Lancelot: Or, The Knight of the Cart

by Chrétien de Troyes

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Characters Discussed

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Lancelot, the best knight in the world and the lover of the queen. He is a warrior but has some peculiarities that undermine him, and they all stem from his love. He is prone to contemplate rather than take action. Seeing an attempted rape, he debates whether to intervene; caught between love and honor, he debates whether to leap into the cart to save Guenevere. More seriously, perhaps, he is forever swooning whenever he thinks of Guenevere. At one point, he finds a comb in which is a single strand of her hair, and he nearly falls off his horse. At another point, he is so wrapped up in thoughts of her that he does not hear another knight’s challenge. It is only when the knight knocks him from his horse into a river that he is shaken from his reverie.


Guenevere, the queen of Logres, the most beautiful lady in the kingdom. In accordance with the dictates of courtly love, she is also somewhat fickle. She is Lancelot’s inspiration—without her, his prowess would come to naught. When he finally meets her in Meleagant’s castle, having rescued her and all the prisoners, she turns her back on him and walks out of the room without so much as speaking to him. She later explains that this was because he hesitated before getting into the cart and therefore must have considered his honor more important than his love. Her genuine affection for him is revealed, however, in her suicidal attitude when she believes him dead, though toward the end of the poem, she once more demonstrates her power over him by sending him word that he is to lose a tournament rather than win it. By obeying her command in this instance, Lancelot reassures her that, contrary to his earlier behavior, he now values her love more than his own honor.


Meleagant, the utterly detestable son of the king of Gorre. He abducts Guenevere at the beginning of the poem. He refuses to take advice, even when that consists of a statement of the obvious. When his father, King Bademagu, advises him not to fight Lancelot, his response is scorn. He says that he will not kneel before Lancelot and pay him homage, comments that also reveal his arrogance. He is also a coward, locking Lancelot in prison so that he cannot be present for the combat at the end of the poem. Meleagant is a static character, a stock villain who shows no development during the course of the plot.


Arthur, the king of Logres (Britain), a very weak character, as he is almost nowhere else in Arthurian literature. When Meleagant announces that he has taken many of his knights prisoner, Arthur’s response is to lament the fact that he can do nothing to remedy the situation. A cuckold must always be portrayed as weak because the reader’s sympathy should be with the lovers, but here such weakness is taken to an extreme: Readers may wonder how Arthur ever became king.


Gawain, a knight of the Round Table, usually considered the best of King Arthur’s knights. When he sets out to rescue the queen, therefore, readers believe he is going to be the hero. He is clearly unfit for the quest, as his contrast with Lancelot shows. He thinks logically, whereas Lancelot is driven by love. Gawain utterly refuses to get into the cart because he has thought of the repercussions such an act might have on his reputation, whereas Lancelot, almost heedless of this, leaps straight in.


Bademagu, the king of Gorre, Meleagant’s father. Although he is essentially virtuous, behaving courteously toward Guenevere, and is full of praise for Lancelot, he does not attempt to prevent his son from indulging in evil behavior.

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