The Man, The Myth, The Legend:
Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot
The romance of Lancelot and Guinevere has endured for many years and has been told in different languages to different generations. The pure, undying love Lancelot carries for his lady seems to spark fascination in people's hearts and minds. It is the reflection of courtly love pitted against reason that keeps each retelling fresh. Lancelot is moved from a mere character to a legendary figure because of this. Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot faces many obstacles, leaving the reader to ask: is Lancelot a true hero, or merely a man put into extraordinary situations, flaws and all? Or perhaps he is just a victim of fate. In The Knight of the Cart we see Lancelot at his best- and perhaps worst.
Since the story of Lancelot has so many different versions it is important to know where Chrétien's version came from and how he shaped it. He developed his story under the influence of Marie de Champagne, who was fond of love stories in this genre. Because of the reaction to another famous story, that of Tristan and Iseut, Chrétien was encouraged to compose a story with similarities. His approach, according to Lori J. Walters, rejected the idea that marriage could resolve a plot (as shown Tristan's story), and instead used the ideas of romance against ideas of social order (Walters xiii-xiv). However others, like Stephan Knight, feel that Chrétien's story was more an attempt to display the observances of courtly love and was not a well told story (Knight). While Chrétien's story does rely on courtly love to justify the actions of its hero, his journey does include complexities that add to Lancelot's character. Agreeing with Knight would over look the structure of Chrétien story, one that shows Lancelot as an individual and conveys him as a true and loyal hero as he is guided by courtly love.
Knowing more information about Lancelot gives us more insight into Lancelot as a character. Though Chrétien was the first to fully develop Lancelot's story, he does not include some information because it was common knowledge at the time. His story was already well known, as original poetry was not a large desire. People were content to hear stories of already loved characters. Despite the omission of his background in Chrétien's version, Lancelot does have origins that make him unique from other heroes. Derek Brewer tells us that while his origins cannot be clearly defined, other stories give us an idea as to where Lancelot came from. Ulrich von Zatzikhoven tells the story of Lanzelet, who as a baby is stolen by a sea fairy ("lady", "a wise mermaid", "queen") and taken to a land lost in the sea. It is said she loveingly raises him, teaching him chivalry and giving him a thorough education, but keeps him ignorant of his name and rank. At fifteen he decides to leave and in doing so finds out his name (Brewer 4). Chrétien delves directly into the story under the assumption that the reader would already know this. Because of his rare upbringing it stands to reason that Lancelot would differ from other men of his time.
Also missing from Chrétien de Troyes' story is the development of Lancelot and Guinevere's love for each other. The first time we are introduced to Lancelot he has already exhausted himself to get to Guinevere, but he is determined to find her. The depth of his love for her is evident. Chrétien describes love in great detail; it is all en-compassing and true. This love is an entity of its own, choosing only the most righteous and worthy of hearts. Lancelot allows love to control his very heart, as Chrétien beautifully describes: Love, which rules
All hearts, allows them only
One home. "All heart?" No:
All that Loves finds worthy
A great deal. And Love valued
Our knight higher than any
(Chrétien ll. 1237-1243)
Love certainly has a guiding hand in Lancelot's tale, but Fate also plays a part. Those confronted by fate often reach the point where they curse its presence,...
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