined to do what is right. As he lies in bed beside the girl, Chretien explains his disinterest:
“Whoever Love deigns to rule should esteem themselves all the more. Love esteemed this knight’s heart and ruled it above all others and gave it such sovereign pride that I would not wish to find fault with him here for rejecting what Love forbids him to have and for setting his purpose by Love’s commands” (p. 223).
Lancelot’s bravery in battle is not the only component of his character being tested in this episode; more importantly, what is being examined is his loyalty to his true love. Certainly, Lancelot is chivalrous in his behavior towards the girl, and yes, he is strong and brave, but beyond that, he is able to lie beside another and keep his thoughts focused entirely on his Queen, and that is the true test around which this episode revolves. Perhaps Love, who Chretien humanizes in the above passage, is the one testing Lancelot, in service to the Queen. Lancelot’s passing of this test is clearly noted by the girl, when she departs from the bed chamber: “Rest well this night,” she tells him, “for you have kept your promise so fully that I have no right to ask even the least thing more of you” (p. 223). Lancelot has not only managed to remain loyal to Love, but he has done so chivalrously, honoring she who gave him shelter, and obeying courtly values.
It is true that Chretien’s distaste towards Lancelot’s character can be seen in this episode, which pokes fun at Lancelot’s anxiety over being forced to sleep with a beautiful woman who provides him with wonderful food and shelter, but it is important to consider Chretien’s audience. Given that he was writing a romance for a female patroness, and presumably a largely female audience, it was important for his hero to be portrayed as exemplifying chivalric valor and courtly values. The intent of this episode was, therefore, to demonstrate Lancelot’s loyalty to his true love and his worthiness of Love’s favors, and his passing of the test sets the tone for his ultimate success in his quest to rescue the Queen.
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