Trigger warning: reference to suicide
We pick up in Chrétien de Troyes’ ‘Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart’ where we left off last week, with the knight I am calling Wild Card finally arriving at the notorious Sword Bridge. It is an actual sword and guarded by lions. Wild Card’s companions think that maybe it would be a good idea not to cross a bridge like that. Wild Card thinks otherwise. Onward or die! Leaving the other knights in tears behind him, he takes the armour off his hands and legs and begins to crawl across the bridge, clinging on to its sharp edges. When he reaches the other side he looks up, expecting to see the lions – but his foster-mother’s enchanted ring reveals that it was all an illusion.
His situation is bad enough without having to fight wild animals. The bridge has sliced up his hands and legs, and ahead of him is the impressive bulk of a great fortress: the keep of King Bademagu. The king himself is said to a great reputation for honour and loyalty; how this matches up with the whole ‘imprison every foreign traveller’ policy is unclear to me. His son Meleagant, meanwhile, has ‘a heart of wood, quite devoid of gentleness and pity’. Both men are now aware of Wild Card’s approach. Bademagu urges his son to make peace and return Queen Guinevere while there is still a chance at reconciliation. “Perhaps,” Meleagant says sardonically, “you want me to join my hands and feet in homage as his vassal and hold my land from him? So help me God, I’d rather become his vassal than give the queen up to him!” Bademagu warns Meleagant that he will not back him, that any action Meleagant takes against Wild Card will be his choice and his alone. “You be as moral a man as you like,” Meleagant retorts, “but let me be cruel.”
Bademagu goes down to meet Wild Card, who leaves off cleaning his injuries and stands up as if he has no injuries at all. Bademagu praises his courage and offers his hospitality while Wild Card recovers. The queen, Wild Card is assured, is quite safe and kept locked away from all men of the keep, including a very angry Meleagant. Wild Card refuses to put off the fight with Meleagant for longer than a day, insisting that he’s good to go any time, what bleeding wounds? Once he has been shown to a room and attended by Bademagu’s surgeon, the king goes to Meleagant to try and reason with him again. It is an effort doomed to failure; Meleagant is eager to fight.
The combat takes place the next day in front of the keep, with a large audience of Meleagant’s prisoners and Bademagu’s subjects together. Bademagu tries one last time to prevent the fight, and when that comes to no good, he goes up to the window where Guinevere herself is positioned to watch the fighting. The two knights smash into one another. They are well-matched, each inflicting heavy damage. Wild Card is already injured – soon the battle begins to take its toll on him. A young woman standing in the audience does some quiet equations about what it will take for Wild Card to win, and then goes to Guinevere to ask for Wild Card’s name. “Lancelot of the Lake,” the queen tells her, and the girl immediately yells out the window, “Lancelot! Turn around and see whose attention is fixed on you!”
Maybe not the BEST strategy when our boy is fighting for his life, but it does the trick – when Lancelot sees Guinevere there at the window, he is filled with fire and drives Meleagant back so ferociously that Bademagu asks the queen’s permission to intervene. “If I nursed a mortal hatred against your son, whom I certainly don’t love,” Guinevere replies, “nevertheless you have served me so well that, since this is your pleasure, I’m quite happy for him to desist.” Lancelot overhears her words and immediately lowers his weapon. Meleagant lashes out furiously in his humiliation and Bademagu has to send in his own people to restrain him. Meleagant refuses to acknowledge that he has lost the combat. The only way he will agree to give over the queen is if Lancelot agrees to fight him again within the year. Guinevere consents, which means Lancelot does too.
The deal is done – the queen is free, which means every single one of her people are freed with her. Lancelot is feted as a saviour, everyone wants to cheer for him, to be close to him, to touch him. All he wants to do is get to Guinevere.
The feeling is not mutual. Guinevere refuses to look at him, or talk to him, to everyone’s bewilderment. Even the injured Kay, who I think we can all agree is a bit awful and whose own first reaction to seeing Lancelot is essentially ‘how dare you win when I couldn’t!’, comes up blank when Lancelot despairingly asks what he’s done wrong.
Lancelot, bless him, buckles up to go find Gawain, who should have shown up by now and has not. Of the many newly freed captives, some decide to go with Lancelot and some decide to stay with the queen. Meanwhile, Meleagant still has a lot of popular support throughout the kingdom. They liked being an isolationist state! What happens now that people can just…arrive…and leave, as they PLEASE? They ambush Lancelot and his people, who are entirely unprepared for combat after their peace-making with Bademagu.
Greatly exaggerated word reaches Guinevere that Lancelot has fallen to rebels. She manages a speech for the benefit of her people before retreating to have a breakdown. She is so overcome by the dreadful memories of turning Lancelot away that she tries to strangle herself. In true Shakespearean fashion, a rumour spreads that the queen is in fact dead and Lancelot hears it. Now it’s his turn to attempt suicide, and he nearly succeeds. The only thing that rouses him from his miasma of despair is learning that actually, the queen is alive! Guinevere is informed that Lancelot is likewise still breathing and on his way towards her and everyone calms down for A GODDAMN MINUTE.
