Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1037
Chrétien de Troyes is the originator of the Arthurian romance, combining the pseudo-historical chivalric exploits of King Arthur and his knights with the romantic conventions of courtly love. Chrétien’s Lancelot was the third of his five romances. It contains the first mention of Camelot, establishes Lancelot as the greatest of the knights, and, most important, provides the first account of Lancelot’s love affair with Arthur’s queen, Guinevere.
Chrétien claims in the prologue to the poem that the “sense and subject matter” were given to him by Countess Marie of Champagne, his patroness. Precisely what that sense and matter consisted of is unknowable, but Marie also appears to have been the patroness of Andreas Capellanus, author of The Art of Courtly Love (c. 1180), and her request may well have been that Chrétien use his narrative to provide an illustration of Capellanus’s principles. Early critics speculated that Chrétien, who elsewhere sharply condemns extramarital love affairs as immoral, found the task uncongenial. If true, this would explain his failure to finish the poem himself (leaving the final thousand lines, nearly one-seventh of the total narrative, to be written by Godefroy de Lagny), as well as the occasional hints of an amused and even satirical attitude on the part of the narrator toward his characters.
Much of the early scholarship relating to Lancelot focused on locating Chrétien’s sources. Scholars concluded that the basic plot was assembled from two ancient stories. One was a Celtic myth of the abduction and rescue of a woman. The other was a tale known in folklore as the Fair Unknown in which an anonymous individual establishes his identity in society and emerges as a champion. The numerous extra events and characters added by Chrétien to these two basic plots were typically dismissed as incoherent, further indicating the author’s lack of interest in writing the poem.
Later critics reversed this early consensus that the work was poorly written and demonstrated that the poem is much more complex in structure and theme than had been supposed. The romance is now generally taken to be carefully constructed, complete, and in the form the author wished. The scene in which Lancelot and Guinevere confess their love forms its center. The overall structure of the work is widely admired as an interlaced series of symmetrical scenes that parallel and echo one another, exemplifying the technique that Chrétien calls molt bele conjointure, or “beautifully ordered composition.” It is no longer generally dismissed as a miscellany of random adventures.
Chrétien’s ambiguous depiction of courtly love in Lancelot has come to be interpreted as evidence of his sophisticated command of narrative technique instead of being attributed to confusion or personal ambivalence: The author carefully avoids taking either a naïvely positive or a cynically negative position, instead allowing for a range of possible responses as readers gather and interpret the various threads of the story in their own manner. Critics now find ambiguity and contradiction at virtually every level of the poem, and they admire Chrétien’s artistry in revealing and analyzing these difficulties rather than simply assuming that he was unable to gloss them over smoothly.
The conflict between love and reason that makes Lancelot hesitate before entering the dwarf’s cart is emblematic of a series of conflicts between different social and moral imperatives that appear throughout the story. While Lancelot clearly chooses love and rejects reason, as the ideal courtly lover always must, the narrator refrains from explicitly endorsing or contesting his action, limiting himself to a more-or-less objective report of what the knight did. However, the narrator’s apparent obliviousness to these moral and ethical conflicts does not preclude readers from forming judgments about the characters. Lancelot is represented in the poem as the greatest of Arthur’s knights, but also as guilty of treason in committing adultery with the queen. Paradoxically, the poem shows that his great prowess as a warrior is inextricably linked to his great love for Guinevere, his invaluable service to Arthur directly enabled by his treason against Arthur. The character of Guinevere is also open to debate, as her love for Lancelot appears sometimes as a great romantic passion and at other times as calculating and manipulative.
These mixed and ambiguous messages demand interpretive decisions from a reader through the poem, and the critical history of the work demonstrates that good readers have reached different, and often opposed, conclusions about how to understand them. Lancelot’s unquestioning subservience to Guinevere’s whims may make him a perfect courtly lover or may reveal him to be weak and foolish. When he discovers her ivory comb with half a handful of golden hair caught in it, Lancelot begins to “adore” the hair and put all his “faith” in it; when he finally comes to the queen’s bed, he approaches it as a “holy relic” and even an “altar” to be worshiped. These applications of religious imagery to the description of a romantic, specifically sexual, and adulterous love may be seen by some readers as emphasizing the force and beauty of that love. Other readers might see this religion of love as blasphemous, implicitly condemning Lancelot’s worship of worldly lust over his Christian faith. Yet other readers may find the narrator’s tone best described as lightly ironic—amused at the exaggerated feelings of lovers but far from condemning them. Chrétien never makes these underlying tensions or interpretive cruces explicit, however—nor does he allow the characters to discuss or consider them: Readers must discern these issues for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
Chrétien’s intricate plotting, subtle explorations of psychology and emotion, and development of complex, rounded characters have led many critics to declare him the father of the modern novel. He deserves credit for laying the foundation for virtually all subsequent Arthurian romances, and his presentation of the quintessential romantic triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur has proven so rich and compelling that, eight centuries later, it remains one of the most widely known stories in Western literature: Hardly a year goes by without a novelist or filmmaker attempting to tell it yet again.