I’m cutting it close on this month’s post and cheating anyway, because this story is so long I’ve split it into two parts – the other half will be posted next week. I am grateful to a plethora of memes for confirming that March lasted about a decade and April stuck around for about ten minutes. Anyway! On to April’s Arthurian adventure, ‘Lancelot: the Knight of the Cart’ by Chrétien de Troyes.
Chrétien de Troyes himself is something of a mystery man but his versions of Arthurian legends, written in French in the twelfth century, are deservedly famous. I am using D.D.R Owen’s translation from Arthurian Romances, published by J.M. Dent & Sons in 1987.
Before we get started, full disclosure: I am a Lancelot girl. In the pre-Le Morte d’Arthur era, I was pretty lukewarm about all of the Round Table men except Gareth, but the Malory version of Lancelot was such a delight that I’ve been in his corner ever since. Malory’s Lancelot is an instinctive big brother figure who just sort of takes people under his wing and then beams proudly when they succeed at things, and while he’s just as much of a drama magnet as the rest of the Camelot crew, he at least tries to solve his problems instead of dumping them on someone else (looking at you Culhwch, looking at you as well Erec, would never dream of taking my eye off you Mordred). Anyway, all this is to say, I am predisposed to take Lancelot’s side. I may yell a little bit when people are mean to him. And they will be.
The romance of ‘Lancelot: the Knight of the Cart’ begins with Arthur holding court at Camelot in celebration of Ascension Day, which is the Thursday forty days after Easter. The king, queen and their nobility are enjoying themselves and more or less minding their own business when in charges a fully armed knight who announces, like a man beginning a supervillain monologue, that he has in his power a group of captives from Arthur’s kingdom and even from his own household. “I give you this news of them not because I intend to return them to you,” declares Sir Supervillain, “on the contrary, I wish to tell and inform you that you lack the strength and resources to be able to get them back. And you may be sure you’ll die without ever being in a position to help them.” Way to kill the party atmosphere.
As a parting shot, Sir Supervillain offers an unpalatable bargain: if there is a knight who holds Arthur’s complete trust, then that knight can come to the woods to fight Sir Supervillain one-on-one. If Arthur’s knight wins, all the captives will be released. The kicker being that if Arthur’s knight loses, Queen Guinevere will join the captives, and she must be present at the fight to play the role of trophy.
No one seizes hold of the knight to keep him captive, I assume because it would not be chivalrous or something like that. Let me tell you, if I heard someone threatening Guinevere, all bets would be off and I am deeply disappointed in the entire court for not sharing this opinion. Heads up, I’m also a Guinevere girl.
The seneschal of the court, Sir Kay, overhears all of this, and immediately goes to Arthur in a fury, announcing his intention to quit service at the court and take his leave. He will not give any sort of explanation of himself. Arthur sends Guinevere to appeal to him. She tries reasoning with him, to no avail; eventually, she throws herself on the floor and out-dramas him by saying she won’t get up until he promises to stay at court. Kay consents to that if she agrees to what he wants. This is where we see what a manipulative piece of work Kay actually is, because all that song-and-dance act was just to bully Arthur and more importantly, Guinevere, into taking Sir Supervillain’s deal. Kay is convinced he can beat him and release all the captives and is totally okay with dragging Guinevere along as surety. Arthur is less okay with it, but gives way. Guinevere is described as ‘extremely dejected’. The court rises slightly in my estimation by reaching the consensus that Kay’s plan is ‘arrogant, outrageous and absurd’. But no one stops him either.
On her way out, watched by grim-faced courtiers who are acting as if this is a funeral procession for an unusually lively corpse, Guinevere whispers “Oh! If only you knew, you would never, I think, allow me to be led away a single step without opposition!” The only person who overhears this remark is Count Guinable, who is standing nearby, but take a wild guess who she’s talking about.
