Lancelot

   Poor Lancelot also comes very close to an experience of the Grail in the Cistercian work.  He arrives at the same castle that Perceval, Bors, and Galahad come to, with a very different outcome.  Lancelot enters a room where a very old priest is celebrating a Mass; when the priest elevates the host, he almost falls down, because the host becomes, in fact, the body of the young Christ.  And Lancelot is moved by compassion to rescue him, and when he tries to do so he is struck down because he is unworthy of being present.  Why?  Because of his love for Guinevere.  Now, to be healed of a sin you have to have true contrition.  But he cannot experience contrition for his love for Guinevere – like Tristan, he cannot repent.  That is beautiful.  That a monk could work that in speaks very well for him.  

   That love was the subject of Chrétien de Troyes’ finest – and best-known – romance, “Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart,” in which Lancelot falls in love with Guinevere and goes through quite an ordeal.  He becomes Le fou (“The Madman”), the one who is absolutely mad for love, and the two become completely swept up in a torrent of passion. 

   The great story, the basis of which served as the inspiration for that carving over the portal in Modena (pic RG 138), is that Guinevere is abducted.  These women in the Middle Ages, like those in the earlier Greek tradition, have a habit of being kidnapped and then saved.  Helen of Troy was abducted several times; the whole Trojan War took place to get her back for Menelaus.  This time, Guinevere is abducted by the lord of the castle that Chrétien equates with the underworld. 

   Arthur himself doesn’t go to get her back; Lancelet does.  And he goes with such speed that he rides two horses to death.  He is walking along in a suit of armor, not getting very far very fast.  And a cart, driven by a churl, a peasant, catches up with him.  As it passes, Lancelot thinks, If I were in that cart I’d get to Guinevere faster.  But then he worries about his loss of honor and his reputation as a knight.  So he hesitates for three steps about getting into the cart.  Why?  Because people who ride in the cart are being taken to be hanged or punished in some way.  It’s a dishonor to get into the cart.  But finally he does. 

   Next he comes to a castle where he finds a trial we recognize: the Perilous Bed.  Once he’s overcome that obstacle – as Zimmer would say, integrating himself with the masculine experience of the feminine – the next trial for our friend Lancelot is what is known as the Sword Bridge.  This is a bridge spanning a roaring torrent that is made of a sword, and he has to go across with bare hands and feet on the sharp edge of the blade.   RG 138

   You may know Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge.  The title is a motif from the Katha Upanishad: any trip along your own path is a razor’s edge.  It really is; nobody’s done it before.  And it’s so easy, particularly if what you’re following is your bliss, your own path, to tip over and fall into a torrent of passion that sweeps you away.  This is a real lesson.   RG 139

   Having survived the Perilous Bed, Lancelot also survives the Sword Bridge.  And then he disenchants the Dolorous Tower, the castle in which Guinevere has been held.  When he comes in to receive her greeting and gratitude, however, she’s as cold as ice.  Why?  Because he hesitated for three steps before getting on that cart.  How did she know?  Because she’s the goddess.  Women know these things.  RG 140