Chrétien de Troyes’ The Knight of the Cart: Medieval Absurdism?

An illustration from a manuscript of 'The Knight of the Cart', borrowed from here.

An illustration from a manuscript of ‘The Knight of the Cart’, borrowed from here.

Chrétien de Troyes’ The Knight of the Cart is one in a series of narratives de Troyes composed as a re-telling of the Arthurian romances.  The narrative focuses around Lancelot, the famous knight who, in hopes of retrieving Guinevere, agrees to shame himself by stepping onto a cart (the manner in which criminals were transported at the time), before going on to restore his honour and rescue the queen.  More than simply a romance, though, the storyline serves in some ways as a precursor to absurdism and postmodernism, by detailing strange and unusual events and openly questioning the narrative voice.  It works on other levels as well, demonstrating flawed concepts of morality, illustrating how humanity misguidedly associated the whims of chance with divine intervention, and perhaps most importantly, displays how humanity often defines those around them by their associations, either within certain institutions (be they civil of familial), or with their past deeds.

 

 

Queen Guinevere is defined by her civic identity throughout de Troyes' work.

Queen Guinevere is defined by her civic identity throughout de Troyes’ work.

As was the case with The Story of the Grail, the narrator of the story often identifies the characters, not by name, but by association.  Names are often revealed as the narrative unfolds, but in many instances, the characters are described strictly in their relationship to the world around them.  Lancelot, for example, is referred to as the Knight of the cart for over half of the narrative.  He is seen travelling on a cart early in the narrative, and is from that point on defined by those around him by that single action.  All the deeds he has done before, and for some time all the deeds he accomplishes after, are overwritten with this single act.  It is the antithesis to existentialist thought and speaking to how our perceptions have difficulty adjusting to changing circumstances.  Kay, another knight from King Arthur’s court, is named when firs the reader encounters him, but he is always referred to as “the seneschal”, making sure that even if the reader associates him by his name or his standing as a knight, that he is always defined by his role as a seneschal above all else.  Likewise, Lancelot’s antagonist, Meleagant, is initially defined only in terms of his relationship with his father, Bademagu, who happens to be a king.  Bademagu, likewise, is referred to only as the king for a large portion of the work.  These social, civic and familial roles, then, seem to be how the reader is expected to see these characters.  Indeed, for much of the narrative Meleagant serves as the disobedient son, and is juxtaposed with his father.  The women suffer even more from such social categorization.  Meleagant’s sister ultimately serves as a key cog in the story, but her name is never revealed.  She is defined only by her relation to Meleagant and Bademagu.  Though readers know that Arthur’s queen is named Guinevere, she is referred to throughout the narrative simple as ‘the queen’, denying her identity and identifying her strictly through her civic role and marital standing.  Her self, is usurped by her husband and civic duties.

 

 

Peter Dinklage, who portrays a medieval dwarf that is actually given a name and is way more bad ass than any dwarf de Troyes authored.

Peter Dinklage, who portrays a medieval dwarf that is actually given a name and is way more bad ass than any dwarf de Troyes authored.

A dwarf who appears at the beginning of the narrative is referred to only as a dwarf.  His name is never mentioned, though de Troyes’ narrator does make sure to note that the dwarf was ‘low-born’, indicating that birth and heritage were important categories in medieval society.  Later in the narrative, another dwarf is introduced and is spoken of in much the same way.  He is described as a ‘hunchbacked dwarf’ and is also called ‘insidious’.  This demonstrates how people in the era might identify people by their otherness and vilify them for their differences.  Names seem of little importance.  Rather, people are defined by categories and stereotypes of these categories are reinforced by such identification.  If the Coalition for Dwarf Advocacy were around in medieval England, they certainly would have taken issue with the negative stereotyping and vilification of dwarfs in de Troyes’ work.  Though is it anachronistic to project ableist mentalities (for lack of a better word) onto the work, reading it through such a lens is important because it helps to identify the source and history of how humanity relies on categorization to identify people.

 

 

Chretièn De Troyes: Apparently medieval portraits looked a lot like contemporary bobble heads.

Chretièn De Troyes: Apparently medieval portraits looked a lot like contemporary bobble heads.

