Chrétien begins his romance by declaring that he writes at the command of his patroness, Marie, the countess of Champagne, who has provided him with the basic elements of the story. On Ascension Day, a strange knight appears before King Arthur’s court and challenges him to send Queen Guinevere into the forest with a champion to defend her against him. If the queen’s defender wins, the knight will return the many subjects of Arthur whom he holds captive. Sir Kay, having persuaded the king in advance to grant a request, demands that he be named as the queen’s escort. Gawain, critical of the king’s rash promise and skeptical of Kay’s ability, leads a group of knights after them into the woods, where he finds Kay’s riderless horse. He sees another, unknown knight in pursuit of the queen on a broken-down horse and lends him a fresh horse.
When Gawain catches up to the knight again, the horse has died, and the knight must continue his quest in a cart driven by a dwarf who claims knowledge of the queen’s whereabouts. The cart is of a type that is reserved for transporting convicted criminals to their places of execution, and the knight hesitates briefly, until love conquers reason and he shames himself by entering the cart. Gawain rides along beside the cart to a castle where a damsel welcomes them to spend the night. Their host abuses the knight for riding in a cart, and warns him against sleeping in a perilous enchanted bed. He insists on accepting the risk, and survives a mysterious assault from a flaming lance. The next morning, having glimpsed the queen and her abductor pass by in a procession, they encounter a damsel who will help them find the evil knight, whom she identifies as Meleagant of Gorre, a land from which no visitor has ever returned.
The land of Gorre may only be reached by two approaches, the dangerous Underwater Bridge and the even more dangerous Sword Bridge. Gawain chooses the former, and the other knight chooses the latter. On the way, the unnamed knight has a series of adventures that establish his exceptional chivalric prowess and also his great love for the queen. Lost in meditation on his beloved as his horse drinks at a ford, he does not even notice the knight defending the ford, who knocks him into the water before he regains his senses and quickly defeats the guardian. The heroic knight then has a second encounter with a host and a castle; in this case, the damsel makes him rescue her from a feigned attack and extracts a promise that he will sleep with her, a promise he upholds without touching her. Along his route, the knight discovers a comb with Guinevere’s blond hairs in it and nearly faints. His final adventure on the way to the Sword Bridge takes place in a cemetery containing the future resting places of Arthur’s knights. He raises a massive stone lid from his own tomb, revealing inscriptions that confirm his role as the queen’s rescuer and the liberator of the prisoners of Gorre.
The knight finally reaches the Sword Bridge, which is literally a giant sword. He removes the armor from his hands and feet to better grip the sword’s blade, and he is seriously wounded as he crawls across it. The knight challenges Meleagant; Meleagant’s father, King Bagdemagu, advises his son to simply return the queen. Meleagant, however, accepts the anonymous knight’s challenge, agreeing to meet him in combat the next morning. Because of his injuries, the knight initially gets the worst...
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of the fight.
Observing the combat from a tower, the queen reveals to one of her damsels that the unknown knight is Lancelot. When the damsel calls out to Lancelot that Guinevere is watching, his strength is increased and he easily gains the advantage, but the fight is ended when Bademagu and then Guinevere ask Lacelot to spare Meleagant’s life. Meleagant nevertheless remains unrepentant and refuses to surrender his captives, so the two combatants agree to fight again in a year’s time at Arthur’s court.
Lancelot finally comes to the queen, but he is coldly rebuffed. After he leaves to find Gawain, rumors of the queen’s death and Lancelot’s suicide circulate, causing Guinevere to regret her treatment of Lancelot. When they are reunited, she explains her initial scorn as a response to his brief hesitation before entering the cart, and they arrange to meet that night at the window to her bedroom. Lancelot breaks the iron bars on the queen’s window and spends the night with her, unaware that he has cut his hands on the bars and left bloodstains on her sheets. Meleagant takes the blood as evidence that the injured Kay, who was sleeping in a chamber nearby, has been in the queen’s bed. He charges Kay with committing treason against Arthur and charges Guinevere with adultery. Lancelot defends them against the accusations in a trial by combat, again defeating Meleagant and again being stopped short of complete victory by Bagdemagu’s pleas.
Meleagant arranges for Lancelot to be ambushed and imprisoned, and Gawain, who has been narrowly rescued from drowning at the Underwater Bridge, escorts Guinevere back to Camelot. The woman guarding Lancelot lends him a horse and armor and allows him to leave his captivity temporarily to participate in a tournament at Noauz. As an anonymous knight in red armor, Lancelot demonstrates his ability to the extent that Guinevere guesses his identity, and she tests her suspicion by sending him orders to fight alternately with cowardice or with valor. He wins the tournament and returns to his imprisonment.
Meleagant’s sister, whom Lancelot aided earlier, finds and releases him in time for the champion to confront Meleagant for a third and final battle, and the poem ends with the celebration of Meleagant’s death. A final note reveals that the ending of the romance was written by a clerk named Godefroy, who completed it according to Chrétien’s instructions from the point at which Lancelot returned to the tower after the tournament.