Courtly Love -- the French Ethos Embodied in the Romantic Lancelot, and the English Ethos Embodied in the Dutiful Gawain
In many ways, the courtly love narratives of medieval chivalric romance were equally as formulaic as Hollywood romances today. The typical Hollywood romance is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, while the typical courtly love scenario might be defined along the lines of knight pines for (married) lady, married lady pines for knight, knight does great deeds in the name of the unattainable lady, and both come to tragic ends. The French chivalric romance adopted many of the characters and conventions of the English tales of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, such as the thwarted love for the greatest and most loyal knight Lancelot for Arthur's queen Guinevere. But when the French chivalric genre, as exemplified Chretien de Troyes' Lancelot, "Knight of the Cart" became readapted and readopted by the British author Sir Thomas Malory, the emphasis of genre shifted again. Although Malory used the theme of human loyalty acting as an intermediary between mortals and the divine, in Chretien, human loyalty to a Mary-like Queen was how knights were inspired to commit moral actions of valor, while in Malory, loyalty to Arthur replaces the courtly love virtue of loyalty to a lady.
Thus, while French chivalric romance used the pining of the knight for the unattainable woman to mirror the pining of the soul for the divine, and the lady functioned as the untouchable, intermediary figure between God and humanity, Malory reintroduced the Arthurian stress upon military loyalty between lord and knight into the saga, in his tales such as The Tale of Sir Gareth," and "The Quest of the Holy Grail." In these tales, the loyalty of such knights as Gareth and Gawain are not owed to women in a sexual, courtly sense, but to their lord, King Arthur. Women function as objects to be saved, but not objects to be pined for as in the "Knight of the Cart." The intermediary figure between humanity and the divine is not a lady, but Arthur and thus once again, in the Arthurian saga's new British form, romance was de-emphasized and the Arthurian concepts of political loyalty came to the forefront.
The theme of the holiness of courtly love in Chretien de Troyes "Knight of the Cart" is reflected in its title. It was shameful for a knight to be seen riding in a common cart, particularly a knight of the Round Table. "In those days such a cart served the same purpose as does a pillory now; and in each good town where there are more than three thousand such carts nowadays, in those times there was only one, and this, like our pillories, had to do service for all those who commit murder or treason, and those who are guilty of any delinquency, and for thieves who have stolen others' property or have forcibly seized it on the roads. Whoever was convicted of any crime was placed upon a cart and dragged through all the streets, and he lost henceforth all his legal rights, and was never afterward heard, honored, or welcomed in any court." (V247-346) Yet Lancelot deigns to make himself as low as a common criminal, when he is in search of. He will make himself low for love of his pure, heavenly lady, amongst the poor and despised, just as Christ asked his followers to make themselves low to follow Him. In contrast, Gareth in Malory's tale makes himself low to serve Arthur by serving as a scullery boy, under the thumb of the weasel-like Sir Kay. Gareth suffers for Arthur; Lancelot suffers only for the lady. Gareth suffers to become a knight; Lancelot gives up his knightly status for the Queen.
At one point, while fighting against Guinevere's captor Melegrant, Lancelot hears a lady, the Queen, cry out "Ah, Lancelot, how is it that thou dost now conduct thyself so foolishly? Once thou wert the embodiment of prowess and of all that is good, and I do not think God ever made a knight who could equal thee in valour and in worth. But now we see thee so distressed that thou dealest back- hand blows and fightest thy adversary, behind thy back. Turn, so as to be on the other side, and so that thou canst face toward this tower, for it will help thee to keep it in view." (Vv. 3685-3954.) For love, Lancelot will even endure shame before men and the eyes of his lords, so long as he can keep an eye upon his lady. Knightly prowess is even less important than keeping an eye upon the embodiment of the holy in the form of the Queen, in Chrietien's tale, while in Malory, Gareth serves no particular lady alone, merely acts to save women to prove himself to Arthur in an impersonal fashion. True, Gareth proves his loyalty to Arthur by saving women, but the women's qualities themselves are incidental -- in fact, the woman is quite 'put out' at first, that a better and more experienced knight is not given to her, to serve her cause.
Even the beginning invocation of the text of the "Knight of the Cart" itself reflects the fact that a great deed, namely the story, is being done for the love of a lady whom cannot be physically enjoyed, but only spiritually apprehended. Chretien writes of his patroness, the inspirer of the tale, "Since my lady of Champagne wishes me to undertake to write a romance, I shall very gladly do so, being so devoted to her service as to do anything in the world for her, without any intention of flattery ... this lady surpasses all others who are alive, just as the south wind which blows in May or April is more lovely than any other wind ... The material and the treatment of it are given and furnished to him by the Countess, and he is simply trying to carry out her concern and intention." (V1-30) Thus the tale is not simply about a woman, but for a woman, and about feminine concerns, while Malory's Arthur and Gawain have no similar pleasure to serve feminine desires for favor and flattery.
True, most chivalric tales, both Malory's and Chrietien's, begin with a similar scenario, that of a knight coming to Arthur's court to challenge one of Arthur's knights to an act of valor. But Arthur, in the French Chretien de Troyes' tale, is a very weak king, easily intimated by Sir Kay: "Though the King is grieved, he trusts him with the charge, for he never went back upon his word [to Sir Kay]. But it made him so ill humored and displeased that it plainly showed in his countenance. The Queen, for her part, was sorry too, and all those of the household say that Kay had made a proud, outrageous, and mad request. Then the King took the Queen by the hand, and said: 'My lady, you must accompany Kay without making objection.'" (V173-243) In contrast, Malory's Arthur sends Gareth even though it displeases the female requester, because Arthur believes in his male knight. Arthur rewards male loyalty, and this is a positive virtue in Malory. In the quest for the Holy Grail by Malory, the quest is created wholly as a bond between men, in the name of Arthur.
To his detriment, Lancelot as a uniquely female-influenced knight is even seen in Malory's tale of the Grail, which opens at the feast of Pentecost as a woman wishes: "Sir, said she, for God's sake say me where Sir Lancelot is. Yonder ye may see him, said the king. Then she went unto Lancelot and said: Sir Lancelot, I salute you on King Pelles' behalf, and I require you come on with me hereby into a forest." (13.1) But this female desire on the part of women for Lancelot divides the court rather than merely elevates the knight's soul as it does in Chretien's tale. In the "Knight of the Cart," Lancelot is a better knight and more protective of women, as opposed to Arthur who lets his Queen be endangered because of a foolish vow he made to Kay -- but in Malory, loyalty to Arthur alone elevates men, and love of Lancelot makes women foolish, as in the case of the woman unable to see Gareth's excellence.
Women love Lancelot because Sir Lancelot will do anything for women. The Queen, to the point that the queen berates herself, "It is wrong for a woman to wish to die rather than to suffer for her lover's sake. It is certainly sweet for me to mourn him long. I would rather be beaten alive than die and be at rest."(V4262) The Queen knows that Lancelot will do anything for her, even sacrifice his life and honor, as if she were a holy being. Her will comes first, not Arthur's. The "Queen yearns ardently for…