By identifying the characters through such methods, de Troyes demonstrates many of the values held in medieval society, but the action and dialogue of the work further demonstrates the flawed morality of medieval society.  In the final scene, Lancelot and Meleagant are both described as being “courageous, bold and valiant”, despite the fact that Meleagant has demonstrated and utter lack of respect for the autonomy of other people and has ignored any code of honour prescribed by the society of knights (though this may speak, in some instances at least, to Meleagant’s refusal to forgo common sense).    Medieval society, if Bademagu is reflective of their values, also uplifts beauty over reason.  Bademagu supports Lancelot over his son because he is “so skilled, so handsome, and so valiant”.  Lancelot’s skill as a fighter and his appearance is placed before his valiant nature, but nothing is said of other aspects of his morality, or his intellect.  He is recognized as superior to Meleagant based on his appearance and his ability to fight.  This is an example of the ‘might is right’ mentality, which is rationalized in the work through divine intervention.  Each of the knights make promises to fulfill vows and challenges, but often frame then with phrases like “if God wills it”, or “if God allows it”.  Before his final fight, Meleagant asks for the help of God “in whom [he] place[s] his trust”.  This reinforces tyrannical behaviour by framing it as the will of God.  If God didn’t want a certain knight or king to enforce their will, then God would have provided a rival that would have unseated them.  Gawain, who appears late in the narrative, even describes such fighting as being “like casting dice”, articulating that such fights are essentially a gamble, but one which God will decide the outcome.  A dangerous view to put faith in as it has the ability to validate tyranny.

 

A jousting match between Lancelot and Meleagant.

A jousting match between Lancelot and Meleagant.

Promoting might as right and valuing skill over intellect shows up in others way throughout the de Troyes’ tale as there is also a particular focus on action over words.  In one scene, when Lancelot and Meleagant are about to do battle, the narrator notes that the two men “leapt at once to battle” and “without wasting words rushed together”, asking the reader directly: “What good were declared challenges?”  There is a clear preference for actions over words, which is reinforced when it is noted that “Lancelot did not waste threats upon him”, but rather “drove him steadily with his sword”.  This is in stark contrasts to other narratives, such as Ubu Roi and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where the authors parody how people romanticize oaths and feel that actions without oaths or ‘declared challenges’ are somehow diluted, an approach that Lancelot is not immune in de Troyes’ work.  Though Lancelot has not need for words and is bold in taking actions when he fights Meleagant, he resorts to words later in the narrative when he contemplates suicide, stating that he shall loop a cord about his neck if God allows it.  Here Lancelot vocalizes the action first, demonstrating an absence of boldness and putting words before action.  The action ultimately fails, reminiscent of Romeo’s suicide attempt which is clearly stated before the attempts and easily thwarted by a toothless old woman.  It seems clear that Lancelot merely wanted his attempted suicide to be taken as an authentic attempt, serving as a demonstration of his love for Guinevere, but without intent to complete the act.  Meleagant, likewise, employs words later in the tale when he boasts of his actions before his father.  His father chastises Meleagant by informing him that a “gentleman need not praise his courage to magnify his act, for the act is its own best praise”.  Here again, words are seen as inferior to action.

 

Keira Knightley played the most popular Arthurian maiden, Guinevere, in the film King ARthur.

Keira Knightley played the most popular Arthurian maiden, Guinevere, in the film King Arthur.

The narrative questions notions of fidelity as well. Guinevere and Lancelot are faithful to each other, for example, but neither is faithful to Arthur.  Lancelot is subservient to Arthur, as is Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, but the two have an affair.  Such an affair may make sense.  A man was supposed to provide protection for his wife in this era.  When Guinevere is captured, it is not her husband that goes out to rescue her, but rather Lancelot, and so it makes sense that her affections would be given to the man who protected and rescued her.  Such an approach seems common in the tale.   Lancelot convinces a woman to free him from his bonds, and though she is reluctant at first, noting that she is worried that Meleagant will punish her husband, she eventually agrees so long as Lancelot promises to give her his love.  Though she initially shows a degree of loyalty to her husband, she quickly hands everything belonging to her husband over to Lancelot.  When she realizes that Lancelot is faithful to a beloved (Guinevere), she relents anyways, stating that she is not too proud to take what she can get.  Her husband, for his part, reports his wife’s actions to Meleagant, showing that he is loyal first to Meleagant, and then to his wife, placing the civic over the domestic.  Such questions were no doubt relevant in medieval times, as women were frequently placed in a position to be subservient to the lords, meaning that the civic authorities carried more weight with them than the domestic authority of their husbands.  Narratives such at this display different ways of sorting out such conundrums, though no clear answer is offered.

 

 

Helen Mirren is one in a long list of actresses who have played Arthurian maidens.

Twerking expert Helen Mirren is one in a long list of actresses who have played Arthurian maidens.