Bademagu greets Lancelot’s captors with outrage and Lancelot, being Lancelot, takes it upon himself to bring about a round of forgiveness. Then he gets his take two reunion with the queen, who hurries out to meet him, glowing with happiness. They talk non-stop about everything under the sun and Lancelot gets up the courage to ask about why she was unhappy with him in the first place. “Were you not then ashamed and afraid of the cart?” Guinevere inquires. “You showed great reluctance to climb in when you hesitated for the space of two steps.” How could she POSSIBLY KNOW? Where is she getting her information? Lancelot, who doesn’t bother himself with questions about his queen’s spy network, acknowledges her point as totally valid and promises to never to do it again.
That night they meet again for a secret rendevous. Lancelot goes to the queen’s window, which is barred with iron, and reaches through to hold her hand. He claims that the bars couldn’t keep him from her, if only she would give him permission – our boy is all about full informed consent, thanks very much – and when Guinevere gives her approval, he BENDS THE IRON BARS out of the way. In the process he cuts his finger, but is so ecstatic about finally being alone with his love that he doesn’t even notice. They have life-affirming sex throughout the night. Chretien’s delicate commentary is that ‘the supreme and most exquisite of their joys was that which the tale conceals and leaves untold’, which is why generations have been writing myth fanfic about these two.
Lancelot departs the next morning, straightening the bars behind him, but unknowingly leaves the queen’s sheets stained with blood. The first person to enter the queen’s room that day is, in the most unfortunate and creepy turn of events, none other than Meleagant, who promptly puts two and two together and comes up with eleven. He accuses Guinevere of sleeping with the injured Kay. Guinevere, with great dignity, insists she had a nosebleed during the night. Menstruation would probably have been a better excuse, more likely to embarrass Meleagant into silence, but the poor woman is having to think on her feet. Meleagant, refusing to take Guinevere’s word, runs to his father to bemoan Kay having access to the queen’s body when he doesn’t. If only Lancelot had thrown him off a cliff. Oh well.
Kay is shocked at the accusations, as well he might be. He tries to challenge Meleagant to combat to clear his name, but Bademagu scotches that, pointing out Kay is in no state to fight. Probably in no state for athletic sex either, in that case! Guinevere declares that she already has a knight to fight for her honour and at this moment Lancelot enters like the beautiful drama llama that he is. “There is no need for you to plead in your defence,” he says passionately, “so long as I am present…No one, so help me God, who has known Kay the seneschal has ever suspected him of such an act.”
Lancelot and Meleagant both swear to their different versions of events. Lancelot adds an extra touch. “No matter whom it may displease or vex, if today I may be enabled by the sufficient aid of God and these relics here to get the better of Meleagant,” he vows, “then I shall never have mercy on him.” The two knights go at it with bloodthirsty eagerness, but Bademagu once again intervenes. He reminds them that a combat has already been arranged, for Meleagant to face Lancelot at Arthur’s court in a year’s time. Lancelot follows his queen’s lead and accepts the delay.
He turns his attention back to finding Gawain. On the way to the underwater bridge, they meet a dwarf on horseback who convinces Lancelot to follow him, alone, to an undisclosed location. Lancelot is of course captured again. His companions, after waiting in vain for him to reappear, continue to the underwater bridge to hunt for Gawain. They find Gawain in the deep water, on the verge of drowning. Lancelot’s people haul him from the water and he hacks up half the river, barely getting his breath back before spilling out anxious questions about the queen. Gawain’s rescuers immediately tell him how the dwarf led Lancelot away into who knows what danger. This message is then relayed to Guinevere. While she’s deeply relieved to see Gawain safe and sound, she’s filled with dread for what has become of Lancelot.
Bademagu is hit pretty hard too. It’s hard to be a just and honourable king when your houseguests keep getting abducted and your son is a treacherous misogynistic excuse for a knight. He sends messengers throughout the kingdom to seek out Lancelot. Gawain and Kay are about to set out to search as well when a boy arrives with a letter, seemingly from Lancelot, stating that he has returned to Arthur’s court. The queen is uplifted; Bademagu is relieved. The two part on excellent terms. It is not until Guinevere is reunited with her husband, who assumes that Gawain came to her rescue, that anyone realises that Lancelot’s letter was a forgery.
Arthur’s happy; he’s got his queen back. Guinevere is on an emotional rollercoaster and probably contemplating locking Lancelot in a tower herself, just to keep consistent tabs on him.
While the queen was absent, two of her gentlewomen – the Lady of Noauz and the Lady of Pomelegloi – decided to becomes medieval Bachelorettes by throwing a tournament with their hands in marriage promised to the victors. Word of the competition spreads and reaches Meleagant. It also reaches the ears of Lancelot,who is being held prisoner in a quite civilised household whose mistress is keeping a weather eye on his emotional wellbeing. She notices how dejected he seems and he tells her that he longs to be at that tournament. She would happily let him go if not for, you know, the whole Meleagant situation. “My lady,” Lancelot says eagerly, “if you’re frightened that I wouldn’t return to my captivity with you immediately after the contest, I’ll take an oath that I shall never break.” Oh, honey. Really? Are you really doing this?
