I read my first medieval Arthurian romance. This one is by Chrétien de Troyes called The Knight of the Cart. It’s a poem (although, the translation I read is prose) about Lancelot, and his quest to regain Queen Guenièvre, kidnapped by the despicable Meleagant.
I listened to a lecture series on the High Middle Ages (roughly 1000 AD to 1300 AD). Apparently, the nobles were a mean bunch of amoral ruffians. They fought, quarreled, and treated the peasants badly. The lecturer suggested that the courtly romances of the period were an attempt by the authors to instill some morality and a code of ethics into the nobles.
Thoughts on the Story
I rather enjoyed it. It’s not exactly sophisticated by modern literary standards, but that’s kinda what makes it fun.
Some of the examples of courtly love are a bit ridiculous. The aforementioned lecturer suggested that Chrétien may, in fact, have been writing for satirical effect. As an example, here Lancelot stumbles upon Guenièvre’s comb in the woods. There are some of Guenièvre’s hairs on the comb. Lancelot reacts in this way:
Never will the eye of man see anything receive such honour as when he begins to adore these tresses. A hundred thousand times he raises them to his eyes and mouth, to his forehead and face: he manifests his joy in every way, considering himself rich and happy now. He lays them in his bosom near his heart, between the shirt and the flesh. He would not exchange them for a cartload of emeralds and carbuncles, nor does he think that any sore or illness can afflict him now; he holds in contempt essence of pearl, treacle, and the cure for pleurisy; even for St. Martin and St. James he has no need; for he has such confidence in this hair that he requires no other aid. But what was this hair like? If I tell the truth about it, you will think I am a mad teller of lies. When the mart is full at the yearly fair of St. Denis, and when the goods are most abundantly displayed, even then the knight would not take all this wealth, unless he had found these tresses too. And if you wish to know the truth, gold a hundred thousand times refined, and melted down as many times, would be darker than is night compared with the brightest summer day we have had this year, if one were to see the gold and set it beside this hair.
Another quote from the text near the end I thought was compelling:
The rustic, who seldom errs, pertinently remarks that it is too late to close the stable when the horse is out.
There’s some food for thought in that!
Finally, I wonder if the final battle between Lancelot and Meleagant was the inspiration for the Black Knight bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In the book, Lancelot severs Meleagant’s arm during the battle, and then:
And when he [Meleagant] felt the loss of his right arm, he said that it should be dearly sold. If it is at all possible, he will not fail to exact the price; he is in such pain and wrath and rage that he is well-nigh beside himself, and he has a poor opinion of himself, if he cannot score on his rival now. He rushes at him with the intent to seize him, but Lancelot forestalls his plan, for with his trenchant sword he deals his body such a cut as he will not recover from until April and May be passed.
After which Lancelot cuts off his head.
And Meleagant’s rage is such that he cannot speak or say a word; nor does he deign to cry for mercy, for his foolish heart holds tight in such constraint that even now it deludes him still. Lancelot approaches and, unlacing his helmet, cuts off his head. Never more will this man trouble him; it is all over with him as he falls dead.