At this point, Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain loses his patience. “Sire,” he says to Arthur, “you’ve done an extremely silly thing which astonishes me. But if you take my advice, while they’re still close at hand you and I and anyone else who wants to come will follow them. Nothing could keep me from going after them immediately.” THANK YOU, Gawain! Arthur eagerly agrees to this suggestion and a large company sets out to pursue Kay and the queen – too late to be of any use at all. As they near the edge of the wood, Kay’s horse runs towards them, riderless, with blood-stained leathers. Take another wild guess as to how Kay’s duel went, and what happened to Guinevere.
Gawain is well in the lead, the best prepared of the company with two back-up chargers handled by his squires, so he is the one who sees another knight emerging from the forest on a horse half-dead with exhaustion. This knight greets Gawain and asks for the loan of one of his chargers. Gawain offers him his pick of the two and the knight immediately mounts up. His poor horse falls down where it stands, overworked to death. Apparently back in de Troyes’ day nothing said knightly valour like animal cruelty.
Anyway, the as-yet-unnamed knight sets off at a fierce pace, with Gawain in hot pursuit. When Gawain catches up, he finds his horse dead too, surrounded by the broken lances and shields of a battle. The knight, he sees in the distance, has accosted a cart. A point of significance here: the only people who travelled in carts in this place, at this time, were criminals being paraded before a jeering public. Even the knight, who has killed two horses in his desperate haste, hesitates before setting foot in the cart. He does it anyway, because the dwarf driving the cart has implied that he can bring the knight to the queen.
Until the narrative names him (and you KNOW who it is) I shall be calling the knight Wild Card.
Gawain rides up, gives Wild Card some side-eye and inquires after the queen himself. The dwarf tells Gawain the same thing: if he wants to go to Guinevere, he needs to get in the cart. Gawain nopes out of that bargain and decides to simply ride along with the cart. As such, he is treated with respect by the people they encounter along the way, while Wild Card in the cart is set upon with a clamour of enthusiastic abuse. Then they stop for the night at a keep where a beautiful woman welcomes both knights, offering them both courteous hospitality. When they are ready to sleep, she indicates two beds set up in the hall, but a third bed waits and Wild Card asks why neither of them can sleep there. His hostess responds with chilly mockery, stating that a knight who rides in a cart has no right to ask questions and definitely no right to lie in state on that bed.
So obviously Wild Card immediately goes to sleep there. It is extremely comfortable with rich coverings, but at midnight becomes significantly less comfortable when a lance drops from the rafters and spears through the mattress, nearly spearing Wild Card too. It sets the bed ON FIRE. How does Wild Card respond? He puts out the fire and hurls the lance into the hall without getting of bed, then goes back to sleep. There’s a reason I gave him that nickname.
In the morning, Gawain and his hostess make conversation after mass and Wild Card broods by a window. This proves to be a good vantage point when a procession passes below: a litter bearing an injured knight with the queen herself riding behind with her captor. Wild Card is so desperate to see the queen that when she passes from his sight, he goes to throw himself out the window. Gawain grabs him and begs him to just calm down. You speak for us all, Gawain. Their hostess coolly remarks that since Wild Card travelled by cart, he might as well kill himself. You need to stop talking, lady.
The two knights leave in pursuit of the queen but fail to catch up and instead meet a young woman at a crossroads. “In return for a promise on your part I could easily direct you and put you on the right road,” she tells the pair of them, “and I would tell you the name of the land and that of the knight who is abducting her. But anyone who wished to enter that land would have very great trials to undergo and would suffer great tribulations before he arrived there.” Gawain gives a carefully conditional promise; Wild Card recklessly vows to do anything she wants. The young woman reveals that the queen’s captor is Meleagant, son of King Bademagu of Gorre. Anyone who enters that kingdom is never permitted to leave. To get in at all is difficult enough. There are two roads: the Water Bridge, this being a bridge that runs under the water, and the Sword Bridge, which is sharp as a sword and so impassable that no one has ever been known to actually cross it.
Guess which road our wild card knight takes. No, go on, guess.