De Troyes’ work, if pulled out of its medieval context and thrust into the 20th century, could also be read as a predecessor to absurdism.  It, like The Story of the Grail, comes across as hilarious in parts, perhaps for the wrong reasons, or perhaps because de Troyes was very aware of the absurdity of certain aspects of medieval folklore and morality.  In one scene it is noted that Lancelot has a magical ring.  Within the context of the narrative, which involves fantastic and unrealistic feats of strength and endurance, that a magic rings would be consistent.  When Lancelot employs the ring, however, he finds it doesn’t work and simply casts it aside.  Why is the ring included in the narrative?  There is also a scene thrown in where a woman stages her own apparent gang rape.  After Lancelot defends her, she calls off her rapists and reveals that the assault was staged to test Lancelot’s bravery.  WTF?!?!?!?!?  Then there are the random evil dwarfs who just show up out of the blue and the pick axe that is easily found in the middle of a forest.  These oddly convenient and inconvenient items are constantly creeping up throughout the tale.  Then there are the unexplained inconsistencies.  When crossing the sword bridge, Lancelot sees lions on the other side, but when he crosses the bridge, they simply disappear.  On the other side, Lancelot is met Bademagu.  The problem with this is that when Lancelot took left Bademagu and took the route with the sword bridge, he did so because it was the more ‘direct’ route.  How then is Bademagu able to reach the other side before Lancelot?  Just as Bademagu manages to travel faster than Lancelot, so to do rumours.  Lancelot travels by cart in one scene.  Afterwards, regardless of where he shows up, everybody has already heard about this incident and somehow knows Lancelot to be the man who was on the cart.  Nobody, though, recognizes him as Lancelot.  Word it seems travels faster than horse, which in a pre-internet world, seems strangely unlikely.  Rumours of both Lancelot and Guinevere’s death likewise travel quickly and reach both parties, which is especially odd, for Lancelot at least, since he is being held captive in a secret location.

 

John William Waterhouse's 'The Lady of Shallot Looking At Lancelot' is based on Arthurian legend.

John William Waterhouse’s ‘The Lady of Shallot Looking At Lancelot’ is based on Arthurian legend.

Perhaps the most absurd part of the work is the narrative voice.  The narrative voice clearly has a hard-on for Gawain, constantly referring to Gawain as ‘my lord’ and positioning himself (or herself) as a person who is subservient to Gawain, but somehow manages to have an omniscient perspective and is able to share what is going on in the minds of the character.  The voice actually steps out of the narrative several times, at one moment telling the reader that he/she will not relay certain information because it is not yet relevant and doing so would slow the narrative down.  Ironically the voice IS slowing the narrative down by telling the reader this.  Only a half a page later the information which the narrative voice deemed irrelevant, becomes relevant and is then shared.  It is an odd approach that, like many postmodern works, actually encourages the reader to become aware of the narrative voice and question the process.  There is another point where the voice, though it seems omniscient throughout, postulates that some of the characters who people the story are either Gawain’s nephews or cousins, but is not sure which.  Such an awkward phrasing encourages the reader to question the authority of the author.  This is especially interesting since the author actually shifts part way through the tale.  At the end of the piece the narrative voice (whose identity the reader remains unsure of) states that de Troyes did not complete the narrative, but rather that a clerk named Godefroy de Lagny finished it.  This seems especially postmodern considering that the fictional narrative voice is, within the narrative, speaking to the people who have authored his voice.

 

 

John William Waterhouse's 'The Lady of Shalott'.  JWW really liked her a lot.

John William Waterhouse’s ‘The Lady of Shalott‘. JWW really liked her a lot.

Overall the work is certainly enjoyable.  It is comical in parts, perhaps satirical in others, whether intentional or not, and entertaining throughout.  It offers interesting insights medieval morality, romantic notions of love and bravery that have influenced constructs of love through to the 21st century, and allows the readers to witness the origins of categorizations in the western world.  Read as a satire, the work can be seen a brilliant, read and an authentic attempt at a morality tale, it serves are a fascinating document.  Either way, it is a narrative that serves as a foundation for western storytelling and is well worth reading.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Yes, for sure this is English writing in its infancy, but I still found the narrator rather charming. Five things I find endearing/intriguing in the narrative voice: 1) He attempts to flesh out the story with his own experience-based imagination, such as when he tries to give us a sense of the audience’s conversation prior to a joust. 2) He’s a shameless flatterer of women. For example compared to Guinevere’s hair, “gold a hundred thousand times refined, and melted down as many times, would be darker than is night compared with the brightest summer day.” 3) He’s unabashedly human, such as when he says he won’t talk about the sex even though it’s the best part, and when he says that, unlike Lancelot, many men would have thanked the enchantress 500 times for requesting sex of them. 4) He speaks directly to the reader, hinting that we’re a lot like him. For example, when Lancelot acts tired and goes to bed early only to get up and sneak to his tryst with Guin, the narrator says, “You who have behaved in a similar manner will be able to understand.” 5) His proverbs/truisms suggest that he’s a bit cynical, even though he’s probably about 30: he says that evil is more easily done than good and that many people would rather carry bad news than good, etc.

    P.S. The lions aren’t on the other side of the river because they’re illusions meant to test Lancelot. Duh!

  2. *I meant to say writing, not English writing.

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