The lady of the household has an entirely understandable crush on Lancelot and a very shrewd recognition of his martyrdom to honour. She arms him with her husband’s gear and sends him forth to Noauz, where the only people who recognise him are an adoring herald and the keen-eyed queen. She sends word to Lancelot to ‘do his worst’; he humiliates himself on the field for her. She then instructs him, via her messenger girl, to ‘do the very best he can’; he conquers the field at her word. Guinevere, watching on, is amused to hear the admiring murmurs of her ladies. Thanks to Lancelot, not one of the women attending the tournament will pick a husband, but none of them have a hope of claiming him either. Guinevere owns Lancelot body and soul and she knows it.
His honour, however, is a force equal to his heart. After the tournament he returns faithfully to captivity. Meleagant finds out about what happened and decides he needs to arrange a closer confinement. He has a tower constructed on an isolated island and walls Lancelot up inside it. After that, he is so satisfied with himself that he parades before Arthur’s court, gloating about Lancelot’s absence. Guinevere leans towards her husband. “Do you know, sir,” she remarks coolly, “who this man is? It’s Meleagant, who abducted me when I was being escorted by Kay the seneschal, on whom he inflicted a good deal of shame and injury.” I love her. I love her so much. Gawain leaps up in Lancelot’s defence. “Please God, he’ll be found before the year is out,” he says, “unless he’s dead or a prisoner. Then, if he doesn’t come, grant me the duel, and I shall fight it.”
Meleagant then takes his obnoxious self to Bath, like this is a Regency novel and he’s the wicked rake of the family, to crash his father’s birthday celebrations. He gloats about securing a match against Gawain, since Lancelot has vanished. Bademagu scolds him for his arrogance. “A curse on anyone who will ever believe that the courteous Lancelot, who is honoured by all but you, has fled through fear of you! But perhaps he’s in his grave or shut away in some prison.”
Now, Bademagu has a daughter as well, and she’s listening in on this conversation. She is convinced that Lancelot is being held captive and she’s damn well going to do something about it. She rides off at once to seek word of his whereabouts.
She is as persistent a champion as Lancelot could hope for. She has searched high and low across many lands when, after so long without success, she happens to see a lone tower in the distance. Instinct tells her that she’s finally found what she was looking for. She walks around the tower, noting the lack of doors and the single window. As she stands there, she hears a man’s voice lamenting above. Meleagant’s sister calls up to Lancelot. She explains that she was the woman who directed him to the Sword Bridge – and she was the woman who asked for the knight’s head, and got it. That was the favour that Lancelot owed her. It wouldn’t surprise me if she was also the woman who called out Lancelot’s name during the first combat against Meleagant. “Never fear, my friend,” she calls, “that you’ll not be freed from here all right!” She produces a pickaxe and sends it up to Lancelot, who hacks around the window until it is large enough to let him through.
His long imprisonment has left him greatly weakened. Meleagant’s sister mounts him up on her mule and leads him to a bolthole of hers, where she nurses him back to full health. He showers her in words of affection and gratitude, but inevitably asks leave to return to Arthur’s court. On the way, Lancelot’s one-track mind fixes on Meleagant.
Meleagant, meanwhile, is demanding that Gawain fight him, in the light of Lancelot’s continued absence. Gawain has just armed himself when, to his intense relief, he sees Lancelot ride up. The entire court is overjoyed. Arthur asks Lancelot where on earth he’s been all this time and Lancelot unleashes the whole story. “I wish to pay his due at once, without delay,” he says furiously. “He’s come to ask for it and shall have it.” Gawain offers to fight in his stead, since he’s already fully armed, but Lancelot won’t hear of it. This is personal.
Meleagant can’t believe what he’s seeing. Still, he’s committed to combat now. Arthur chooses a scenic location for the battle and his court gather around to watch. So ferocious is the enmity between the combatants that even their horses are out for blood. Lancelot is a force of nature, pushing through Meleagant’s defences and hacking off his arm. Meleagant is driven into such a state of pain and rage that he runs straight at Lancelot to try and wrestle him. Lancelot then swings a killing stroke, cutting off Meleagant’s head at a blow.
And not before time.
Everything from Lancelot’s imprisonment in the tower to his victory over Meleagant was completed by a second author, Godefroi de Leigni, which might explain the abruptness of the ending. I would have liked a check in with Guinevere, but instead the story concludes with the celebrations of Arthur and his court.
Still, many thanks to Godefroi for Meleagant’s unstoppable sister. I don’t understand why she was not given a name, being such a significant character, but I’ll never be over the gender-swapped Rapunzel scene where she becomes Lancelot’s axe-wielding saviour. That’s what I’m here for: Lancelot being the indignant beam of light that he is, and the powerhouse women around him making all the decisions.
Messing with the ladies of Camelot does not tend to end well for anyone.