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Contrasting Portrayals of Sir Lancelot: Exploring the Evolution of Arthurian Legends

Contrasting Portrayals of Sir Lancelot: Exploring the Evolution of Arthurian Legends

This article was originally written in 2017 as a student paper for the “ENGL 385 Arthurian Legend Then and Now” course at Minot State University.

Sir Lancelot du Lac, one of King Arthur’s greatest knights of the round table, has been a prominent character in numerous Arthurian Legends. Across various tales, we encounter different depictions of Sir Lancelot, but two major works, namely “The Knight of the Cart” by Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century and “The Ill-Made Knight” by T.H. White in the 20th century, stand out for their divergent portrayals. These works not only reflect the evolution of society but also provide contrasting perspectives on courtly love, chivalry, and the complex nature of knights and heroes. In this essay, we will delve into these depictions and analyze how they mirror the societies of their respective eras.

Chrétien de Troyes and “The Knight of the Cart”:
Chrétien de Troyes holds the distinction of introducing the first known novel centered around Sir Lancelot. Commissioned by Marie of France, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Chrétien crafts a tale of chivalry, knighthood, and courtly love. While the details of the story’s creation remain uncertain, it is evident that Chrétien’s work captures the essence of courtly love prevalent in the 12th century.

During this era, courtly love and romance were still nascent concepts, with men embarking on quests to please women. Chrétien’s disinterest in courtly love is palpable, leading him to exaggerate and portray it as comical and detached from reality. For instance, he presents Sir Lancelot’s decision to ride a cart, typically reserved for criminals, as a disgraceful act. However, Lancelot’s unwavering love for Queen Guinevere compels him to overcome social stigma and embark on a journey to save her. This highlights the theme of courtly love superseding notions of honor and image.

While the incident of riding the cart initially demeans Lancelot, we witness his physical prowess when he effortlessly lifts a tombstone that even seven strong men struggle to move. This showcases Lancelot’s might and underscores the enduring influence of supernatural tales on medieval literature.

Chrétien unabashedly presents Lancelot as the epitome of courtly love, stating, “One who loves totally is ever obedient, and willingly and completely does whatever might please his sweetheart” [3778]. This concept of courtly love challenges the prevailing views of relationships, which primarily revolved around arranged marriages as business transactions. Through Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot’s forbidden love, Chrétien seeks to normalize the idea of extramarital affairs as a rebellious response to societal constraints.

In an intriguing parallel, the cart incident resurfaces when Lancelot meets the queen, and Guinevere acknowledges his sacrifice and commitment to courtly love, highlighting its superiority over conventional honor. Lancelot’s repeated pleas for forgiveness underscore the central role of courtly love in their relationship.

Additionally, Chrétien employs religious allusions to compare Lancelot to Christ, emphasizing his emphasis on mercy over revenge. This reflects the audience’s desire for an idealized hero embodying the values of the era.

T.H. White’s “The Ill-Made Knight”:
Published in 1940, T.H. White’s “The Ill-Made Knight” offers a more human portrayal of Sir Lancelot, dismantling the notion of his flawless nature established in Chrétien’s work. White intentionally portrays Lancelot as physically unattractive, thereby challenging the idealized image of knights that had persisted for centuries.

The influence of science, particularly psychoanalysis and Freudianism, is evident in White’s work. By delving into Lancelot’s thoughts, motivations, and fears, the author humanizes the knight and explores the complexities of his character. White’s portrayal aims to counter the mainstream idolization of famous figures, highlighting their imperfections and challenging the audience to reflect on their own insecurities.

Furthermore, White’s anti-war and pacifist ideology, shaped by his experience during World War II, permeates the narrative. Knights and warlords are depicted as foolish and war itself is viewed as barbaric and rarely justified. White draws parallels between jousting and spectator sports, such as cricket, to illustrate the triviality of war games and to expose the role of wealth and politics in perpetuating conflicts.

In comparing these depictions of Sir Lancelot, it becomes clear that the evolution of society has influenced the portrayal of knights and heroes. Chrétien’s work reflects the early stages of courtly love and chivalry, emphasizing the idealized image of knights. In contrast, White’s novel offers a more introspective and critical exploration of knights, debunking their mythos and delving into their flaws and insecurities.

Through the evolution of Sir Lancelot’s depiction, we witness the shifting societal norms and values surrounding love, honor, and heroism. These contrasting portrayals serve as windows into the eras they were created, shedding light on the changing perceptions of knights and their place in society.

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