SHOCK, SURPRISE, Gawain takes the marginally less impossible Water Bridge and Wild Card rides off for the Sword Bridge. Both men leave the girl at the crossroads with a concerningly vague IOU, to be cashed in at her discretion. What can possibly go wrong!
Wild Card is lost in thoughts of the queen, completely ignoring his surroundings. As his horse approaches a ford, an armed knight calls out for him to stop and Wild Card doesn’t even hear him through the refrain of ‘Guinevere Guinevere Guinevere’ going on inside his head. The guardian knight, failing to get his attention, knocks him furiously from his horse. This, at last, pulls Wild Card back to the here and now. He demands to know what the hell is going on, how would this weird guardian knight like to be yanked around? He proves his point by getting hold of his leg and hauling so hard that the guardian knight implores him to let go so that they can have a proper fight. Wild Card wins the fight and takes the guardian knight as his prisoner, but a young woman watching the fight asks for a trade: the guardian knight’s surrender for her own. Wild Card seems to wash his hands of the situation. He doesn’t go around ravishing random women and he doesn’t have time for this.
The world is conspiring to throw ravishment opportunities his way, however. The only lodging Wild Card can get for the night is in an apparently empty castle with a lady who will give him no bed but her own. She coyly tells him to entertain himself outside until he thinks she is in bed and only come to her then. Wild Card delays outside as long as he can, then goes indoors to find the bed empty. When he looks for his hostess he finds her at the mercy of a strange knight who is tearing at her clothes, with a host of men-at-arms standing at his back. Wild Card takes them on WITH HIS BARE HANDS, so quick and strong that the men coming at him end up hacking at each other instead. He snatches up the axe of a fallen opponent and prepares to take on the remaining men.
Satisfied with his performance, his hostess calls off the men-at-arms and takes a very displeased Wild Card to her bed. The whole thing was just a test. Wild Card lies down and refuses to talk to her. The lady gracefully gives up on him and retires to her own bed. Now, in this time and this place, the code of chivalry declares that a woman travelling alone must be left in peace but a woman travelling with a knight can be ‘won’ from her escort regardless of her personal wishes – so when, the next morning, Wild Card’s hostess asks if she may accompany him, it comes with danger to both of them. Being who he is, Wild Card declares that anyone seeking to trouble her will have to go through him first, and they set off together.
Wild Card is a terrible travelling companion with a one-track mind, unable to hear a word that the lady is saying over the loop of ‘Guinevere Guinevere Guinevere’ that is playing inside his head again. This makes it easy for the lady to divert him from a Clue, but Wild Card realises that he is being led astray in time and turns back to find a beautiful comb laid out on a rock with distinctive golden hair tangled in its teeth. It is recognisably Guinevere’s and Wild Card nearly collapses with the force of his feelings. He presses the strands of hair to his mouth and hides them away next to his heart, and it is NO WONDER that the entire court knows what’s up if this is his idea of subtlety.
As they continue on their way, the lady notices a knight approaching and warns Wild Card that this is a man she has rejected, who will take the opportunity to try and carry her off. He demands a duel in front of his father and a large audience of their courtiers, among whom are those who saw Wild Card in the cart. They are quick to spread the mocking word but the challenging knight’s father does not think this will be the easy contest that his son desires and asks him to bow out. “It’s true that a man does poor deals with those close to him: I’d do better to bargain elsewhere, for you’re out to cheat me,” snaps Rebel Just Because. “I’m certain I’d be better off among strangers…I’ll fight in spite of you.” In a rapid escalation of a familial disagreement, the knight’s father orders his men to seize Rebel Just Because to prevent the contest and says they will follow Wild Card to see what kind of man he is before deciding whether or not it is worth fighting him.
