“Le Chevalier de la Charrette” was the first tale where Lancelot was prominent. The story was simple really. Guinevere was kidnapped by Meleagant and Kay was unable to stop him. As soon as the court was informed, Gawain and Lancelot went out to get her. They generally traveled with each other, though Gawain was embarrassed at the Water Bridge and Lancelot proved himself at the Sword Bridge. Once they find the queen Lancelot sleeps with her, defeats Guinevere, then is captured and imprisoned by Meleagant. The rest of the tale lingers a bit. The author, Chretien de Troyes, handed it over to another author after that.
On the surface, again, it’s a very romantic tale. The queen is captured and rescued by the best knight in the world. They have an affair behind the back of the most powerful king in the world.
But there’s so much more. In one scene, Lancelot asks a woman for information about where Guinevere might have gone. He is told he must get into a shameful cart (the title cart) she is accompanying in order to find out. He does and has to deal with the peasants’ backlash. As it turns out, that cart was actually a chariot (same spelling in French), and he got all the attention he did because he was royalty.
Passing through the village, he enters a castle where he sleeps in a special bed. In the middle of the night there is a clap of thunder and he is challenged by a knight. That all seems a little weird, and that’s part of Chretien’s appeal. But the clap of thunder is the same testing mechanism we’ve already seen with Owain/Yvain.
Another thing that always bothered me was the fact that Lancelot had an affair with Guinevere. While I’m sure that happened more often than not in twelfth-century France (Chretien’s time), it wasn’t so common in Arthurian Britain. Imagine living on a king’s generosity – his food, his supplies, his women, and his entertainers. You are loyal to him to the point of dying in his place in battle, but you have an affair with his wife?
Another thing. Why would Arthur send his men to get his queen? That sounds a little pathetic to me. And as I have looked through Celtic mythology and legend (where abductions are actually VERY common), the king always rescues the queen. That’s because the queen represents the sovereignty of the kingdom, so to have her in your possession means that you are the king. In other words, if Arthur would have allowed his men to rescue the queen in his place he would have been inviting them to take his kingship.
Which means that Lancelot replaced Arthur (who does rescue her in at least one Welsh story). Arthur was the king who rode a chariot into town, who was tested for kingship and passed, who defeated Meleagant and got his queen back.