Once there was a small baby. He was beautiful. His beauty shone so brightly that when his mother, Queen Elaine, set him down for a moment to assist his ailing father, King Ban of Benoic, a faery leaped out of a lake and stole him. The faery delivered the child safely to her Queen, the Lady of the Lake, and he was raised to be a strong, handsome, upstanding young man. Upon reaching adulthood, the young man left his home within the lake and set out to become a knight. He reached the court of King Arthur, and after proving his worth with a sword and a lance, he was dubbed Sir Lancelot du Lac, and praised above all the other Knights of the Round Table.
Legends about this man differ, but one fact remains: he was not, in fact, the greatest Knight of the Round Table. Though his athletic skills surpassed all others, he failed his chivalric duties by committing three major sins: pride, adultery, and treason. His story is told in multiple languages by multiple authors, but the French version “The Knight of the Cart” by Chretien de Troyes has made him most famous. This tale was retold in 2004 by Gerald Morris in a novel entitled The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung Cart Knight. Though both authors tell the same story, Chretien de Troyes’ version of Lancelot emphasizes his sins and the process of his dishonor, leaving Lancelot with his shame and little resolution to the story. By slightly altering the sequence and meaning of certain events, Gerald Morris attempts to keep the main elements of the story while at the same time develop Lancelot’s character and restore his honor.
Chretien’s story takes place when Lancelot is young; in Morris’ version he has aged a bit. Lancelot is driven by passion. He is strong, impetuous, and extraordinarily talented. Chretien describes Lancelot as “worth a thousand of the likes of those on this field, since he has so vanquished and surpassed all the knights in the world, that there now remains no one to oppose him” (de Troyes 281). He is indeed a great knight, who has accomplished many chivalric acts because of his great strength and skill. He defeats knight after knight; he defeats one for knocking him off of his horse when he wasn’t paying attention (de Troyes 217), another knight who defames him for riding in a cart (de Troyes 240) and still another for attempting to kidnap a girl in his safekeeping (de Troyes 227). He is as strong as a bear and has the endurance of a rock. There is no knight that can defeat him in battle; even Sir Gawain’s strength and talent pales in comparison.
The extent of Lancelot’s physical strength is revealed ubiquitously throughout this novel as well as other texts in which Lancelot plays a key role. He is famous throughout the literature of many cultures (this sentence might fit elsewhere, but feels like it was copied and pasted into the wrong paragraph). For instance, in Chretien de Troyes’ work, Lancelot accepts lodging from a girl he saves. As he is entering a bedroom in her castle, he is attacked by five men and forced to defend himself from them all at the same time (de Troyes 221). On his way to Meleagant’s castle, he crosses the Sword Bridge, which is a giant sword spanning a river with the sharp edge pointing up to cut through whatever touches it—to cross it is a nearly impossible task. After witnessing Lancelot’s success, King Bademagu says, “We have been repaid by witnessing with our own eyes the very boldest deed that has ever been conceived. Now tell me if you don’t esteem the knight who performed such a wondrous feat?” (de Troyes 247). Lancelot’s reputation for strength is increasingly widespread. When he is rescuing Queen Guinevere, he is so captivated by her beauty that he fights with Meleagant behind his back successfully, in order to keep his eyes on Guinevere (de Troyes 252). When he sneaks in to see the Queen after dark, he “grasped the iron bars, strained, and pulled until he had bent them all and was able to free them from their fittings” and was able to enter her room in that manner (de Troyes 264). His high tolerance for pain coupled with his desire to be with Guinevere causes him to ignore the fact that he nearly cut off half of his pinky finger.
His strength is found in other places as well. In The Death of King Arthur, the last of the Vulgate cycle, Guinevere and Lancelot are finally caught together. Lancelot escapes without any armor. A furious King Arthur sends “as many as forty knights…When they arrived at Lancelot’s lodge, they did not find him there, and all the knights were pleased about this, because they knew that if they had not found him there and had tried to take him by force, they could not have avoided a great and violent battle” (Death of 119). The knights, even though they outnumber him forty to one, were still afraid of the battle that would have ensued. In the English work Le Morte Darthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, Arthur refuses to let Lancelot fight for Guinevere’s honor. He says “I woll nat that way worke with Sir Launcelot, for he trustyth so much uppon hys hondis and hys myght that he doutyth no man. And therefore for my quene he shall nevermore fyght, for she shall have the law” (Malory 92). King Arthur knows that Lancelot’s strength is so great that allowing him to fight for her honor would completely defeat the purpose of the law because Lancelot could win against any living man in a fight. Lancelot is a powerful and brave knight who allows his passions to dictate his choices. He is also impetuous, arrogant, selfish, and headstrong.
