I cannot stand Lancelot. There, I said it. And, knowing my luck, my supervisor will stumble across this and it will put a terrible gulf between us (her devotion to Sir Lancelot rivals my adoration of Sir Gawain). But the fact remains: Lancelot is a moron! And Guinevere is a wet blanket and they deserve each other.
To make matters worse, I read my way through the whole of the Chevalier de la Charette and it had very little in it which is of any use to my thesis whatsoever. But I did notice something! And although it has nothing to do with my thesis and, for all I know, many eminent people may have noticed it before me, I am nevertheless going to blog about it.
Lancelot’s milkshake brings all the girls to the (court)yard. He knows it; and he’s completely OK with exploiting this to his own ends.
Which is to say, in serious terms, that Chrétien’s narrative systematically objectifies Lancelot, and that Lancelot manipulates his status as an object of desire to get what he wants. Including implicitly and explicitly bargaining sex for material aid. That’s – that’s fascinating, especially since the Charette is playing complicated games with sexual ethics already.
The two main aspects of sexual ethics, as discussed openly in the Charette‘s plotline (either by the characters or by narrator’s commentary) are: firstly, men’s power/right to sex and/or marriage by conquest; and secondly, sexual fidelity. It’s mostly Guinevere’s marital fidelity which is in question, and needs to be preserved both against rape-by-capture and potentially consensual adultery, although we are also given the impression that maidens wishing to go on journeys seek strong knightly protectors in order to avoid the likelihood of capture and rape. (Funny, that.)
Interestingly, Lancelot’s fidelity also features. We establish very early on, when he does his level best to get out of sleeping with a woman who offered him hospitality (being a knight he has the power to do so; having defeated her protectors he has the right to do so; and she consents, which would appear to give him some moral justification for doing so) that he’s in love with Guinevere, and only Guinevere, and won’t have a bar of anyone else.
The introductory parts of the adventure objectify Lancelot in two ways: they establish him as one hot piece of knight-flesh – apparently so hot that random ladies he meets on the road are willing to construct elaborate deceptions so that they get to sleep with him. But moreover, they establish him as an object of humour, both for his fellow characters (who get to point and laugh at him for riding in the cart) and for the audience, who are privy to hilarious scenes like “In Which Lancelot Nearly Falls Out Of A Window Trying To Catch A Glimpse of Guinevere” and “In Which Our Manly Manly Knight Does His Best To Avoid This Girl Who’s Throwing Herself At Him”. Lancelot is a moron, and it’s quite possibly meant to be ridiculous, the way everyone he meets falls all over him.
And so on we go, until Guinevere is found, slept with, rescued, and sent home to Camelot. At this point, Lancelot is locked up in a manor somewhere, and things start to get really weird. We, like Guinevere, are really curious to find out what Lancelot won’t do for the sake of his ladyfriend. The first thing we knew about him is that he’d give up the chance to sleep with other women (which might be shameful – compare to the Chevalier a l’épee, where Gauvain is terribly worried about what it’d do to his reputation if he’s known to have slept in a woman’s company and not shagged her; or it might earn Lancelot brownie points in the consent-over-capture value system Chrétien’s promoting); then we find out that he’ll embarrass himself in combat if Guinevere wants him to. What lengths will he go to to get out of prison (twice)?
Well, apparently, what he’s willing to do to get out of prison (twice) is to promise his affections and his body to whatever woman’s in a position to get him out. First the lady of the manor in which he’s being held captive – and she’s not silly, she knows his love is already taken, but she makes him promise it to her anyway (whether she ever claims it, we do not find out, but the implication, since Lancelot’s emotional love is all taken up with Guinevere, is surely that he’s promised her a good roll between the sheets instead). Then he promises his love and, explicitly, his body, to the pickaxe-wielding princess who gets him out of the tower.*
Do we have a problem with this? Are we going to get any kind of commentary on the fact that our hero, who was heroically faithful a couple of thousand lines ago, is now willing to seduce and bargain his way out of prison? That he is, in fact, doing exactly what Guinevere was accused of doing: selling his body to anyone who asks?
No, apparently we’re not. Instead we find out more about how awesome Lancelot is, how all the women at the tournament want him and all the men want to be him – until, at Guinevere’s bidding, he decides to play the incompetent for a while and ruin his reputation, at which point all the women still want him and all the men want to laugh at him. Meanwhile, Melagaunt wants Lancelot in order to prove his own manliness, but is quite willing to take Gauvain as a substitute.
The whole situation is ridiculous (and Lancelot, as I said, is a moron). But the upshot of the whole anonymity device, coupled with Lancelot’s apparently thoughtless abandonment of his fidelity, is that his character is undermined. The desire which defined his character for the first half of the story (his desire to find, and ultimately shag, Guinevere) is achieved, and instead, he becomes a sort of placeholder. An object, something everybody wants for one reason or another – the cause of much fuss and no substance.
* Incidentally, The Princess With The Pickaxe is my new favourite character. Running around demanding the severed heads of people who piss her off, and rescuing knights from towers with her trusty pickaxe. HOW OFTEN IS IT YOU MEET A PRINCESS RESCUING KNIGHTS FROM TOWERS, I ask you?