For as long as authors have put pen to paper, they have painted a picture of what people think, say, and do in their society—no matter the type of story, the reader can get a glimpse into the traits a culture values or shuns by examining attributes of the main characters. For instance, stories are often used to represent the heroic ideals of a society, meaning heroes represent the best of all the qualities their culture values, transcending their peers in skill, strength, and courage. Heroes can almost always be classified as one of five different types: the everyman hero (Bilbo Baggins), classic hero (Luke Skywalker), epic hero (Beowulf), tragic hero (Romeo), or anti-hero (Jay Gatsby). Two particularly notable works that tell the journey of a hero are The Knight and the Cart by Chretien de Troyes and the Odyssey by Homer. While these two narratives were written nearly two thousand years apart and originated in vastly different societies, the heroes (Lancelot and Odysseus) exhibit many of the same heroic ideals, namely their relentless desire to complete the quest, physical prowess in combat, and perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds. However, unlike Odysseus, Lancelot is held to medieval Europe’s universal code of conduct for knights—chivalry—which meant behaving in a faithful, honorable, compassionate manner, especially to women. This is a major component in this story, as Lacy and Ashe write “the ideals and codes of conduct accepted and practiced by Arthurian knights inspire Chretien’s characters and give form to his stories”. Do the parallels between Lancelot and Odysseus mean Lancelot is truly worthy of being considered an epic hero by Homer’s standards? Further, does Lancelot reflect the heroic ideals of medieval Europe in a proper, authentic fashion?
To determine if Lancelot can join the ranks of Beowulf, Achilles, and Gilgamesh as a literary epic hero, a list of characteristics is required. Using Homer’s Odysseus as a model, it follows that an epic hero must have a noble birth or background, be capable of above average strength and courage, be a great warrior, travel over a vast area, be regarded as a cultural legend, practice humility, and face or be aided by supernatural beings. First, does Lancelot have a noble birth? Chretien de Troyes does not discuss his birth or even his upbringing in this text, but the first description of Lancelot in the tale recounts him as a knight. Later in the story, when Lancelot is being questioned by a monk about his identity after lifting a heavy slab of stone off the mysterious tomb, he answers “I am a knight, as you see, born in the Kingdom of Logres”.While this back story might not be as extensive as a man such as Gilgamesh, it proves he is a respectable man of a caste higher than the commoner, thus satisfying the first stipulation of being a Homeric epic hero.
Next, Lancelot must prove he is capable of exhibiting above average strength or courage and finding examples of such is a rather quick task. In the first quarter of the tale, Lancelot is being hosted by a young lady who took pity to him after a rather ferocious fight. Upon hearing her cry out, he opened her chamber door to reveal a knight attempting to rape her while six other knights stood guard, four of which were armed with fearsome battle-axes. Despite his disadvantage, he sprang forward and attacked all the offending knights, and promptly defeated them. This scene is excellent proof of Lancelot’s courage, as he is not afraid to attack even at a disadvantage. This courage plays into the next characteristic of the Homeric epic hero, which is be a great warrior. Perhaps the best example of this is when Lancelot rides into battle with the army of Logres, destroying each fighter in his path with such ease that Chretien de Troyes notes the enemy was seemingly more crushed by Lancelot’s efforts alone as opposed to the combined efforts of the rest of the men fighting with him. Truly, he is a great warrior, and his prowess on the field of battle inspires the men who ally with him.
The third characteristic from the Odyssey regarding epic heroes is that one must travel a vast area. While the actual measurements of the journey remain relative to the country, Lancelot spends much of the book traveling across the countryside in search of Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife. Throughout his travels, his reputation precedes him, which brings the fourth characteristic, be regarded as a cultural legend. This argument is a little harder to prove, but when a rumor that Lancelot had died spread the countryside, people everywhere were extremely distraught—Chretien de Troyes writes that King Bademagu “swore by more than his head that those who killed him (Lancelot) would die for it” .and stating that Guinevere was so upset she nearly killed herself. For the people to be this mournful over the death of a single knight, especially considering how many knights die in this tale, Sir Lancelot must then be one of the most well-known and respected knights of the land. Demonstrating humility is the fifth characteristic of Homer’s epic hero, and there is a prime example of Lancelot doing so early in the book. After losing his horse, he is in need of transportation in pursuit of the queen and decides to get into a cart normally reserved for criminals. Riding in such a cart is an abhorred deed that the everyone jeered at his expense, “all—rich and poor, young and old, mocked him loudly as he was borne through the streets; the knight heard many a vile and scornful word at his expense”. By this act, Lancelot is showing he is not above disgracing himself in the eyes of the audience if it helps him get closer to the woman he loves, which undoubtedly reflects his humility.
Finally, Lancelot needs to either face supernatural foes or be aided by supernatural forces. Supernatural beings, and any intervention caused by their presence, are not present in any overt or substantial way throughout this tale. However, Lancelot does possess a ring, and after crossing the sword bridge to find that the lions he thought he saw were no longer there, he becomes convinced the ring is enchanted. This is a stretch from legitimate supernatural intervention in this story, but the mere fact Lancelot believed he had some sort of magic on his side was all the supernatural aid he needed to continue his journey. All of these characteristics give proof that Lancelot is indeed an epic hero of Homeric proportions, which should not come as a surprise, as Chretien de Troyes was influenced by classical Greek literature—he studied and responded to Plato’s Timaeus; even his introductory passage directed to the patroness Marie de Champagne displays a relationship reflective of Plato and his master Socrates.
However, Chretien de Troyes looked to entertain as well as teach, so while it can be argued that the character Lancelot fits the Homeric model for an epic hero, he was not without his faults. Lancelot’s role as the greatest knight in the land is in direct contract to his being the catalyst for Arthur’s court collapsing displays the assertion of Lacy and Ashe in The Arthurian Handbook: “Yet the drama of Chretien’s romances derives from a discrepancy between the theory and practice of Arthurian chivalry”. Lancelot’s idealized love for Guinevere comically contradicts the chivalric code of fidelity, yet he is portrayed as a perfect lover. The heroic ideals of this era are not supported by Lancelot’s behavior, but perhaps the inconsistency lies in the ideals themselves—prevailing as a fighter takes away from a knight’s ability to excel as a lover, and vice versa. Scholars suggest that Chretien de Troyes was not blind to this, “excessiveness of this judgement (regarding Lancelot’s ride in the cart) however, suggests an air of making gentle fun of the serious Arthurian traditions of shame and chivalry”.
The intrinsic paradox of Sir Lancelot’s tale can serve as a lens to contextualize certain courtly cultural values of Chretien de Troyes’s era, namely chivalry and courtly love, as Lancelot’s ability to achieve greatness in lieu of his shortcomings merely means he his human, which is what makes him such a timeless character.