Arthur, Arthurian, Celtic myth, Chretien de Troyes, Gawain, Ginover, Guinevere, Gwenhwyfar, Kay, Lancelot, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Le Conte du Graal, Meleagant, Origins of Arthurian Romances, Perceval, Post-Roman, Sub-Roman Britain
Anyone familiar with things Arthurian (and if your reading this you should be 😄) knows about at least two events in the Arthurian legend, the search for the Holy Grail and the abduction of Arthur’s queen. The latter I have detailed at length, so this week I would like to explore the abduction. The written version most people are familiar with is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, itself derived from Chrétien de Troyes. The original has Meleagant beating up Keu (Kay) before kidnapping Ginover (Guinevere). The young knight takes her to his father’s castle where Gauvain and Lancelot find them. There Meleagant is defeated by Lancelot and, after a series of other episodes, the queen is restored to Arthur.
But that’s not really all there is. Chrétien’s version is called “Le Chevalier de la Charrette”, the knight of the cart, because at one point Lancelot demeans himself by riding in a peasant cart in order to get to the queen more quickly. Gauvain is several times in this story and in other Chrétien romances described as a lady’s man, yet Lancelot is the person who sleeps with Ginover. Meleagant is described as stealing the queen out of lust, yet there is no indication that he was anything but a gentleman to her during the captivity.
There is something from another of Chrétien’s romances as well, “Le Conte du Graal” where Perceval first comes upon Arthur. On that occasion a knight has intentionally spilled a cup of wine onto the queen. The rest of the court is stunned, and Perceval seems to save the day by embarrassing the man responsible.
Again, the scene seems odd when viewed from modern eyes. It should have seemed unnecessary and forced to a medieval audience as well, then again a twelfth-century group would not have been as focused on plot as we are. And there is a reasonable explanation to the cup and the wine.
One of my earlier blogs dealt with the concept that a Celtic king’s wife, his queen, represented the land he ruled. This was celebrated in a kingship ceremony, one which is illustrated in a myth involving Conn and the god Lug, and less so in Perceval’s scene at the grail castle. In it a young woman, presumably the land in a human form, offers a cup to the rightful king. In accepting it he “marries” the land and takes responsibility for its well-being.
The cup, then, symbolizes kingship as much as the woman. That understood, the scene in “Le Conte du Graal” can be seen as an interpretation of a very old motif in Celtic literature – the abduction of kingship symbols as a means of claiming kingship.
Lancelot, too, seems to be a royal person (or at least he was superimposed over a royal character). The cart he is forced to ride is explained as a common cart but the description more resembles a Celtic war chariot. There is also a curious series of symbols (comb and mirror, bull) in the story that are to be found on Pictish stones and seem to have been symbols of royalty. That he is reclaiming a queen suggests someone else has attempted to usurp his throne.