Chrétien de Troyes: Lancelot

May 8, 2012

Or, The Knight of the Cart

Chrétien de Troyes
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 1997) [c.1180]
241 p.

Because my lady of Champagne
Wants me to start a new
Romance, I’ll gladly begin one,
For I’m completely her servant
In whatever she wants me to do…

So began Chrétien de Troyes, dedicating his poem to the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who, Chrétien tells us, also proposed the subject of the work: the knight Lancelot’s adulterous love affair with Queen Guinevere. Chrétien may indeed have been glad enough to begin the poem, but for whatever reason he was not glad to finish it; the poem was abandoned midstream, after roughly 6000 lines, and was completed by an otherwise unknown cleric named Godfrey of Lagny, who tells us in his brief epilogue that Chrétien himself granted him permission to complete the last 1000 lines or so.

One can speculate as to why Chrétien did not see the project through to completion. He may have been working simultaneously on Yvain, and lost enthusiasm for the one in favour of the other. He may quite possibly have been discouraged by the dishonourable subject matter of Lancelot: as he says, the theme was not of his choosing, and elsewhere (in Cligès, for instance) he goes out of his way to avoid having his hero commit adultery, much less so disloyal an act as adultery with the wife of his king and lord. Lancelot, in Chrétien’s hands, is an ambiguous figure whose knightly prowess is beyond dispute but whose moral character is rightly suspect.

My own opinion, having completed the poem, leans toward the second view: that Chrétien’s heart just wasn’t in it. The poem has little of the sparkle and wit that so enlivened his earlier works, and it seems to lack even the structural cohesion (admittedly rather loose even under the best of circumstances) of his other poems. The basic elements are all here — brave knights, magical rings, pretty damsels, supernatural dangers — but the spark is missing.

Roughly the first half of the poem is concerned with Lancelot’s efforts to find and rescue Queen Guinevere, who has been abducted from Arthur’s court. In the second half, he struggles to defeat her abductor, the villain Meleagant. The subtitle of the poem refers to Lancelot’s early decision, in pursuit of Guinevere, to ride in a “cart”, a mode of transport reserved for criminals and thoroughly inappropriate (one would think) for a knight of the Round Table. Throughout the poem Lancelot endures the opprobrium of others for having stooped so low. The irony — which, in the nature of the case, does not tip over into humour — is that Lancelot is indeed a criminal, guilty of the most unknightly behaviour with the Queen, albeit privately. Thus there is a kind of justice in the disdain heaped upon him.

The poem has been influential in Arthurian lore. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere was quite possibly original with Chrétien, and became a mainstay of later Arthurian tales, and Lancelot himself was, of course, destined to become one of the central Arthurian figures. Evidently some reader have liked the poem more than I, on balance, did.

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