Oh, my poor little neglected book blog! I have missed you. So many books to write about, so little time.
Lancelot is a pivotal kind of text in the Arthurian tradition. It's Lancelot's first appearance! It introduces the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere! Chretien builds these new pieces of the Arthur story on an older foundation, though; Guinevere's abduction was already a popular theme.
|Lancelot riding in the cart|
The story is too long and complex to summarize well here, but the high points are that Guinevere is abducted--along with many other people from Arthur's lands--by Meleagant, the wicked son of King Bademagu. Lancelot sets out to seek her, and promptly runs into a dwarf driving a particular kind of cart reserved only for condemned criminals, which he must ride on in order to find out where the Queen is. Other knights have refused to sacrifice their honor, and Lancelot hesitates for a second but then jumps right up. After some adventures, he crosses a sword bridge into Bademagu's lands and finds the Queen's prison. By doing this he has freed all of Arthur's captive subjects. Guinevere, however, is angry with him and won't tell him why (she saw him hesitate before getting into the cart). A little more adventuring, and the two are united again. Lancelot sneaks into Guinevere's bed, but bleeds on her sheets, so that Meleagant accuses her of adultery with the injured Sir Kay. Lancelot defends her honor in combat, but Bademagu, a nice but ineffectual king who utterly fails to do anything about his son's evil deeds, stops Meleagant from getting killed. Meleagant then imprisons Lancelot, and it's a very long time before rescue arrives, but of course it does at the crucial moment and Lancelot kills Meleagant in battle.
Chretien actually did not finish this story himself; he gave permission for someone else to do that job. No one is sure why he was reluctant to finish his own story.
Lancelot uses the conventions of courtly love--the sort of game of adultery played in the French court. Or it might be better to say that Lancelot defines the conventions of courtly love; it was that influential. At the same time, there are some really strange elements to the story. Considering that Chretien is supposed to be writing an entertaining romance that is supposed to glorify the affair, he sure has a funny way of doing it. He drops hints of disapproval all the time.
When Lancelot rides on the cart, he is worried about his reputation but willing to sacrifice it for the Queen. He is also a real criminal, a secret betrayer of the king. A criminal's cart is pretty appropriate. Lancelot goes into single combat to defend Guinevere's honor, which she has already lost; he gets away with it by swearing that she didn't sleep with Sir Kay, which is true enough, but he also doesn't get to finish the combat. He has to spend over a year in prison before he gets his chance, and this final combat leaves out the question of Guinevere's honor.
One very striking passage is when Lancelot sneaks into Guinevere's bed. He adores her and kneels before her, venerating her as if she were a saint--while she is being the opposite. When he leaves, he suffers a "martyr's agony" and acts as though the prison were a shrine. Chretien implies that the lovers worship each other rather than God. They have forgotten their duty to their king, which is a sacred one.
If you're going to read only one Chretien story, this is the one to read. It's one of the most important Arthurian stories ever written because of its popularity and influence, but it's also wonderful to read because Chretien says he's doing one thing, but he keeps doing the opposite.