Chretien continues on to describe Lancelot’s love affair with Guinevere, which plays a huge role in his spiritual downfall. He is so obsessed with Guinevere that when he finds one of her hairs, he treats it like a priceless jewel: “Never will the eye of man see anything receive such reverence, for he began to adore the hair, touching it a hundred thousand times to his eye, his mouth, his forehead…He placed the hair on his breast near his heart, between his shirt and his skin…” (de Troyes 225). His love for her gives him strength. He is able to fight against Meleagant and win. He is Guinevere’s slave. Her every wish is his command. “One who loves is ever obedient,” Chretien explains, “and willingly and completely does whatever might please his sweetheart… No sooner had the last word flowed from her mouth… nothing could have made Lancelot touch Meleagant or make any move towards him, even if he had been about to kill him” (de Troyes 254). His desire for Guinevere has completely overwhelmed all of his ability to reason, and his mind, heart, and body are completely at the service of Guinevere’s every whim. His service does not go unpaid: she shares with him her body.
Lancelot’s sexual desire for Guinevere overcomes his loyalty to King Arthur. His passion drives him to her bedroom; there they consummate their love. This act turns him into a traitor, guilty of betraying his King. He has committed adultery with the Queen, crossing over the line of chivalry into the realm of sinner; it is this deed also that, as revealed in The Quest of the Holy Grail, prevents him from finding the Holy Grail. Though he is a strong, brave, knight with the potential for perfection, his uncontrolled desire for Guinevere reveals a deep character flaw. He has passed the tests for physical perfection, but he fails spiritually. It is his willingness to betray his king for the satisfaction of his own desires that destroys the realm. In his pride he thinks only of himself; in reality, he is no different from the next man. He is damaged. He is not pure enough to obtain the Holy Grail, and so, in the end, it is his son, Galahad who fulfills the quest. In the course of “The Knight of the Cart,” and despite the writer’s attempt to make the reader sympathize with the lovers, Lancelot transgressed from the greatest knight of the Round Table, to a talented knight and traitorous dog.
Lancelot’s pride is evident in his obsession with Guinevere. He considers her to be the most valuable thing on earth. After consummating their love, he leaves her room. As he is exiting, he turned and “bowed low before the bedchamber, as if he were before an altar” (265). Even though he perceives her to be like a goddess, he still considers himself worthy of her love. His pride is what causes him to fall. Had Lancelot truly considered the Queen’s beauty and greatness with sincere reverence, he may have realized that she was too good for him. This humility could have prevented him from sleeping with her and then he would not have been the one of the causes of the destruction of King Arthur’s kingdom. At the end of Chretien’s story, few people within the story know that Lancelot has become an adulterer and a traitor. Chretien (though he technically gave the story to another writer halfway through) leaves the story with the atmosphere of intended sympathy for the lovers, but with a discomfort with the potential consequences of their actions. The Queen has been saved from Meleagant, but she has committed a terrible sin with Lancelot. They are not discovered and are free to continue with their indiscretions behind King Arthur’s back. Though the hero has rescued the heroine and fulfilled the destiny of any romantic hero, he is guilty of pride, adultery, and treason, and there is a lot of potential for future problems.
Gerald Morris changes the order of events slightly. In his version of the story, Lancelot consummates his lust early on, before Meleagant’s kidnapping of Guinevere takes place. Lancelot comes to Arthur’s court as a very immature, but talented young man. Lancelot describes his immaturity: “I came to the court of King Arthur… filled with the lust for fame, desirous of being called the greatest of all his knights” (Morris 137). Lancelot’s character develops a great deal after coming to King Arthur’s court. He explains that he tried to be the knight of whom the minstrels sang, to be the greatest and best in looks and appearance, but that he understood little of character. It is during this time that Lancelot first consummates his love with Guinevere. Lancelot explains, “I did not wish to be the greatest knight, only to be called so by others, and so I did whatever other people thought the greatest knight should do… and so I had to languish for love, but my love could not be for an ordinary woman...” (Morris 137). He is proud and feels that if he is to love any woman, it must be only one worthy of him; Guinevere is not only the Queen but the most beautiful woman in the land. She only is worthy of his love; he only is worthy of her love. He was proud in himself, and his pride leads him to commit adultery with Queen Guinevere, and as a result, betray his king.
