Monday, November 4, 2013

Lancelot of the Lake: The Burdens of Knighthood

Another close reading, this time examining the purpose of the knight...

There seems to be a problem with the definitions of Christian worth and nobility along with the definitions of knighthood and duty in Lancelot of the Lake. Lancelot has some very selfish ends to be in compliance with these ideals. But, it can also be seen how these ideals do not fit together quite harmoniously, either. Lancelot starts out with a pureness, an innocence, in which he spouts “noble advice” and simply feels it feels right address Lionel as his cousin (44). Lancelot also has a profound definition of what it means to be noble realizing that “all men are descended from one man and one woman” so a “great heart” is all that is necessary to make a nobleman (44). Lancelot is definitely a more spiritually connected being here than he seems to show evidence of later on. This rather inherent spirituality does not contradict what is said to be the original purpose of the knight as a protector of the church.

As a protector of the Holy Church, the knight is almost more of a symbolic figure as a soldier against evil, sin, and unbelief in the abstract sense. Literally, in Lancelot of the Lake, the whole of the knight and his purpose is a multifaceted metaphor for the Christian believer in general. The knight is the son to his mother the church, standing between her and evil (just as the knight’s shield is between him and the blows), to “protect” and “avenge” her (53). The knight should vigilantly defend the church as his hauberk defends the knight against attack (53). His double-edged sword serves both God and His people and the point signifies obedience to the knight—or perhaps this could be read, too, as obedience to the will of the Holy Church as the knight is a servant of the church? And the people the knight aids should aid him materially where the church should keep him spiritually through prayer and alms (55). This metaphor and the “two hearts” the knight is meant to possess are reminiscent of the Christian putting on the armor of God from Ephesians 6 and the idea of being in the world but not of the world from John (55). Where this separation and balance starts to become hazy is when loyalties, oaths, and the quest for renown and prowess become conflated.

Lancelot appears to become much more self-serving once he reaches knighthood. Even this he obtains through his own way. After this, we never quite see the same sort of spiritual connection so prominent early in the text. Certainly, Lancelot still seems to be serving the Lady of the Lake above all as he is carrying out her will for him by gaining immediate knighthood and carrying out all types of tests and adventures to gain his fame. However, Lancelot’s knighthood in practice (mainly meaning his carrying out of the Lady of the Lake’s predicted future for him) does not closely follow his expected role as defined in the beginning for knights. Even though part of that role is serving God’s people, which Lancelot would seem to be doing by serving King Arthur, it still looks like he is really serving himself. First, he breaks his promise to Yvain to return and goes off to aid Lady Nohaut first, taking leave of Arthur’s court a bit prematurely. In this, he serves his own desire for Guinevere to be the one to knight him, and the Lady of the Lake’s desire for his future—which in essence is also Lancelot’s wish. His love for Guinevere is then his new driving force, but also a selfish one (not to mention an adulterous, un-Christian one), on top of these others. Most peculiarly of all is Lancelot’s mostly unexplained need “to travel in complete secrecy, so that no one should recognize him, as he wished to win honour and renown (98). This perhaps makes his deeds appear to have a less selfish intent, but the result is truly greater renown as he becomes the mysterious knight—who is, of course, always recognized from his description by the queen, serving his more selfish end.

When Lancelot’s selfishness seems to have consequences, or at least when this friction between the loyalties, oaths, and quest for renown start to take effect, is in Lancelot’s conquering of the Dolorous Guard. There are some rather disturbing scenes of brutality that are described, and it is hard to distinguish just how Lancelot feels about all of it. The knights of the Dolorous Guard are problematic because they sincerely want Lancelot to succeed and lift the enchantments, yet they serve their lord, King Brandin, and do his bidding. On the other hand, they do his bidding because it seems they must in order for someone to be able to break the enchantments. But, where this is unsettling is in that these knights tell Lancelot this, making it clearly known to Lancelot. And, although Lancelot must understand this, he much more appears to ignore it in order to succeed. Lancelot continues to attack those knights who are being replaced even after their replacements arrive. Although this may be necessary to lift the enchantments, it conflicts with the moral and knightly code of mercy and nobleness. Moreover, the means by which Lancelot goes about defeating some of these knights is excessively brutal:
He went over to him, and struck him with his horse’s chest, so that he knocked him back down to the ground, then rode over him until he was quite battered, and unable to get up. Then he looked, and saw the knight lying in the stream, who was already getting up again. He went towards him, sword in hand, and struck him without slowing down, so that he completely stunned him and knocked him down again in a daze, and rode his horse over him also, as much as he had the other, so that he badly injured him and he passed out from the pain. (108)
Lancelot is also “forced” to kill those knights that were unconscious and unable to answer his command for them to become his prisoners calling on God to “never be his witness if he went on feeling sorry about killing them” (115). Necessity or not, these instances feel uncomfortable in terms of serving “God’s people.” What is worse is that there is no immediate gratification or relief for the people of the Dolorous Guard when Lancelot does not complete the lifting of the enchantments right away.
In the end, with Lancelot’s adulterous love for Guinevere, I am not sure we ever see his original innocence returned. As great a knight as Lancelot becomes, the sometimes questionable (or at least very hazy) things he has to do to get there make him much less admirable. Even when Lancelot weeps for some of the things he has done, it does not last long or hold much weight over him. But, at least these moments might show a troubled conscience—but then if they do, how is what Lancelot does as a knight following the protective order of the Holy Church?

Works Cited

Lancelot of the Lake. Trans. Corin Corley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.

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