Lancelot's Compromised Morality

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Chivalry versus Morality: Why Lancelot’s Compromised Morality
Disproves His Heroic Status
According to chivalry, the ideal twelfth century knight should have upheld the values of Chretien de Troye’s The Knight of the Cart – honor, fidelity, and the drive to protect and serve the helpless. For example, “if a knight encountered a damsel or girl alone – be she lady or maidserant – he would as soon cut his throat as treat her dishonorably, if he prized his good name [emphasis mine]” (223). The fault lies in that statement, rephrased and added as a qualifier to the courtly standards mentioned throughout the story: the purpose of chivalry, above all, was to ensure that the knight maintained a reputation that was above reproach. Chretien does not
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When Meleagant accuses the queen and Kay of adultery, Kay fervently avows that “I would much rather be dead than have commmitted such a base and blameworthy act against my lord” (267). Yet in direct contrast to his long agonizing over conflicts between his chivalric virutes, Lancelot exhibits no shame or remorse about the moral failure of his sleeping with Guinevere. What's more, Lancelot steps in to swear an oath on holy relics – a common practice of the twelfth century – that she did not sleep with Kay, while omitting that she did in fact sleep with Lancelot. Lancelot even fights in trial by combat to defend his assertion and the integrity of his word, even asking God to “show His righteousness by taking vengeance on whichever of us has lied” (268). Through Lancelot’s hypocritical earnestness, Chretien parodies the importance chivalry placed on reputation and piousness. Lancelot has met chivalric standards of behavior through technicalities – he technically is defending the queen’s honor against an technically untrue accusation. But a lie of omission is still a lie; Lancelot’s equivocal oath only serves to compromise his integrity, and his immorality makes a mockery of his further appeal to God. Not only is Lancelot committing the sin of adultery by sleeping with another man’s wife, he is committing it against his king, to whom he should owe fidelity above anyone else. Although a common trope in chivalric romance is the concept that the transforming power of love makes a knight into a better person, Chretien’s narrative twists that to illustrate that Lancelot’s love has arguably made him a worse
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