Finally, after several years of his success and accomplishments, Lancelot is beaten in a tournament by an unknown knight. He feels as though his honor has been stolen from him and he flees from society, becoming a hermit and a woodcutter. He says, “At this tournament, I defeated Gawain but then was defeated by an unknown knight. Then, to make my shame greater, the queen rejected me before all the court and turned her eyes back to her husband. Like a house of sticks when one stick is removed, my honor collapsed” (Morris 140). Lancelot’s honor is built merely on words and frivolity and so the one small failure of being beaten by another knight (and worse, an unknown knight) proves to destroy everything for which he has worked. After losing the tournament, Guinevere shuns him and he feels as though his world collapsed and as though he is with no where to go. He then becomes a hermit and amid solitude and hard work, he begins to understand the folly of pride and the lessons to be learned from failure. When Guinevere is kidnapped, Lancelot reemerges from his life as a hermit woodcutter and chooses to save her, but along the way he goes to great lengths to maintain his purity. His act of riding in the cart is not out of necessity, but rather a choice made to emphasize his humility. He no longer values the way of the knight, but instead has chosen to transform his identity. He now values faith and hard work, and is content:
“‘And so you are a knight again,’ Brother Constans said.
“Jean shook his head. ‘No. I am a woodcutter with a sword. I am Jean Le Forestier. Sir Lancelot… he did not ride in dung carts. I do’” (Morris 142).
Morris depicts the evolution of Lancelot’s identity. He is no longer merely a prideful, adulterous, traitor, but has recognized and acknowledged his sin. He has changed from a young, impetuous knight, who is so absorbed in himself that he feels that only the Queen is good enough for his love, to a solemn woodcutter who now understands the pleasure of work. Even his name has changed from Sir Lancelot to Jean le Forestier. He no longer associates himself with the sword, a tool created by man, but with trees, life created by God. He has repented of his sin and found contentment in solitude. Lancelot returns Queen Guinevere to King Arthur and then returns to his hermitage to work as a poor woodcutter once more.
In The Quest of the Holy Grail, Lancelot repents of his sin during the quest. It is a story of failure and redemption. Although Lancelot is not pure enough to find the Grail, he makes many moral and spiritual adjustments. In The Death of King Arthur, Lancelot once more returns to Guinevere, but at the end he once more repents, this time closer to death. He chooses to forgive King Arthur and Gawain for the vengeful attitudes and tries to find peace with them. He dies with a sense of peace and forgiveness. In Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, Lancelot and Guinevere both decide to withdraw from the world after the death of King Arthur and most of the other knights of the Round Table. They live lives of chastity and holiness until their deaths. Although Chretien de Troyes leaves Lancelot’s story at a relatively depressing and unsatisfactory end, other writers have used his basic idea but filled in the holes and extended the story and character of Lancelot.
There are many similarities between “The Knight of the Cart” and The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight. For instance, Chretien keeps Lancelot’s identity a secret until exactly half way through the novel, when Guinevere announces his name while he is fighting Meleagant (de Troyes 252). Morris keeps Lancelot’s identity unrevealed until Lancelot chooses to tell his story to a hermit (Morris 137). In both pieces Lancelot rides in a cart after riding his horse into the ground, and finds and lifts his own tombstone. Lancelot goes to Guinevere’s room after dark, but in Chretien’s version he slices his hand and then sleeps with her (de Troyes 264), while in Morris’ version Sir Kai is awake and speaks with Lancelot, and Guinevere’s sheets are bloody because she tries to stop up his wounds with her bedding (Morris 215). Then Meleagant discovers the bloody sheets. In both versions Gawain takes the Underwater Bridge and eventually turns up too late to fight Meleagant. Lancelot is imprisoned by Meleagant and is helped to escape by a young woman.
Lancelot’s character changes through time and from culture to culture. From his literary beginning with Chretien de Troyes’ “Knight of the Cart” to modern pieces of fiction such as Gerald Morris’ The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight, the character of Lancelot has endured. He has gone through drastic character renovations over time, but regardless of who is writing, the character of Lancelot remains concerned with honor. He fails many times, but eventually repents. He learns that honor is a difficult accomplishment, that it is more than good deeds and knightly chivalry. Honor is a lifestyle of purity of strength, not of winning and losing: “If your honor is so frail that you can lose it in one defeat, then it is not worth keeping.” (Morris 140). Despite the flaws inherent in his original self, Sir Lancelot du Lac has evolved into a man of honor.