Interpreting the Character of Lancelot in Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Chevalier de la Charette

Esther Bernstein


With Le Chevalier de la Charrete circa 1170, Chrétien de Troyes was the first to write a romance in which Lancelot is the central figure. Since then, Lancelot has come to symbolize chivalric perfection. But Chrétien’s original romance is unclear about Lancelot’s character, and many scholars speak about Chrétien’s Lancelot in contradictory absolutes which point to the ambiguity inherent in the character. Is Lancelot truly a romantic hero, or is he actually a villain? Who ultimately determines what a character in literature represents? Exploring the factors that contribute to Lancelot’s ambiguity leads to answers to these questions. The surface meaning of the text portrays Lancelot as a perfect knight, both adventurous and chivalrous to the highest degree. But other instances that reveal Chrétien’s opinion on Lancelot, such as narrative asides and his tone in some passages, suggest an imperfect picture of a knight constantly engaged in wrong or foolish behavior in his love for Guenevere. The views of Chrétien’s audience on adultery and treason seem to agree with this view of Lancelot as a felon, betraying love and his lord by engaging in an adulterous affair with the queen. But Le Chevalier de la Charrete is not unique in portraying chivalry and love of this kind, and there is evidence that Marie de Champagne’s court, the intended audience for this romance, engaged in discussions of theories of love whose conclusions were in direct opposition to the reality of the time. This points to a difference between reality and the literary ideal of love, so that characters in literature do not need to conform to the norms of society. Ultimately, Lancelot became a symbol of perfect chivalry because his readers interpreted him as such on the basis of a literary ideal, irrespective of reality or Chrétien’s own point of view.


Lancelot; Chrétien de Troyes; Arthurian Romance

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