What does Wild Card do next? He stops at a church and asks to see their cemetery. There he sees tombs bearing familiar names. ‘Here will lie Gawain,’ he reads, ‘here Louise and here Yvain’. The newest of the tombs is as yet nameless. The monk who is showing Wild Card around warns him that it would take seven men to open the tomb. “And it carries an inscription,” the monk adds, “saying that whoever raises this slab alone and unaided will release all the men and women who are imprisoned in that land which no serf or nobleman can leave unless he is a native of those parts…Foreigners are held prisoner there, whilst the inhabitants come and go in and out as they please.” Wild Card lunges at the slab, hauling it up like it takes no real effort. He asks the monk who is to lie in this tomb. “That man, sir,” the monk tells him, “who will deliver all those trapped in the kingdom from which none escapes.” Huh. That does make sense.
Wild Card rides away, leaving the monk to spread awed rumours in his wake. Rebel Just Because and his father hear the story of Wild Card’s feat. “Now you really understand who was in the wrong and know well enough whether it was you or I,” Rebel’s father says smugly. They decide to go home and leave Wild Card to his heroics. When the lady cannot needle Wild Card’s name out of him, she turns back as well and he rides on alone.
That night Wild Card stays at the house of a tenant knight who is less a tenant and more a prisoner. Yes, we have now officially entered Meleagant’s lands, which single-handedly turn every ‘wish you were here’ postcard into an active threat! The tenant knight and his family are very distressed to learn that Wild Card comes from the same place as themselves, from Logres, since to come here is to be stuck for life. Wild Card frankly explains his mission and asks for advice on taking the fastest route to the Sword Bridge. The advice he gets is: don’t take it. When he insists, his passion fires up two of the tenant knight’s sons, who volunteer to travel with Wild Card.
They reach a narrow stony passage, where they are ambushed. Wild Card forces his way through, much to the admiration of his new companions. As they travel they hear word that the prisoners from Logres have heard that their saviour is on the move and are rising against their captors. Fighting has broken out across the land. Eager to support their people, the three knights ride for the nearest fortress…and promptly get themselves trapped. Wild Card possesses a ring that allows him to see through enchantments, a gift from his fairy foster mother, but all it shows him in this instance is the wrong side of a portcullis. Together with his companions, he manages to hack his way through the postern gate to get to the fighting on the other side. Wild Card makes a good case for being the prophesied hero, being a whirlwind on the battlefield. When night falls, everyone who can offer him a bed for the night is competing for the honour, which annoys him. “It’s not good for us to quarrel among ourselves: on the contrary, we should be helping each other,” he says. “…As God may grant me joy and health, the intention cheers me as much as if you’d each already done me great honour and kindness. So let the word stand for the deed.”
Having won hearts and minds, he continues on his way. He is soon accosted by a haughty knight, wanting to know who it is seeking to cross the Sword Bridge. When he finds out that it is Wild Card, he is outraged. “You should consider how you might finish and end up,” he sneers, “and you should remember the cart into which you climbed.” The knight challenges Wild Card. This does not go well for him. At the end of a savage contest he is forced to ask for mercy and Wild Card replies, “You’d have to climb into a cart.” The boy’s got a secret mean streak. The situation is further complicated when a young woman rides up to the scene of the contest and asks for the fallen knight’s head in return for her help.
Wild Card doesn’t know what to do. Giving women what they want is kind of his purpose in life, but he won’t execute an unarmed man. So he arms the knight again and they fight once more. Wild Card wins for a second time; the girl gets her enemy’s head. She contemplates it delightedly. “May your heart find great joy in whatever it most desires,” she says, “just like that which my own heart now feels regarding my fondest wish.” She leaves Wild Card with the promise of her support when he needs it, and goes on her happy murderous way.
Late the next afternoon, Wild Card finally reaches the Sword Bridge. The water beneath runs black and wild, while the bridge itself is literally nothing but a long, gleaming blade. And if all that isn’t bad enough, the bridge is guarded by lions. “I’m not afraid of this bridge or this water any more than of this solid ground,” declares Wild Card. “No…I’d rather die than turn back!”
Tune in next week for romance, revolution and even more bad ideas!